The USA Today Network spent 2 weeks in a helicopter to map the U.S./Mexico border

Last October, the editor of the Arizona Republic/azcentral stood in the press pit at a presidential rally for the Republican candidate. 

All around Nicole Carroll, people chanted "Build the wall, build the wall."

"I really felt in that moment, listening to that, you can think whatever you want, but our job is to help you have the information you need," she said.

And, she thought, no other media organization is better prepared to tell the story of that wall – where it exists already and where it doesn't, what it will mean to people on both sides and what it will cost. The USA Today Network has newsrooms in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. (Disclosure: The USA Today Network is a custom training partner with Poynter.) 

And so shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, as he continued talking about that wall, their reporting began.

The result, published online, in a podcast, a newsletter, VR, print, photography, 360 and aerial video, and through documentaries Wednesday is "The Wall: Untold Stories, Unintended Consequences."

Here's how it came together.

How they did it

By the beginning of the year, pre-reporting and scouting for The Wall began across the border. And often, when someone came back with a big idea, this question came up: Can we do that?

The answer was always the same: We'll figure it out.

"Every step of the way," Carroll said. "'Hey, can we fly the whole border? I don't know. Let's find out.'" 

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Mapping the border, which is a key feature in the project that people can explore, was one of those unknowns. In 2013, the government released pdfs of the U.S./Mexico border. But project organizers wanted to see it for themselves.

So they hired a helicopter, added LIDAR cameras and flew the 2,000 miles along the border, filming 40 hours of footage that they synched with GPS coordinates along the way. 

The Wall also features stories, VR (you have to have the Vive headset to watch),  a podcast, a chatbot that interacts with podcast listeners who want to learn more, 360 videos inside the map, plus aerial footage and one-minute versions of the documentary in the places on the map where they happened along the border. 

In California, the Desert Sun and Ventura County Star worked on The Wall. In Arizona, work came from the Republic. In New Mexico, journalists at the Las Cruces Sun-News contributed. And in Texas, work came from the El Paso Times and The Corpus Christi Caller Times. 

Journalists who don't live in border states were involved, too. 

Filmmakers at the Detroit Free Press helped with documentaries as part of the project, which they'll combine into a longer one. And a journalist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel helped develop a podcast for the project.

It's all meant to take people into the stretch we've heard of so much in the last year but know so little about.

"Standing at the border, you can zoom in on any part of wall," said Joanne Lipman, Gannett's chief content officer and USA Today's editor in chief,  "and it takes you there and suddenly you’re standing there."

What they found

The intention behind The Wall is a pretty simple one – to get people information about what's there, what could be there and what that will mean for people on both sides.

"We know people want to see facts for themselves," Carroll said.

What they found, Lipman said, is close to 5,000 parcels of privately owned land. 

In order to build the wall the president has promised, that means 5,000 negotiations, she said.

USA Today Network rolled out its signature blue dot in online logos around the country

There are about 650 miles of fencing already, Carroll said. But about half of it is only meant to keep vehicles out, meaning it's easy for people to get through.

They spent time with border security, a woman looking for her brother's body in the desert, a group of American vigilantes who act as guards, a jaguar reserve on the Mexican side, a human smuggler, border patrol agents in New Mexico's bootheel and undocumented immigrants trying to get across the border.

"This wasn’t drop-in reporting," Carroll said. "This was a heavy investment because this is important."

How they paid for it

The Wall is the kind of journalism the USA Today Network wants to do, the kind that will live on, Lipman said. 

But it wasn't cheap. The USA Today Network didn't share the overall cost of producing the wall, but it did get about $40,000 in grants for the project.

"We’re being very creative in how we use partnerships to help get things done," Carroll said. 

That includes winning a Journalism 360 grant from ONA, Google News Lab and the Knight Foundation. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation funds my coverage of local news. Google News Lab also helps fund Poynter.)

The Center for Cooperative Media also helped fund the VR equipment as an engagement project. People attending some of the network's Storytellers Project events have gotten to explore the project through VR there. 

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The videos shot as part of the project are being licensed to filmmakers and the media through USA Today Network's business arm. They're also licensing the data collected from mapping the border.  

They'll share the videos on Facebook, where they'll make some money from mid-roll advertising. 

And The Wall includes a prominent call to action inviting the audience to become members and subscribers to the USA Today Network news organizations. 

'This is the industry that we are living in'

Earlier this month, Gannett, which owns the 110 newspapers in the USA Today Network, announced cuts across the company of less than one percent, or about 210 jobs. 

It's not just Gannett, Lipman said.

"This is the industry that we are all living in."

The business model is under pressure, but having a connected network that can band together for big projects, like The Wall, allows the 3,000 journalists that remain around the country to do ambitious work, she said.

The Wall includes the work of more than 30 journalists at newspapers in several states.

On Wednesday, the network is sending an email to 5,000 educators, border sheriffs, religious leaders and politicians and community leaders inviting them to take a look. And this week, all 110 USA Today Network newspapers will run the series in print with a double truck map of the border.

It's unusual to run a series across the entire network in print and online, Lipman said. But this one was worth it.

"We don’t have to send people to the border, we are on the border," Carroll said. "We live here. We know this."

Arizona Republic/azcentral reporter Dennis Wagner narrates aerial video seen in the VR experience. (Photo by azcentral)
Arizona Republic/azcentral reporter Dennis Wagner narrates aerial video seen in the VR experience. (Photo by azcentral)

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story mixed up the hours of footage, 40, with the miles of border, 2,000. The length of the border has been corrected. We apologize for the error. 

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