"The New Hampshire Tax Challenge and its crisp and user-friendly online tax calculator did an outstanding job of creating common information on the most important public policy issue in the recent history of the state - passing statewide funding for education. It gave citizens a place to go to get personally involved in determining their stake in the issue of how to finance their schools."
- The Batten Award Judges
It would seem impossible for any news organization to inform each and every member of its audience precisely how each of three different tax proposals is going to affect that person. But New Hampshire Public Radio found a way to do exactly that through its web site. In the process, it strengthened its ties to listeners and increased its value as a news source.
It happened because Senior Producer Jon Greenberg saw that debate on a new, broad-based state tax would become New Hampshire's biggest story after the state Supreme Court ruled that the legislature would have to change its school-funding formula. He also recognized that the key question for most people would be: "How much is a particular plan going to affect my wallet?"
"I called up the executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies and I said, 'Would it be possible to come up with some sort of basic gizmo so people could punch in their personal variables, such as the value of their home and their income, and see how a particular statewide tax would affect them?" Greenberg said. "And he said, 'yes.' "
"I then called up a programmer I had met in doing some other work and I said, 'Would it be possible to put this kind of thing on the web?' She said, 'sure.' So we had a meeting... and that's how the pieces came together."
With NHPR's unique "Tax Challenge," a user could start at the home page, click on the "Tax Challenge" logo and get a menu of options for getting information, giving feedback or using what Greenberg called the "star of the show," the tax calculator.
The calculator asked for such basic information as your town, the assessed value of your home, your income and the size of your household. Then you hit "calculate" and the program would compute your total tax bill under the current system plus each of two main proposed tax plans.
None of the information was stored so users could be assured of complete confidentiality. It proved to be very popular; the site received 31,000 hits in the nine months it was up.
Greenberg happily noted that use of the tax calculator was highest when radio listenership is lowest - at mid-day. "In the past, our only way to satisfy [our listeners] was on the air ... Now, with a good, useful web site, the number of hours each day when they can connect to NHPR has practically doubled."
"By using the web and integrating it with radio and face-to-face conversation, we can foster a sense of wholeness ... And rather than be swept away by this fire hose of information that is daily journalism, [people] get a chance to say: 'This is important and I want to get my arms around it."
Building on the techniques developed through the Tax Challenge, NHPR mounted a new web page that allowed people to figure out how electric service deregulation would impact their monthly bills. The "Shock Value" web page was supported with funds from the Pew Center. Greenberg says he'd like to develop similar approaches for covering other issues.
As the result of Tax Challenge, the Public Broadcasting System has supplied additional seed money to help NHPR continue web experiments.
One important aspect of NHPR's web sites has been the "Feedback Zone," where users can exchange ideas about the information being presented. For "Shock Value," NHPR provided a forum on electric deregulation that can connect directly to the legislative committee addressing the issue.
"When you provide people with a lot of information and then you give them a way, at their leisure, to think about it and submit their comments, you're creating a far more robust environment for the exchange of thoughtful ideas.
"If we can foster this exchange of information, informed thoughtfulness, then we can change the way we cover stories by dipping into that body of information, by dipping into those comments. We will learn to see stories differently, not the way policymakers frame the issues, but the way people, citizens, frame issues, as we all do, as just this muddy, confused stuff that intersects with our muddy and confused lives."
Photo Above: New Hampshire Public Radio winners (l-r) Mark Handley and Jon Greenberg.