April 19, 2017

After the election, after a tough round of layoffs at Fusion, features editor Nona Willis Aronowitz pitched an idea to her higher-ups.

She wanted to get out of the office.

“I was doing a little bit of soul-searching about what we could do to really be part of this conversation,” Aronowitz said.

Normally, she said, editors sit behind desks and give assignments. To Aronowitz, that felt wrong. Many in the media had been blindsided by the results of the election. It was time to get out from behind the desk and the coastal bubble.

“I was trying to assign relevant stories but I didn’t totally have the lay of the land, both because I wasn’t there and I hadn’t met people in person.”

So she pitched a series of road trips to establish “virtual bureaus” for Fusion. And her bosses said yes.

In March, Aronowitz left New York City for Texas. She started in Austin, then visited Houston, the Rio Grande Valley, Dallas, the Marfa/Presidio area and El Paso. During her trip, she was looking for local reporters and local stories. And she found them.

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Fusion isn’t the only national news organization tapping into local talent. The Washington Post’s Talent Network helps the Post identify journalists already where the news is happening. And this year, ProPublica launched ProPublica Illinois.

In the past, many news organizations would simply hire journalists to work full-time in regional bureaus around the country. Although the biggest news organizations still do — The New York Times and The Associated Press have a network of national correspondents, for example — some have been forced to rely on freelancers as revenue has dwindled.

Fusion’s “virtual bureaus” aren’t actually bureaus in the traditional sense, but a group of local freelancers Aronowitz has started building relationships with “rather than sending a coastal journalist to parachute in for a story they have no context for,” she said.

The early results of her Texas trip include a photo project, an immigration piece and a story on the South by Southwest Interactive Festival.

Aronowitz wants to work with established journalists and help develop new voices. She’s found those voices, so far, through research and reporting herself, on-the-ground connections and a piece for Fusion she wrote about the project.

“Fusion prides itself on wanting to elevate marginalized voices and blowing past mainstream narratives and being really inclusive,” she said. “The only way you can really do that is put some time into finding new fresh voices and mentoring greener writers.”

Aronowitz’s efforts to build clusters of journalists she can count on around the country will include partnerships with local news organizations, which she’s in early talks for now. Next, she plans to visit Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan in June, and the deep South in September.

Fusion’s virtual bureaus should help the newsroom and the audience get out of the coastal bubble and give Aronowitz not just a sense of place, but a sense of the journalists in that place.

“Sometimes you don’t have context for each other, and there’s really nothing like meeting face-to-face,” she said. “That’s what I mean by virtual bureaus. They’re not all going to be in an office together, but they’ll all be in a data base together, and I will have met them for real.”

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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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