Q&A: Daniel Nichanian on the nuts and Bolts of local democracy coverage for a national audience

Daniel Nichanian, the founder and editor-in-chief of Bolts, on why he’s “making a bet” on building new audiences for state and local democracy reporting.

This piece is part of “Reclaiming Democracy,” a project of The Objective taking a critical look at how democracy and journalism co-exist in the U.S.

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When did you first consider the “backsliding” of American democracy

For Daniel Nichanian, the topic has been the focus of most of his adult life. While receiving his Ph.D. in political theory at the University of Chicago, he made a name for himself writing about democracy-related issues on Twitter as @Taniel and for news outlets like The Atlantic and The New York Times. Soon enough, he founded two recurring publications to host his work: What’s on the Ballot, a guide to state and local elections, and “The Political Report,” an examination of the local politics of criminal justice, both housed at The Appeal.

In February of 2022, Nichanian launched Bolts, a nonprofit digital magazine which covers “the nuts and bolts of power and political change,” with a particular focus on issues of criminal justice and voting rights at the state and local level.

The Objective’s democracy correspondent Jacob Gardenswartz spoke with Nichanian about the publication, what national media misses in reporting on democracy, and how coverage can be improved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What motivated you to launch a new organization devoted to reporting on democracy at the local level?

I think the impetus at Bolts was to contain and even broaden some of what I was doing at The Appeal. The basic diagnosis that I was interested in trying to remedy was the fragmentation of U.S. governments and of U.S. politics, across not just 50 states but also 3,000 more counties and a ton of cities and municipalities. That creates this invisibility and opaqueness and chaos around very important issues like criminal justice, voting rights, and a lot of other issues that I would love to report more on in the future, from transit to housing to climate. 

Many of the decisions are being made at the local level and at the state level,but it’s very difficult to organize that information around a decentralized structure. That demands trying to bring more light to the ways in which policies and movements could be connected from place to place, the ways in which people in one locality could be learning from what’s happening elsewhere. [It demands highlighting] the ways in which advocates, policymakers, and journalists are positioned: either nationally and thus care less about these issues, or are positioned locally and have trouble translating the big picture problems and solutions to the specific hotspots where they’re unfolding. We’re interested in creating a platform that connects local news in various places, bringing them to bear on each other.

Who do you see as Bolts primary audience given there are so many stakeholders interested in these issues: traditional media consumers, policymakers, individuals in the communities you’re covering, and more? 

I think it’s twofold. On the one hand, we know that there is an audience of people who are already interested in these issues: journalists who have specific beats and might face trouble translating their beats into local hotspots, or policymakers, advocates and activists already interested in criminal justice or voting rights. I think we provide them a platform  — a publication where they can really find the themes they’re interested in translated into a set of very high quality, place-based stories which shed light on the politics and policy of these issues. 

I think we also are making a bet: that there is a larger audience for local stories. A lot of people do want to understand what is going on where they live but also elsewhere. They’re interested in how some of the movements that they’ve heard a lot about at the national level — things concerning incarceration or policing or threats to democracy — are actually unfolding at the local level.

There’s a vicious cycle where there aren’t a lot of places to follow this stuff. The national media doesn’t typically cover, say, a D.A. [district attorney’s] election the way they would cover a federal House election or Senate race. They don’t cover immigration contracts done by cities or sheriffs’ offices the way that maybe Trump’s biggest executive order gets attention. But there’s a lot of people who cared a lot about what Trump did, and why wouldn’t they care about the fact that Cape Cod or Wake County in North Carolina were really some of the biggest elections on immigration policy last fall?

The resources for civic engagement around these issues at a local level are not quite there, and by building a platform that makes this stuff more fleshed out, that connects the dots, there will be new audiences that will broaden around caring about the wave of the elections that are happening month-in, month-out.

Bolts just celebrated its one-year anniversary. How do you think the outlet has succeeded at those goals so far?  

We are a fairly small but relentless team. And so being able to get the attention, visibility and recognition we’ve gotten, I think it’s been a proof of concept for some of what I was just describing — that there are audiences out there who want to know more about what the local and state battles are. 

We are very proud of our place-based reporting and getting to work with writers or freelancers who know particular contexts. We often bring attention to particular stories when we think of things as part of a series, or package things together in a way that helps people understand that there’s a nationwide story happening even if it’s made up of a constellation of very different local stories. We did a series in the fall on local elections where immigration activism and local collaboration with federal agencies was really at stake. Each story in the series was in a specific place and involved a lot of great reporting, and all together, it was great to see them potentially shape the conversation and help people understand what is happening in their own localities by seeing how this is playing out elsewhere.

How would you grade mainstream news organizations’ coverage of democracy today? 

When you are interested in state and local governments, there’s a vertigo effect when you realize just the sheer abundance of local offices and institutions that exist; we’re talking like thousands of school board members in a single state, thousands of prosecutors and sheriffs around the country. And the vertigo comes when you also realize just how much authority these officers have to shape important issues that have to do people’s lives — things we cover at Bolts like criminal and voting rights — but also others: the size of the carceral system, the shape of policing, access to the ballot, and countless other other domains. 

There’s so much of a cherry picking approach to national media’s coverage of local governments. There’s very little coverage of local elections, institutions, and policymaking in national media. And when there is, it feels like a bunch of coverage in New York or sometimes California. Even then, it’s only when it fits this particular set of questions that apply in federal terms, like “how are issues of policing shaping a presidential election?” 

There’s no particular rhyme or reason as to why the D.A. election in San Francisco gets wall-to-wall coverage, but the ones in Memphis or in Orange County — which are both big jurisdictions and had similar debates — didn’t manifest at the national level. Issues pertaining to state Supreme Courts are another very clear example of what I’m describing: right now, with the federal court system really anchored to the right for the foreseeable future, a lot of litigation that’s interesting is happening at the state level. And yet, it’s very hard to get a read on what is going on. If we got the news that a justice was resigning from the U.S. Supreme Court right now,  you and I and millions of Americans would immediately know how that affects the balance of the Court. But on pretty much any state Supreme Court, the number of people who would be able to have any immediate awareness or understanding of the stakes you could probably count on one hand. 

What are you most excited about with Bolts moving forward?

We’re excited in the coming days to announce a posting for an audience engagement editor, to help us reach our existing audiences better, build new audiences, and continue to connect with state and local outlets.

I’m excited by a lot of the stories we have on our calendar. We get a lot of our most attention around the election, which I think is true for a lot of outlets. But for us, given what we cover and what people know us for, we’re excited to have people see what we’re doing the rest of the year. The 2023 elections are already around the corner, and it’s not really an “off year” when it comes to state and local elections. You know, there’s more than 500 D.A. elections and sheriff selections in 2023 alone. And then 2024 is just around the corner. 

Jacob Gardenswartz, The Objective’s democracy correspondent, is a reporter based in Washington, D.C. who covers the federal government’s impact on Americans throughout the country.

Editing by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Jen Ramos.

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