How 10 Wisconsin newspapers teamed up to address the state's youth suicide problem
After one of her first interviews with a family who'd lost a child to suicide, Rory Linnane got into her car and called her best friend. They talked, and Linnane cried, during the two-hour drive through Wisconsin farm land. The signal kept dropping. Linnane kept calling back.
She just needed to cry and for someone to listen.
For several months, Linnane, an Appleton-based reporter with the USA TODAY Network in Wisconsin, worked on a team of journalists at 10 newspapers across the state reporting on youth mental health. The series, "Kids in Crisis," started with a look at issues, including why the youth suicide rate in the state is higher than the national average. Then, they looked at what was working in Wisconsin and other states. And in late February and early March, they held a series of town hall meetings in search of solutions that could work in Wisconsin.
On Friday, the 10 papers in the network published a front-page editorial listing five steps for addressing issues about children's mental health. In May, they'll take their findings and some sources from the series for a day of action in the capital. The series represents an early attempt by USA TODAY owner Gannett to use its network of newspapers to tackle ambitious projects.
"It is really leveraging the power of our Wisconsin network to do critical reporting of importance to our communities," said Jim Fitzhenry, Gannett's state business development director.
There is a problem
Last year, editors in the newspaper network knew they wanted to tackle a healthcare issue. One thing everyone had on their radar was teen suicide. They knew, anecdotally, that something was happening, but they wanted to answer some fundamental questions before tackling a big story: What was happening across the state? What were the trends? What were the statistics? Who were the experts?
Fitzhenry, who served as the series editor, supervised the team as it developed the bones for a series on youth mental health over a six-week pre-reporting process.
Linnane was hired in July and knew, from the start, that this would be her first major project. In her pre-reporting, she found that there were stigmas around mental health for kids. People were afraid to talk about the help they needed. And when they looked for that help, it was hard to find.
"It's especially bad in Wisconsin," she said. "We actually need more psychiatrists than any other state to make up for the shortages here."
She and her colleagues found silos were part of the problem. Kids were getting some help from schools, their doctors and social workers, but none of those people were talking to each other.
In total, about 25 journalists worked on the series, reporting, finding sources, attending conferences, filing public records requests to see how the state compared to other states. The pre-reporting helped everyone build up a baseline understanding about mental health and suicide, Fitzhenry said. Editors gave guides to reporters that helped them use the right terms, and they made contact with people in local support groups.
Then, the team had to shape its reporting into a series that would make sense of everything. First they focused on the issues, then they looked for examples of where things were working.
Before it started, the team knew it needed an emotional anchor to hold the series together and guide people through months of tough, affecting coverage. At first, Linnane hoped to follow one family throughout the series, but she came to realize that no family's experience was the same.
But what if she let herself be a central character?
The idea for Rory's Diary surfaced as a way to make a key reporter in the series more accessible, to guide readers through the stories and to offer a consistent voice throughout. It was all new for Linnane.
"It's totally different writing than I'm used to," she said. "And I'm not used to having to put anything personal about myself out there."
But, she said, it also made the reporting more meaningful for her.
The series used Instagram and Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. They started a "Humans of New York"-like feature called "Faces of Kids in Crisis," asking families and teens to write from their perspectives. Designers from the network were also involved from early on.
"Healthcare reporting. and particularly stories like this, are really prone to becoming data and statistics," he said. "Once you get into the living rooms and dining rooms of people who have died by suicide, you quickly find out that this is a human story."
Searching for solutions
The traditional ways that local communities and the state were trying to address problems with youth mental health weren't working, Fitzhenry said, so the team held 10 town hall meetings across the state in search of solutions for the series' third installment.
The meetings, which were attended by about 800 people, yielded concrete solutions that Linnane and her colleagues focused on. But they represented a different approach than Linnane, Fitzhenry or any of the papers had ever taken before.
"We felt like our news organization could play a considerable role in being a catalyst for getting people to talk about it, for getting people to understand it and then putting them in a position where they could use that information to do something about it," Fitzhenry said.
The town hall meetings and the work that resulted fall under a genre of reporting known as solutions journalism, which is concerned with exploring responses to the problems that reporters expose. This brand of journalism isn't new, but it's becoming more common. About 50 news organizations around the country are currently working with the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the practice, said Tina Rosenberg, the network's cofounder and a columnist at The New York Times.
The last piece of a big series often includes a short list of possible solutions to the problems described in the investigation, but there's a better alternative that's already being used by many news organizations, Rosenberg said.
"Instead of doing that, they'll do a solutions story that looks at a place that's doing a better job on the problem," Rosenberg said. "And it has the same richness and weight as the other stories in the series, and it's great because it takes away the excuses for the people that aren't doing this right."
- The Solutions Journalism Network has a toolkit that can serve as a resource for solutions journalism work.
- Begin by researching previously proposed solutions.
- Talk to academics, who often have a bird's-eye view of the problem.
- Look at databases for the best and worst performers.
Solutions journalism doesn't mean celebrating solutions, and no solutions work all the time, Rosenberg said. But answering the following questions with skeptical reporting lends credibility and authenticity to stories: What are the challenges? What are the limitations?
Journalists that offer solutions in a series that's underwritten by a business have to be careful they're not featuring the sponsor's programs, Rosenberg said. If journalists write about the underwriter, they must do so with complete transparency and rigorous reporting that points out its limitations.
The sponsorship for "Kids in Crisis," from a statewide healthcare system, came through after the series began. Reporters were told to treat the series sponsor like any other source, Fitzhenry said.
"We set such clear standards, aligned with our principles of ethical conduct for newsrooms, that we didn’t encounter any problems."
For some, solutions journalism might feel like the opposite to investigative work, Rosenberg said. But these pieces can engage readers by showing them that the problems aren't hopeless.
"And it's just good journalism," she said. "Our job is to hold a mirror up to society to help society change itself. If we only show the problems, it's a distorted mirror."
On the record
When reporting for the series first began, Fitzhenry expected sources would request anonymity. Would anyone go on the record to talk about suicide?
"It turned out to be the exact opposite," he said. "Families who've gone through this have a really powerful sense that they want to share their stores to prevent other families from having to go through the same thing as them."
The "Kids in Crisis" series has been unlike anything Fitzhenry's experienced in 20 years. Linnane is much newer to journalism, but searching for solutions and opening up about her own feelings was new for her, too. It's also part of what made the series work, she said.
"Going in with idea of starting conversations and finding solutions rather than just pointing out problems, it's been nice to just go into the process with that in mind," she said, "as opposed to just having that as a hope in the back of your head."
For her, the quest for answers has ultimately been uplifting.
Recently, Linnane got an email from Kris Cahak, who lost her daughter to suicide and spoke at one of the town halls. She wrote, in part:
I had planned to email you to tell you I saw the article, read it and watched the video.
The reason I hadn't yet is because I wasn't quite sure how to thank you. Thank you, just doesn't seem like enough. I cannot begin to tell you how much response I have gotten about this. Rory, people are talking! Honestly, it brings me to tears, good tears, thankful tears. Mission accomplished, they are talking. That's a start......