This Ohio newsroom is taking on a tough subject in a new way – with a baby shower

Brittany Schock has never organized a baby shower. Until now. It's not a typical baby shower, though.

Schock's news organization, Richland Source in Mansfield, Ohio, is holding the grant-funded baby shower to educate mothers, fathers and families in the community about infant mortality and safe sleeping.

And like any good shower, those attending on Sept. 9 will leave with hundreds of dollars worth of goodies for their babies, including a proven way of helping them sleep safely.

In a state with 7.2 infant deaths per 1,000 births, Schock's reporting focused on the issue and one solution to a big factor in infant deaths — how they're sleeping.

Holding a baby shower wasn't originally part of the plan. But like other journalists, she realized the way she was reporting on the issue had a name: solutions journalism. After her three-part series ran, Schock submitted the story to the Solution Journalism Network's Solutions Story Tracker. Then, the network chose her series as its top pick for the best solutions journalism from 2016.

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"This story is all the more remarkable given the Source’s size, location and access to resources: A small team of young reporters who write for and publish a seven-day-a-week online newspaper," Elizabeth Tompkins, web and social media director at Solutions Journalism Network, wrote in a post announcing the picks.

A month later, the network reached out to see if Richland Source was interested in grant money to continue the work. It awarded the local newsroom $10,000 on the condition that some of the money be used for community engagement.

This 15-person staff of the online local news organization is used to going after revenue in ways many newsrooms haven't tried before, including popcorn bags and designing T-shirts. But the shower is a first.

"The list of weird stuff that my staff is willing to try is long," said Jay Allred, Richland Source's publisher. "This is a reach for us."

Neither he nor Schock could remember exactly where the idea came from, "but somebody said, what if we flipped it to healthy families and healthy babies? We flip that story to 'let's be healthy.'"

So the community engagement project is a traditional celebration of life – a baby shower.

The shower will begin by giving women a punch card at the welcome station to gamify the experience, and Richland Source staffers will try to sign them up for a mailing list.

Between 16 and 20 area agencies will be present and ready to punch those cards, offer resources and answer questions about raising healthy babies and creating a place for safe sleep. Richland Source's sales team is working with a massage therapist, a manicurist and a yoga and meditation instructor to create zones throughout the shower where the expectant moms can stop and take a break.

Finally, the shower attendees will end with a 10-minute online course in safe sleep. After that, they'll get a "baby box" (a container for the baby to sleep in),  diapers, wipes, onesies and other things babies need.

"From a personal standpoint, I think they deserve kudos for trying something different and I hope they can pull this off successfully," said Reed Richmond, health education and communication specialist with Richland Public Health, via email.

In the midst of planning a baby shower for the community, Schock and the Richland Source team have worked to tie it back to the journalism that started it all.

With some help from the Listening Post Collective, Richland Source is planning a listening post to listen to mothers in the community about their stories, triumphs, struggles and advice. Those mothers will also get a free portrait taken that day, and Richland Source will pair the stories with the images online.

Everything at the event has a purpose, she said, including giving the agencies involved the chance to be aware of each other and people in the community the chance to know what's available to them.

Schock and Richland Source played the role of convener in getting The Baby Box Company introduced to Richland County. After reporting on the impact it had on safe sleeping, the news organization asked the company if anyone would come out and meet with community stakeholders about launching a baby box program there. They then worked to get those community stakeholders to show up, too.

"We just put everyone in the same room," Schock said.

"The time and effort Brittany put into the research of baby boxes was extensive and very impressive," said Cristen Gilbert, president and CEO of the Mansfield Area Y, via email. "That was one reason I felt the Y needed to be on board."

Journalistically, it was an interesting moment for Richland Source, Allred said. The common question was, and is, is this advocacy?

"That's sort of a bad word in newsrooms, right?" he said.

But in the course of reporting on critical issues for the community, there's a moment when you discover something that could actually work, something you believe in, he said.

"There's this point where you have to go, 'OK, what can we do within the bounds of still being able to cover this story and where do we stop?'"

Ohio is now the second state in the U.S. to offer a free baby box to all expecting families after they complete an online education course at area agencies.

A news organization throwing a baby shower might be new, but acting as solutions matchmaker actually isn't, Allred said.

"I've been around this business my entire life, and I remember when I was a kid when local newspapers were much more powerful than they see themselves today."

Allred's father was a publisher, and he watched the newspaper take sides, twist arms, cajole and push people into a room together. Sometimes that happened behind the scenes, he said. But the goal was to make the community a better place to live.

You have to respect the line, he added, and the editorial team was able to step back when something didn't work from their perspective. But, he said, advocating for safe sleep and healthy babies?

"This is a no-flipping brainer."

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