This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.
This year, Heath Haussamen approached the stories he told in a different way. In many different ways, actually.
The editor of NMPolitics.net, an online news site based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, worked on two big collaborations this year. State of Change brought together 10 newsrooms to look at how rural communities adapt to changing times. He also worked with the Las Cruces Sun-News and KRWG News to look at the state's behavioral health system.
The first project was overseen by the Solutions Journalism Network. The second got a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Both combined investigative journalism with solutions journalism.
This isn’t the first time journalists have reported out solutions to the issues they’re investigating. And it isn’t the first time newsrooms have collaborated.
But Haussamen 's description of his approach seemed like a good way to end the year because it’s a reminder that, as an industry, as newsrooms and as individuals, we have to keep looking for ways to do our work better, ways that recognize what’s changing in the world and how we have to change with it.
That’s not always easy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible, either.
Speaking of change, thanks for taking part in helping me think through what Local Edition should look like next year. You can still find the survey here, I’ll keep it up through the holidays and report back on the changes that are coming Jan. 3.
But first, let’s end with some things that did work this year. Here’s what Haussamen wrote about his projects and the thinking behind them. He originally wrote this in an email to the Solutions Journalism Network, who wanted to know more. That group forwarded his email to Joseph Lichterman at the Lenfest Institute. And Lichterman forwarded it to me. It's republished here with Haussamen's permission.
I've thought long and hard in recent years about why we do journalism, and why many journalistic institutions have imploded. In short, I think the long-held attitude of many — that journalism should simply inform the public — is wrong, or outdated at best. Good journalism, especially in the 21st century, doesn't have to stop there — at a time when people feel their government (is) so out-of-reach, journalism can also engage people in a conversation about the information they're getting and help plug them into a larger discussion about where society is heading.
Integral to that is seeking solutions. When journalists simply tear down systems, they're usually deconstructing systems that people on the ground already know suck — so they're doing journalism essentially for the elite class that may not experience problems the way most Americans do. A big investigative report that reveals problems in VA care, for example, lands as a "Duh" to anyone I know who has sought care from the VA or has a relative who has. That sort of top-down reporting makes journalists part of the elite systems in America that ultimately help perpetuate their problems, though that's not the intention. I'm not saying that reporting is unimportant. It is. But I'm saying it isn't enough.
Journalism should also be on the ground, tapping into the experiences and wisdom of people who interact with systems firsthand, and exploring not only how to deconstruct the bad ones, but how to replace them with better systems.
… I don't think it took any additional effort to marry traditional investigative reporting with solutions reporting — because, with few exceptions, I don't think one should exist without the other, at least when we're talking about systems. Investigative reporting that doesn't explore how to improve systems becomes just one more scream in the information overload of the 21st century about how everything sucks. Lots of that comes from the political realm and dark money. Journalism has to figure out how to distinguish itself from politics to earn back credibility, to stand out among the various voices — and to actually fill our societal role as prophets who help bring about change.
That's how I approach journalism these days, and it's how we approached this project — from the standpoint that everyone impacted by the behavioral health system knows it's taken huge hits, that it's fragile and stretched thin, and that it needs improvements. Quantifying the problems (investigative reporting), telling stories of people impacted by the systems (feature or human interest reporting) and exploring ways forward (solutions reporting) were the elusive parts of the public debate, so we focused on that.
We did our best. Journalism is evolving and so is my thinking on it, so I'm guessing down the road I'll see ways we could have done it better, and I'm open to feedback on how to improve it even now…
I’ll meet you back here in your inbox bright and early on Jan. 10. In the meantime, remember when we spoke with BKLYNER's Liena Zagarehere about the business of what we do? That site is working hard to get 3,000 subscribers in hopes of avoiding closure at the end of the month. Here's a nice, long holiday read from Wired on why local journalism is essential. Remember how some local newsrooms are working with Facebook? Here’s what they’ve learned so far. And should you find yourself wishing for a crystal ball over the holidays, Nieman Lab has several great/sobering predictions for local news.
Enjoy your holidays, thanks for reading, and see you next year!