It started with a question: How big can Las Vegas grow before the water runs out?
The answer from the Las Vegas Review-Journal is The Water Question, a 10-part series online and in print that brought together different parts of the newsroom. Together, staff took The Water Question from a planned Sunday package to both a series and online resource that asks and answers critical questions for Las Vegas.
Any time veteran reporter Henry Brean writes about Lake Mead or the Colorado River, readers respond: We’re running out of water and we’ve got to stop growing.
That’s not exactly true, he tells them. But understanding water issues in Las Vegas is complicated “and, to use a pun, pretty dry,” said the water and environmental reporter who’s been at the paper since 2003.
Last spring, he joined Severiano del Castillo Galván, an illustrator and graphic artist, and graphic artist Wesley Rand to explore growth and water sustainability in Las Vegas.
Brean worked on the series off and on, sitting down with long-time sources and asking questions he didn’t often get to ask, pulling back his scope to broaden it, to try and connect the dots for readers.
By December, the series felt close to being ready.
Then, a new colleague was brought in to help make the project work online.
Lauren Flannery joined the newspaper in the summer, but she didn’t start working on The Water Question until December, when she saw the opportunity to help make and understand something big.
She created the interactive introduction at the series’ beginning that starts by explaining what’s happening in the Colorado River.
Videographer Michael Quine managed to find a place to fly a drone over the river for the series’ intro, photojournalist Richard Bryan shot images, page designer LeAnn Elias created the print layout and Flannery worked on mapping out the geography and showing what more growth could mean.
“It was fun to have people come in and be involved in this topic that I’m so familiar with now that I forget that people don’t know things about it,” Brean said.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal made headlines in 2016 when the newsroom investigated and revealed its new owner, billionaire Sheldon Adelson. And changes in the industry have been dizzying here, like everywhere, Brean said.
But “some of the core things about the paper haven’t really changed that much in the time I’ve been here,” he said. That includes space for and the value of important work.
The Water Question happened because there’s a commitment from the top for ambitious work, said Mike Brunker, assistant city editor. That buy-in is key.
Also, he said, everyone kept working on other things as they reported the project, chipping away at the bigger concept slowly.
“It helps to be in a newsroom where this sort of thing is encouraged and they carve out time for you to do it,” Brean agreed.
Two other factors made The Water Project possible: veterans and newcomers. Brean has covered his beat for a long time, and working with newer colleagues helped him see issues with fresh eyes.
His expertise and patience helped Flannery work on an interactive that shows how much growth Las Vegas can sustain.
Additionally, newsroom collaboration helped the Review-Journal take on the existential issues of water and growth, Flannery said, and valued what each person could bring.
“It was never like, ‘Do the numbers, leave the big ideas to us.’”