Why The San Francisco Chronicle gave its latest investigation away to other local news outlets

Late last year, after months of reporting, collecting data and cleaning it up, reporters at The San Francisco Chronicle knew they had a big story.

Around the state, they found foster shelters were funneling children into the criminal justice system. Most of the story, however, wasn't in their readership area and was unlikely to be seen in print in those areas.

But with investigations like this one, stories aimed at fixing institutions that's aren't serving vulnerable people, "it's really important that we get as many people to read this and be outraged as possible," said Audrey Cooper, The Chronicle's editor in chief.

So the Chronicle tried something new.

It gave the story to two publications and one TV station in areas the investigation focused on. On Tuesday, the Ventura County Star ran an edited version of the investigation in print. The Stockton Record ran it on Sunday. KCRA in Sacramento also ran the Chronicle's footage of the story in its own package.

"This worked for The Record because it focused on a local agency," said Don Blount, editor of the San Joaquin Media Group, which includes the Record. "The Chronicle edited the story to pretty much eliminate references that were not germane to our readers."

It helped, Blount said, that Cooper was a reporter and editor at The Record and knows the area.

Cooper only had one request of the co-publishers – they send readers to the Chronicle's full story online and through their social channels.

"The story is not going to sell us a newspaper in Ventura County, it's just not," said Cooper, who is also a member of Poynter's National Advisory Board. "But there is a business argument to be made that we can have eyeballs and programmatic revenue if we can drive traffic to our website."

The Chronicle also has aspirations of doing more statewide investigations, she said, and the newsroom wants to grow that audience.

As of Monday, the other newsrooms weren't direct sources of significant traffic, Cooper said. But she didn't expect huge numbers from their sites.

"The main point was to get the story in front of as many people as possible," she said.

On Tuesday, the Chronicle published a follow-up and made it available to the other publications to publish and run on their sites.

Cooper knows collaboration is popular right now.

Last year, news organizations in the Bay Area, including the Chronicle amplified each other's coverage of homelessness.

But it's also tough combining different newsrooms, different editors, different workflows and even different priorities, she said. The model the Chronicle tried with its foster investigation, and one they hope to attempt again, allows newsrooms to do what they do best and take advantage of other people's work in a way that's mutually beneficial.

And for The Record, Blount said, it was.

"It provided value for readers and, given newsroom staffing levels, was a bonus for us as the Chron was able to invest time in something that we had been unable to."

Correction: An earlier version switched the dates that the Record and Star published the investigation. It has been corrected. We apologize for the error.

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