August 7, 2019

In Mexico, Rick Barrett found a tiny dairy farm in the middle of a sprawling industrial complex. In Thailand, he found a dairy farmer who filled cans with fresh milk and balanced them on the back of a motor scooter, then raced them to the processing plant.

And in Wisconsin, where he’s a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he’s found dairy farmers determined to stay in business.

“You just found out that no matter where you were, dairy farmers were incredibly resourceful,” said Barrett, a business reporter, “and they just figured out how to get stuff done.”

Barrett first started covering the dairy industry in the late 1990s. He’s covering it again now for the Journal Sentinel with Dairyland in Distress, a project that got a big boost from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s Bringing Stories Home.

That local news project officially launched at the start of the year with a $5 million endowment from the Facebook Journalism Project.

On Wednesday, the Pulitzer Center shared case studies from a series of local news projects it helped fund, including in Milwaukee.

Bringing Stories Home is one of several projects currently working to help local newsrooms, including newspapers, which continue to shrink and consolidate.

Report for America helps puts young reporters back into local newsrooms. ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network funds investigative reporters. And the American Journalism Project aims to shore up local news business models.

“Our model is really about taking the resources that the newsroom already has and figuring out what they can do best with them,” said Indira Lakshmanan, the Pulitzer Center’s executive editor and previously a colleague at Poynter.

That funding, typically $10,000 to $12,000 for editorial and the same amount for community outreach, includes help for video projects, reporting, interactives, data and travel.

Bringing Stories Home made Barrett’s project bigger and better, he said.

“We were able to really broaden the scope of the story in a way we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

A worker moves cans of fresh milk dropped off by farmers so they can be weighed and tested Monday, June 17, 2019 at Prateep Farms in Pakchong, Thailand. Owner Prateep Kaewnun milks about 500 cows and purchases milk from small farmers in the area. The quality of milk he purchased must be equal to that of his modern farm. (Photo by Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Bringing Stories Home has funded several projects so far, including Cops and Robbers from The Baltimore Sun, A Lost Generation from the Arizona Daily Star and a project on asset forfeiture in Texas from the Texas Tribune.

The initiative gets to the heart of the Pulitzer Center’s mission – bringing the world back to the community, said founder and executive director Jon Sawyer.

After a career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he traveled the world reporting, Sawyer started the Pulitzer Center with the intention of helping local and regional newspapers continue international reporting.

The Pulitzer Center works to get the reporting off the page or screen and into people’s real lives through events and partnerships with universities and schools.

The partnership with Facebook comes as an endowment with the only stipulation that it goes to local and regional newsrooms. (Here’s how to apply.)

“One of the most important things about this initiative is it’s a glimmer of hope,” Sawyer said. “Working together, we can tap into resources.”

The partnership is a clear one, Sawyer said, and the newsrooms involved have full editorial control.

That was important for Barrett.

“If we can get the support from this caliber of an organization that’s really focused on good journalism, that’s the key,” he said. “We have to be mindful of organizations that might offer to give us a helping hand but the strings are attached. We can’t go down that road.”

Heat stress is a constant issue for dairy cattle with temperature in June as high a 105 degrees with high humidity. To combat this, these cows are kept cool by automatic sprinklers and powerful fans in their open sided barn Tuesday, June 11, 2019 at TH Milk’s operations in Nghia Son, Vietnam. (Photo by Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

On Monday, Gatehouse announced it will take over Gannett, which owns the Journal Sentinel. Barrett doesn’t expect that will change his work.

“At this point in our newsroom, we’re just completely focused on the work we’re doing, and I don’t anticipate that changing one bit,” he said.

His international reporting, which also took him to Canada, Cambodia and Vietnam, will get published in the next few months.

For him, and soon for audiences in Wisconsin, issues of free trade and the future of small farms are both local and global.

“Farmers share a lot of the same worries and same conversations and for legitimate reasons,” he said. “They’re all caught up in global trade now, and that’s gonna define their future, whether they’re in Vietnam or Wisconsin or Mexico.”


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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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