August 29, 2018

In their work covering crime in New Orleans, Richard Webster and Jonathan Bullington often saw neighborhood kids who’d been witnesses, lost family members and were present at crime scenes. 

And they wondered — what does that do to kids?

The two | Times-Picayune reporters spent one school year finding out. Their series, “The Children of Central City,” tells the story of a group of kids, their families and schools, but also the science behind trauma and what it means for all of them.

The project came out in June. Since then, it has:

  • Led to a unanimous resolution from the New Orleans City Council calling on all schools to address the realities of childhood trauma.

  • Led to another unanimous resolution from the city council to drastically change how childhood trauma is understood, prevented and treated.

  • Inspired a billboard campaign by a local nonprofit that shares the message from the project — kids that experience and witness violence are #sadnotbad.

The project shows what local journalism can do when it takes time, care and a willingness to think past the limitations.

The Central City Bureau

Bullington and Webster started by getting out of the newsroom.

With a $5,000 fellowship from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, they rented an office in Central City’s Apex Youth Center.

“If you’re gonna write about a community in this way, we really thought we should do our best to be in that community as much as possible,” Bullington said.

And for the first month, the two reporters just listened. As two white men reporting on a black community, they wanted to let the community form the direction. What was really happening? What mistakes had reporters made in the past? 

They should not take a single child and make him or her the poster child of the story, they heard. That just added pressure that that kid didn’t need.

That advice helped frame the project.

And it led them, eventually, to A.L. Davis park and a football team of 9- and 10-year-old boys. Bullington and Webster spent the football season with the Panthers.

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Their work was the first project of the Times-Picayune’s newly formed watchdog team. That team began after staff told editors that as the newsroom got smaller and everyone transitioned to digital, they’d gotten away from public impact journalism that took time to create.  

Bullington and Webster weren’t the only two who got time to report the story.

Once they figured out who they’d follow, photojournalist Brett Duke and video journalist Emma Scott joined them. It was the first time in years that a photojournalist has been assigned to a project for most of the reporting, said Carolyn Fox, managing editor.

Also joining them early in the process was digital strategist Haley Correll. Her mission — figure out how to present a big project on a limited site with very few resources.

‘That’s like a whole person’

Like many local newsrooms, the Times-Picayune doesn’t have a lot of extra resources, and it has no developers in editorial. The content management system makes every story look pretty much the same.

“It seemed like such a shame to just put it on a bunch of article pages on our website,” Correll said.

So she started asking around for ideas.

Correll found a service that hosts microsites, but “we don’t have $50,000 to subscribe to this service for a year,” she said. “That’s like a whole person.”

She put out a query in the Engaged Journalism Facebook group, and Gatehouse’s Tony Elkins responded with an idea — try WordPress. Then, he talked her through how he’d used it.

Correll pitched the idea to her editors, who took it to the Times-Picayune’s corporate parent, Advance Local. This microsite wouldn’t live on, it wouldn’t have the newsroom’s SEO power, and it wouldn’t host advertising.

It would not, directly, bring in any revenue.

Here’s the pitch managing editor Fox made: This was about building trust in the community. This was something that could create change.

The response?

“They were incredibly supportive,” she said.

The company valued public impact journalism, she said, and thought it might be a solution for newsrooms in other markets.  

Correll got the OK, went with a $50 WordPress template and started tinkering. The phrase she kept coming back to with the project was “this is the digital footprint that it deserves.”


Why not?

Everything about “The Children of Central City,” from the reporting to the documentary to the microsite, was a collaboration, said Scott, the project’s video journalist. And every part of the project got more staff time than they normally get.

“For me, the site that we built sort of speaks to that,” she said.

Now, staff knows now how to create a microsite, which they could try again and include sponsorships, and how to think past limitations they can't control.

For newsrooms looking to tell stories like this one, Correll said, “it was easier than we anticipated to convince the people at the top to let us do this.”

“So many of my friends in local newsrooms feel like they can’t do these things,” she said. “It’s too hard, it’s hard to convince your editors to let you do it.”

After the series came out, Bullington and Webster spoke to a class of fellows at USC Annenberg, where their fellowship came from.

Their advice?

With an industry that’s now volatile, unstable and insecure, Webster said, why not go big? 

“Why not just go for broke and really, really try to do something that seems almost impossible to do?” he said. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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