5 ways these small newsrooms did big projects

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

The conversation so far

It's our final week talking about how local journalists can tackle big projects with fewer resources. So far we have a process that works for one editor and a collection of ambitious local projects. This week, here are some things those projects have in common. 

I got one angry email about this series. It said, basically, that none of this is saving any newspaper jobs. That’s fair. It’s not. But the purpose of this series wasn’t to save jobs.

It was, instead, to highlight what’s possible in spite of all of the forces working against local journalism. We’ve been over those forces before and will continue as long as they exist.

But. But. But.

Look at what’s possible for staffs of 60, 30, 10, four and one.

For our last week on how small newsrooms can do big work, I looked back at all the stories highlighted here for some bigger lessons. Thanks to everyone who shared their work. I have a handful that I’ll be writing about more in-depth.

Next week, it’s the Fourth of July and Local Edition will be sleeping in. We’ll be back in two weeks with a new conversation.

In the meantime, here are some lessons from this latest conversation:

Plan, coordinate and keep talking

In covering the impact of Hurricane Harvey, and in continuing the daily slog, The Victoria (Texas) Advocate had to have a game plan. They did that through weekly meetings and a long list of stories they wanted to work on.

The Lancaster (Ohio) Eagle-Gazette needed that coordination, too, in coverage that led to the mayor’s resignation. Reporters Spencer Remoquillo and Trista Thurston relied on color-coded Post-its to keep things organized. That helped when they lost the week they thought they had when a major metro started reporting on the story.

“Once a story was written, we would go line for line to fact check and consider each word used to ensure it’s an accurate portrayal of the records or interview,”  Remoquillo said. “So even though we were writing quickly, we had a system in place to catch any mistakes or inaccuracies.”

Keep it boiling on the back burner

Oh to be an enterprise reporter with nothing but projects to work on. In newsrooms that are significantly smaller than they once were, that’s not much of a reality anymore.

At Phoenix’s KJZZ, producer Sarah Ventre had to work slowly on her project Short Creek: Beyond FLDS to convince her editors, to gain trust of the community and balance that with regular work.

The New York Jewish Week’s "Doomed at Birth" project took reporter Michele Chabin a year to research and write. Chabin was able to do that by getting a diversity fellowship and grant from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Don’t wait for people with the right skills and know-how, get people with adjacent skills and know-how

The Ventura County (California) Star hadn’t ever produced a podcast, but that didn’t stop them with “Never 30.” Michelle Rogers, consumer experience director, found a combination of talent and interests with her coworkers, and she reached out to other newsrooms that created podcasts to figure out more.

“Now, two seasons in, 16 episodes and one trailer, we've had 23,657 listens, which is an average of about 1,400 listens per episode,” she said. “Some have surpassed 2,000. Each season is made up of eight episodes and each episode is about 20 minutes long. We've also received positive feedback from readers through an online survey, Facebook posts and personal emails.”

Figure out the stories only your newsroom can tell

The (Burlington, Iowa) Hawk Eye wanted to tell the story of a major feature of the area - the Mississippi River.

“There are many things in our community that we take for granted. The rails, roads, rivers and other infrastructure that divide us, nourish us and help us flourish are often overlooked by journalists in search of a news peg for a daily turn,” editor Ellis Smith said. "We wanted to take a step back from the daily grind and examine a key driver of daily life in Southeast Iowa - The Mississippi River. How has river life changed? How does it shape our community? Our work? Our leisure time?”

The Greenwood (Arkansas) Democrat did something similar with "Voices from the Storm," which looked back at how the community was impacted by a 1968 tornado.

“The 50th anniversary was coming up and we realized that most of the information was available for public consumption and that we wanted our project to be different and so we began reaching out to survivors and collecting their stories,” editor Dustin Graham said. “The survivors were, of course, quite old and so I decided to start videotaping the interviews for future generations.”

One of those survivors was a beloved town barber. When he died, Graham said, “it impressed on us that what we were doing was important, capturing the stories and quite literally the voices will be looked back on for years and years.”

Find partners

For “The Surge,” The Texas Observer worked with The Investigative Fund and ESRI.

“Communication and coordination are also key ingredients in making complex, long-term collaborations come together successfully,” editor Forrest Wilder told us two weeks ago.

For "Chaos in Cairo,” The Southern Illinoisan reporter Molly Parker is part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

The Glenwood Springs (Colorado) Post Independent often partners with a sister paper, and did that for "Immigrant Impact."

“Working with The Aspen Times has allowed us to address issues that affect our entire valley,” said features editor Carla Jean Whitley.  “These stories often appear in both papers, sometimes with reporters from one paper tackling one story in a series while the other paper picks up other articles.

Thanks to everyone who shared your work. Keep 'em coming. In the meantime, Nieman Lab's Shan Wang has a great read on lessons from News Revenue Hub. Your newsroom has until July 15 to sign up for Poynter's transformative Table Stakes program. And come hang out with me for half an hour in this webinar on how newsrooms are making money (that's not from advertising.)

See you in two weeks!

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