How can small newsrooms do big work? Like this.
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 week two in our conversation about how local journalists can tackle big projects with fewer resources. Last week, we shared a process that works for one editor. This week and next, we have a collection of ambitious local projects.
First the bad news: we have news deserts and bad owners and the never-ending slog of layoffs and buyouts and pivots and right-sizings.
Now the good news: Local newsrooms are still doing great work.
Last week, we started talking about how local newsrooms can scale big ideas down. I asked people to share projects that they’re proud of from their local newsrooms. I got more than I ever expected. I heard from newspapers, radio stations, a freelancer, a magazine and more. They made podcasts, maps, videos, photographs and projects that happened quickly and projects that took years. This week's newsrooms range in size from 10 to 30.
Instead of sharing them all, I’m going to spread them out this week and next and give them a bit of space to explain what they made, what got in the way and how they got around it. I have next week's batch ready to go, but please don't stop sending these!
The newsroom: The Victoria (Texas) Advocate, staff of 24
The project: "Understanding Harvey"
How it got started: “Hurricane Harvey left local government leaders frantically scrambling to coordinate volunteers, find shelter for displaced residents and deal with the fact that the city's 67,000 residents didn't have running water,” said Marina Riker, a local government reporter. “So for us, it was only natural to want to examine what went right and wrong. Pretty shortly after the storm, we started meeting to identify the biggest problems and decide who would focus on what.”
The challenges: Juggling a lot of stories, Riker said, and lack of data on property damage. “Several months later, my colleagues ended up surveying all of the city's apartment complexes and found that one-third of the units were damaged. But we still don't know exactly how many people were displaced or the number of homes damaged throughout the city.”
How they did it: After breaking coverage of the hurricane ended, the newsroom had weekly meetings to plan the enterprise coverage and a long list of stories they planned to work on.
The newsroom: KJZZ, Phoenix, staff of about 30
The project: Short Creek: Beyond FLDS
How it got started: Producer Sarah Ventre kept in touch with a source who was a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and when she was invited to a Fourth of July celebration in the community, knew she was getting access that many weren’t. “I made the trip up and saw that the community was growing and changing in huge ways that I didn't see others reporting on. I talked to as many people as I could, and kept in touch with folks. The ideas for the stories developed over two years of reporting, and they really only scratched the surface.”
The challenges: Time, resources, a six- to seven-hour drive to get there, Ventre said, but also convincing her editors to let her go slow with her work. “Many people in the community I reported on feel that the media has done a really crummy job of explaining their community. It's almost always reduced to a story with the word 'polygamy' in the title and a reference to Warren Jeffs in the first paragraph. Showing people why I was there and that I could be trusted took some time. And I had many conversations before I recorded interviews. Because of that, stories don't always come together as quickly as you'd like.”
How they did it: “It took some time to explain this to my editors, but once they saw how enterprising the work was and realized that the stories we were trying to tell were different than other outlets, they were supportive. They sent our station's photographer/videographer/digital media editor, Jackie Hai, up with me to help visually document the stories, and the long drives and solitude up in the community provided us a real chance to collaborate. We wound up with five radio stories, a documentary short film, and a lot of stories and data. Then our station's other digital media editor, Sky Schaudt, helped me with presenting the data in a way that made sense and was appealing.”
The newsroom: Ventura County (California) Star, 28 editorial staffers
The project: “Never 30”
How it got started: Michelle Rogers, consumer experience director, asked editor Andrea Howry and videographer Anthony Plascencia to start a podcast. “We're currently developing our third season,” Rogers said. “Listen to the intro to find out where we got the name.”
The challenges: Rogers has experimented with audio, but she’d never made a podcast and neither had anyone on staff. “What we had was a videographer who knew how to use an audio mixer, a communities editor who had a passion for history and myself, who really wanted to tap into a medium we weren't on to reach new audiences.” Another challenge — the learning curve. They didn’t know how to get a podcast onto Apple Podcasts or Google Play.
How they did it: “If you can tap into existing talent and find out what their interests are, you can often find the right combination ... Find staff who can work in additional responsibilities to their workload or someone who has flexibility within a beat and is either empowered or can work with editors to swap some of what they're currently doing with something that may help you reach your newsroom goals.” And they figured out how to get the podcast onto the right platforms by reaching out to people at the USA Today Network who were already producing podcasts. They also listened to a lot of podcasts and joined podcasting groups on Facebook. The podcast now has 16 episodes and 23,657 listens, Rogers said, and they've been asked to create a template on how other newsrooms in the USA Today Network can create their own local history podcasts. "Don't let the naysayers tell you 'we don't have the resources' to accomplish something that you have researched, tested and know will resonate with your audience," Rogers said. "Do what you need to do to get it done. Advocate for it and get buy-in. Persistence, patience, follow through and dedication pay off as long as you keep your audience top of mind and fill the void."
The newsroom: Foster's Daily Democrat, Dover, New Hampshire, 11 in the newsroom
The project: "Homeless on the Seacoast"
How it got started: People in the community have been complaining about homeless tents moving into residential neighborhoods, so writer Kyle Stucker and photojournalist Deb Cram worked together on a project aimed at challenging stereotypes. “We wanted to let people know why they were seeing more homeless people in their neighborhoods and tell the stories of the homeless individuals and how they came to be there,” Cram said.
The challenges: Finding subjects, respecting their privacy while still capturing their stories, building trust, having patience and recognizing the role mental illness plays in the homeless community, Cram said. “Also, a big challenge was we couldn’t just work on this project due to all the other stuff we do for the papers. I say this about everything I produce whether it’s long-term or not; ‘You can always do it differently and you can always do it better.’”
How they did it: They were stubborn and wanted to tell stories that would make a difference in their community. “When we went to find camps in the woods, we didn’t know where they were or even if they were there. We decided to just go out and try to find them and we found broken sites, we found tents being used but no one was home and then we found tenters that were home and we had the task of introducing ourselves and trying to persuade them to have a conversation with us and we weren’t there to 'rat them out' so the cops would come and break up their sites,” Cram said. “I want my images to help people try to put themselves in other people's shoes. Homelessness knows no boundaries, and it can happen to anyone. “
The newsroom: The (Burlington, Iowa) Hawk Eye, staff of about 12
The project: “A river runs through us”
How it got started: “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,” said Ellis Smith, editor and general manager. “How has river life changed? How does it shape our community? Our work? Our leisure time?”
The challenges: Filling in things readers don’t know without turning into a history lesson. Telling the story of a river and making it relatable and balancing long-term work with daily work.
How they did it: They developed a game plan and looked for the human stories that would help drive the story of the river. They also planned for the visual storytelling from the beginning, including by digging through the archives. “Having rich visual resources at our disposal to help illustrate our project was a huge asset as we went through the process.”
The newsroom: Texas Observer, 10 in the newsroom
The project: “The Surge: How Texas’ decade-long border security operation has turned South Texas into one of the most heavily policed and surveilled places in the nation”
How it got started: For years, the newsroom has talked about how border security operations changed the Rio Grand Valley, and how little that change had been covered. “National media often forget that millions of people call the borderlands home, and coverage often tends to focus on just the immigration aspect,” said editor Forrest Wilder. “We wanted to show the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that day-to-day life in the Valley has changed because of the massive state spending on border security." Immigration reporter Melissa del Bosque spent months reporting the story and the mapping project took more than a year and “involved open records requests to a third-party that helped us display the flight information on an interactive map.”
The challenges: “There were a lot of people involved! Three organizations — the Texas Observer, The Investigative Fund, ESRI —multiple editors and two writers/reporters,” Wilder said. Reporting the story was also tough because many people were scared to speak out. “For example, DPS insists that it does not engage in immigration enforcement, despite persistent rumors. The agency is extremely secretive, for a state entity, about its border security operations, routinely refusing to release information under the state open records law. It took a lot of work for Melissa to run to ground information about DPS' interaction with Border Patrol, including, for example, an account from local law enforcement about DPS officers participating in the apprehension of undocumented immigrants.”
How they did it: “Persistence and hard work. Communication and coordination are also key ingredients in making complex, long-term collaborations come together successfully.”
Thanks, everyone, for sharing these projects. More to come next week!
In the meantime, it's time to apply for year two of The Information's accelerator program. Here's how The Sacramento Bee is trying to grow digital subscribers. And check out this playbook for launching a local non-profit news org from the Shorenstein Center. Keep those projects you're proud of coming!
See you next week!
Correction: An earlier version of this story noted that Sarah Ventre got access to her project through a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That's incorrect, that source is a former member. We apologize for the error.