How The Oregonian made a lead dust investigation that could compete with cat videos

December 8, 2016

Mark Katches has spent his career battling one of the cruel realities of journalism: Hard-hitting and important investigative reporting rarely creates the kind of online buzz that a good cat video does.

“I have been involved in Pulitzer Prize winning projects that were getting 20,000 pageviews,” Katches, the editor of the Oregonian, told Poynter.

So when his team discovered that National Guard armories around the country are contaminated with toxic lead dust, The Oregonian produced a series of social media friendly video trailers to entice readers to read serious journalism built on the back of 23,000 pages of data and 18 months of work.

One of the videos, featuring a bobblehead version of investigative reporter Rob Davis, has gotten more than 13,000 views as of Wednesday, and others have been similarly successful.

The animated video is a lighthearted and creative version of what journalists call the “nerd-box,” usually a dry “how-we did it” clip showing how journalists told the story.

The paper had to walk a fine line between upbeat and serious with the video, engaging readers without underselling the seriousness of the story. Combined with four other Facebook videos, the bobblehead short was part of a larger strategy designed to drive readers deeper into a meaty investigation.

The Oregonian was tipped to the story more than a year ago when it found an Oregon armory was closed after inspectors found high levels of lead dust in the building.

Armories like it have become gathering spots for Cub Scout meetings, weddings and proms. In the old days, armories that were built to store weapons and equipment used by National Guard units were also the place that country music concerts were held. In small-town America, the local armory is often the community meeting hall.

The dust came from indoor gun ranges and lead dust is difficult and dangerous to clean up. But workers at the armory apparently used a household vacuum sweeper. In at least one case, the armory floors were used by children invited in for a sleep-over. That was the building where inspectors found lead at 650 times federal safety thresholds.

In all, the Oregonian documented lead contamination in hundreds of armories nationwide. Reporter Rob Davis wrote:

Inspectors found lead in 424 armories in the past four years, or nearly 90 percent of the places for which results are available. In 192 of those contaminated buildings, inspectors found the toxic material outside the firing range.

The videos were key to making these revelations digestible. Rather than rolling out the investigation in its entirety all at once, the paper published the investigation in installments. Eight days before the paper published the first newspaper installment, the Oregonian posted four video trailers on social media starting eight days before the paper ran the first story. The trailers gained 50,000 views before the first word showed up in the print edition

The Oregonian also built a searchable database that allows readers to explore every armory inspection in 41 states. Now, some states that didn’t turn over inspection records, or said they didn’t have any, are facing questions from local journalists.

Lead dust, the kind examined in this investigation, is much more dangerous than lead paint that would have to chip off or rub onto a child’s hands and into their mouth. Once the lead becomes airborne, it is a much bigger problem. The Oregonian found that inspectors documented lead had made its way outside of at least a dozen armories. Some of the old buildings have been shuttered but others have new life as commercial buildings with a poisonous past.

Katches says The Oregonian will tell its stories about lead in armories over 15 days in the paper. But it has already posted more than 20 items online, sometimes days before paper publication. It’s part of an attempt to capture the public’s attention with investigative projects that have long tails and a steady ramp-up.

The Toxic Armories project is rich with video stories to make the online experience different from the newspaper version. Video storytelling has become a cornerstone of the Oregonian’s delivery system. Katches says in 2015, the website recorded 3.5 million video views. In 2016, the number has grown to 17 million views.

“So far we’re at a combined more than 31,000 pageviews and 107,000 video views on our Toxic Armories content,” Katches said.

It’s more than many metro dailies, but it’s not a forehead-slapping number. Yes, a cute kitten video might get more views, but cute videos don’t hold governments accountable. They don’t force the cleanup of sick buildings. And they don’t get answers for people who have gotten sick and want to know why.