Competing in a Networked World: How Newsrooms Are Joining Forces

Through formal partnerships news organizations can produce in-depth, investigative and analytical pieces that they would not have been able to do on their own. These two case studies explore two different journalistic collaborations between very different news organizations. In the first case study, Scalawag, a startup magazine and online site that covers social justice issues in the South, worked with the Whiteville News Reporter, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning weekly in eastern North Carolina, to produce a series on the effects of the opioid crisis on life in one of the poorest counties in the state. In the second example, the start-up, nonprofit online news outlet Ed/NC joined forces with WRAL, an award-winning regional station in the state’s capital of Raleigh, to explore the effectiveness of a new program that allowed schools with below average test scores to make changes in their instruction and curriculum without seeking state approval. Both case studies were written by Chris Gentilviso, while he was a master’s student at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Part 1: Covering the Crisis – Scalawag & The News Reporter Tackle the Opioid Problem

Key partners from The News Reporter, Scalawag and UNC-TV gather at a forum in March 2018.

INTRODUCTION

Les High knew his community was in trouble. During volunteer shifts at the city rescue squad, High, editor of The Whiteville News Reporter, noticed the phone was ringing more often. In years past, the agency received one or two opioid-related calls a month. By 2017, the volume was one or two a day.

Since 1938, his family had owned the News Reporter, which covered a rural county of just under 60,000 people in southeastern North Carolina. The residents of Columbus County, one of the poorest in North Carolina, were at the center of a growing national crisis.

Nearly 10 years after the Great Recession, jobs were still hard to come by, which drove people to lean heavily on painkillers.  By 2016, Columbus County led North Carolina with more than 140 opioid pills prescribed per resident.

“We have an issue here with our workforce — a lot of people who could work but can’t because there’s just this feeling of helplessness,” High says.

For decades, the News Reporter prided itself on tackling these kinds of hard-hitting, public policy issues. In 1953, the newspaper received the Pulitzer Public Service medal for its work exposing the Ku Klux Klan’s infiltration of local police and fire departments.

But more than a half century later, the News Reporter lacked the resources to tell the opioid story on its own. Declining print subscriptions and advertising dollars affected the newspaper’s finances. In May 2017, High joined a group of seven other local North Carolina news organizations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The goal of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, launched with funding from the Knight Foundation, was to help newsrooms in small and mid-sized markets develop new digital journalistic  models.

In the same room was Scalawag co-founder Evan Walker-Wells. The quarterly, based in nearby Durham, was approaching its third birthday. It had tried to position itself as “the Atlantic of the South”, a go-to place to read about Southern politics, culture and social justice issues.

A former Obama campaign staffer, Walker-Wells wanted to produce powerful narratives on topics like the opioid crisis. In the process, he hoped to capture new audiences beyond Scalawag’s current subscribers, which numbered less than 2,000 for the print magazine and and xxx for the weekly newsletter.  Most were self-described “progressives.”

“I was definitely sure that there was a really strong narrative for us, for our community as well as others,” says Walker-Wells.

ASSESSING THE SITUATION

Scalawag had a robust stable of freelance reporters, but lacked the local relationships that the Whiteville News Reporter had in its community. Both publications wondered: How do we build better capacity at the community level? Better yet, could they do it together?

The News Reporter’s small corps of writers focused on producing multiple stories for the twice-weekly newspapers.  Most involved covering meetings and events, or involved consulting only a couple of sources.

“We have one full-time staffer and three part-time staffers who work roughly 30 hours,” says High. “It would be nearly impossible for us to dedicate one writer to spend that amount of time, which was 10 days, on one issue.”

Walker-Wells could have refused High’s help and sent reporter Sammy Feldblum to Whiteville cold turkey. But Columbus County was more than an isolated piece of the opioid puzzle. The region provided broader context for state- and national-level mental health care issues.

“They had a need for a level of reporting chops that would happen outside of the day-to-day pressures in their newsroom,” says Walker-Wells. “They felt a real desire to talk about how this set of national issues and state-level issues connected to their community.”

FINDING THE RIGHT AUDIENCE

Targeting the right audience was critical. Walker-Wells and Feldblum were ready to handle the editing and reporting. But Whiteville was a foreign place to them.

High knew the News Reporter’s reader base was aging rapidly. The opioid issue presented an opportunity to reach new groups in the Whiteville area.

“Particularly in the younger age group, this (the opiod crisis) affects a lot of people,” says High. “It might even involve them, or someone in their family.”

As a non-native, Walker-Wells held different perspectives than the locals who knew where to find a secure pill drop box or had made one too many 911 calls. He and Feldblum were committed to documenting what was happening in Whiteville, which meant the News Reporter’s readership was the series’ core focus.

“I think the most important part of that audience question was making sure that this would  actually be useful to the community, right?” says Walker-Wells. “And actually useful in Columbus County.”

ASSESSING RESOURCES AND CAPABILITIES

Executing a six-part series on mental health and substance abuse was an ambitious bar that neither publication had cleared on its own, let alone together.

The final product was a lofty goal, so pooling resources was essential. The News Reporter and Scalawag split the cost of the reporter. While High was unable to provide his own writer, he did have a home for Scalawag’s Feldblum.

“We decided from the get-go because we were on the ground that the News Reporter would handle all of the assigning,” says High. “Sammy actually stayed with my wife, Becky, and I, and that was by design because we wanted to talk about this.”

On its own, Scalawag could have made cold calls to the usual suspects, like the sheriff or the health department. But Feldblum and High had dozens of conversations in his house, thinking about the right approach. Those discussions readied them for the unexpected, like one dinner at a local restaurant, where they ran into a pharmacist who opened up about the painkiller problem.

Walker-Wells’ editing and project management were necessary assets, but the News Reporter’s connections were priceless. Reporting for six stories was spread out over Feldblum’s 10-day stay. Once one source was established, more came forward, knowing High was involved.

“[Les] had the News Reporter kind of community post where once those stories were published, people would reach out to talk further, and they did,” says Walker-Wells. “We saw in terms of source generation why this kind of local-oriented journalism matters.”

COLLABORATIVE BENEFITS

Working solo, the News Reporter’s opioid struggle story likely would have stayed local. High’s sources would be quoted in the newspaper, or on the website. The chance of these voices being heard outside Columbus County was slim.

But once Scalawag joined forces with the News Reporter, new avenues for attention opened up. Along with print stories in the News Reporter, both organizations posted the six-part series online. The publications leveraged their own email lists and social media channels.

All six stories were rolled out over a three-week period. The intensity of the publishing schedule was at a level Walker-Wells never experienced before. But his goal of establishing a presence at the community level was coming to life.

“There were people who were doing some more work who didn’t really know each other, who talked for the first time,” says Walker-Wells. “That is incredibly valuable, and that forum was only possible because of the series.”

MEASURES OF EFFECTIVENESS

Walker-Wells helped procure a grant from PEN America to host a March 2018 forum in Whiteville.  Additionally, High obtained a local sponsorship from Columbus Regional Health Care System, which helped absorb the costs of the series and forum.

The public forum at Vineland Station, a former railroad depot in Whiteville, brought together nearly 100 people to discuss the issue. One of the attendees was Adam Linker, a health improvement program officer for the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. A member of Scalawag’s email list, Linker was captivated by the high-quality reporting.  His attendance sparked discussions for funding future opioid addiction treatment projects.

Even though Linker was on Scalawag’s list, Walker-Wells also had anticipated that this series could garner regional attention.  “He read the story in Scalawag,” says High. “He would not have read it in the News Reporter.”

When High and Walker-Wells embarked on the series, they saw their conversations as a test of a new collaborative model.  Another participant in the Knight-Lenfest in Chapel Hill, UNC-TV agreed to televise the Scalawag-News Reporter March community forum.  This gave the story of the opiod crisis in one rural North Carolina county a statewide audience.

“These events, they take time,” says Walker-Wells. “They take energy. That, for a small publication, is a real cost, but certainly, I think, was worth all of that time and energy.”

LESSONS LEARNED

From Feldblum’s first night at High’s home to the final round of applause at Vineland Station, the results were clear. The depth of reporting brought in new audiences. Scalawag’s email subscribers across the South received a series of stories on the ground in a rural county. The News-Reporter’s print and web audiences gained a six-part series that could not be achieved with normal staff levels. High says feedback was strong especially from younger audiences.

It wasn’t just kind of an attaboy-type thing,” he says. “It was, ‘I know somebody who is addicted and this has been very helpful.’”

But text was as far as the project’s reach went. One large gap in the group planning was a lack of multimedia elements. Adding visuals to the piece could have spurred even more engagement. UNC-TV also could have been brought in earlier to assist with this component.

“We could have done more with video and still pictures, images — particularly video,” says High. “I think that’s an opportunity that we missed out on. That would have been even more compelling for a younger audience.”

Along with the inclusion of more mediums, Walker-Wells stressed sharper checklists to help account for specific goals. But for a first test drive, the collaboration with the News Reporter unlocked great potential.

“Accomplishing that and getting that under our belt is a really important thing reputationally, in understanding what we’re doing and achieving, day to day,” says Walker-Wells. “That’s the kind of capacity, an understanding of our own capacity and ability to communicate that to our community.”

Part 2: Under the Radar : EdNC & WRAL-TV Investigate the Restart Schools Program

INTRODUCTION

As he roamed the halls of the North Carolina State Legislative Building in the summer of 2017, Education NC legislative reporter Alex Granados stumbled across something called the Restart model.  The program granted Local Education Agencies (LEAs) – defined as “public schools, charter schools, regional schools, lab schools and other educational entities” with below average standardized test scores – the ability to request flexibility in their instruction and curriculum development. The goal was improved student classroom performance, which was supposed to result in a corresponding improvement in test scores or other measures of student achievement.

More than 100 schools across the state were participating in the program.  But, no one seemed to know whether it was working?  Few state legislators he talked with knew about it and there was no published data on program’s effectiveness.

Almost three years earlier, Granados, a Raleigh native and a graduate of the area’s public schools, had returned to North Carolina to join the EdNC, start-up nonprofit online news outlet. In his role as legislative reporter, he covered everything from teacher pay to student testing policies.

“It (Restart) is not the kind of story you’re going to scoop anybody on, right?” says Granados. “It was just a story that was kind of sitting out there, that nobody was really paying attention to. Nobody was really trying to beat anybody to it.”

Just up Wilmington Street at the Department of Public Instruction, WRAL-TV reporter Kelly Hinchcliffe was also puzzled by the lack of information and data available on the Restart Schools program. Over the past 60 years, WRAL had built a reputation as the Raleigh area’s pre-eminent local broadcast news source, but viewer habits were tilting toward the online space.

Hinchcliffe was prepared to navigate the change. For nearly a decade, she immersed herself in the station’s digital side, as a web editor and special projects producer. When Hinchcliffe took on the education beat in January 2016, she and her editors were open to collaboration. Granados and EdNC were a potential ally.

“We work for the most part as competitors with a bunch of other education reporters,” says Hinchcliffe. “We decided we wanted to work together on some other stories.”

Both reporters knew their organizations had limited resources to cover a topic like the Restart schools program. So they asked themselves a key question: Is there any reason why the two of us shouldn’t work together?

ASSESSING THE SITUATION

While WRAL’s main identity was still broadcast programming, Hinchcliffe drove content for the website’s education page, as well as the “NC Education” social media channels. She worked solo on the beat, so partnerships were viewed positively – as long as the news outlets’ editorial visions matched up.

“I think we both work by the same standard as far as journalism ethics goes,” says Hinchcliffe of Granados and EdNC. “When we collaborate on stories, we each have an editor who works with us. For instance, his editor can question my work, and my editor can question his.”

Entering its third year, EdNC had fewer than 10 full-time staffers. Part of the organization’s mission is doing journalism in new ways, while finding opportunities to bolster existing reporting outlets. Its small in-house team was always looking for new channels to get more eyeballs on its work.

To boost resources for the Restart schools idea, Granados landed a $7,000 grant in November 2017 from the Center for Cooperative Media, a center at Montclair State University in New Jersey, dedicated to boosting local journalism. The opportunity was funded by the Rita Allen Foundation and the Democracy Fund – two groups focused on exploring ways to transform media access in communities. With Hinchcliffe and WRAL as willing partners, he had some extra security in executing the final project.

“We’re both doing the same thing,” says Granados. “Neither one of us is thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t know what she’s doing. I don’t think that’s such a good idea.’ We’re very, very much aligned in our mentalities toward it.”

FINDING THE RIGHT AUDIENCE

With unity on ethics and story approaches, the next challenge for Hinchcliffe and Granados was merging their audiences. Both reporters had sources in high positions who regularly read their coverage. Those voices were hungry for more of a spotlight on Restart schools.

Hinchcliffe was struck by the lack of understanding of Restart schools and the policy’s intricacies at the State Board of Education. Therefore, their joint reporting had to sift through two of the most basic questions: What is this program, and how does it work?

“[At] one time, these were the people you would reach out to say, ‘Explain this to me. How does this work?’” says Hinchcliffe. “I spoke with a State Board of Education chairman and he said, ‘I can’t wait to read your story because I would like to know more about how this works.’”

Over at the legislature, Granados encountered lawmakers who had never even heard of Restart Schools. Surprised by puzzled reactions from the state’s power players, he thought about how education policies are enacted with a top-down structure.

Perhaps their Restart schools project could be more bottom-up. The Center for Cooperative Media grant afforded the reporters financial support to visit dozens of classrooms. This premise shaped how Granados and Hinchcliffe formed their reporting angles.

“It’s one of those things where you wonder if people at the top could hear how things were being done on the ground more,” he says. “Would that influence the way they think about things?”

ASSESSING RESOURCES AND CAPABILITIES

To raise consciousness of ground-level conditions, Hinchcliffe and Granados wanted to visit as many schools as they could. There was no way they could reach every single one. So they kept circling back to their initial question and settled for whatever was possible in a four-month time frame.

“How does it work?” says Hinchcliffe. “Really making sure that we could get into schools and not just have people at the top tell us how it’s supposed to work, but actually see what it was doing.”

From there, they sketched out a three-part series and decided who would take the lead on different elements of reporting. One item was more legislator-focused, which fell into Granados’ territory. Another story leaned toward the Department of Public Instruction, which was Hinchcliffe’s specialty.

As they began reporting, Hinchcliffe and Granados also set up systems to ensure multiple sets of fingerprints were on each part of the process. Through Google Docs, they left notes for each other, with comments like, ‘What do you mean by this?’ or, ‘Can you explain this more?’ or, ‘I really like this section.’ They shared pictures and video and gained feedback from both of their editors. WRAL’s team supplied copy editing, while EdNC provided data and graphics assistance.

“I think on a project like this, the swath of the people and institutions we needed to talk with was big enough,” says Granados. “One of the advantages of working together is that we could just divide up the responsibility and do it faster.”

BENEFITS OF COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS

By March 2018, the series was published on each website — “Inside Restart Schools” at WRAL.com and “Starting Restart in North Carolina’s traditional public schools” at EdNC.org. Granados also visited WRAL for a guest television spot with Hinchcliffe, to discuss the trajectory of the project.

Together, they tackled several key components. How do Restart schools work? What kinds of flexibility does the program afford? What is it like for school professionals to navigate the new system? What is the program’s future, and how are Restart Schools being held accountable?

By merging resources, their reporting didn’t answer every question, or uncover every detail in all 100-plus schools. They were able to assemble a series of key points that explain how the program came about, what beginning steps schools took to maximize their new flexibility and what plans were beyond 2017 for improving student performance. As more schools engage with the program, if issues emerge that counter the Restart model mission, Granados and Hinchcliffe laid the foundation for future accountability reporting.

“For a subject like this that isn’t really well-covered, no matter how many people read it initially, there is now this series of documents out there that lays out how this happened, what it was like in the beginning and what the plans were,” says Granados. “If at any point this becomes a bigger deal, there is that information already established.”

Although this was a first-time joint project for Hinchcliffe, developing news partnerships is nothing new for WRAL. The news outlet has both an on-going content sharing relationship with other NBC affiliates across the Carolinas and with the Fayetteville Observer. Jodi Leese Glusco, WRAL.com Director of Content, said as a whole the organization is open to partnerships.

“I can tell you that we look for partners who complement what we do so that each partner benefits from the strength of the others,” Glusco said. “In our partnership with the Fayetteville Observer, for instance, they share high school football stories with us and we share video highlights with them.”  The newspaper also has access to WRAL video footage when severe weather threatens the area.

MEASUREMENTS OF EFFECTIVENESS

As the digital media landscape evolves, page views and revenue are often high on news organizations’ minds. For this series, WRAL and EdNC empowered their reporters to look past numbers.

“I don’t really think that we were too concerned with metrics like page views, or that kind of thing,” Granados says.

Over at WRAL, Hinchcliffe stressed the freedom to approach her editors with big ideas that lack attention. Metrics don’t enter those conversations.

“When I pitch stories to them, that’s not something they say: ‘Well, you need to get this many clicks on it,’” says Hinchcliffe. “It’s more the journalistic value. Will this be helpful to people?”

But both sites were confident they expanded their audiences. Granados noted the series was one of EdNC’s most read articles in 2018. At WRAL.com, enterprise editor Dave Hendrickson saw Hinchcliffe’s work reach policy professionals that may not normally visit the site’s vertical, NCEducation.

“I think [EdNC] was able to reach a much broader audience than they usually are because of our participation and we were able to reach probably more people within that smaller audience of intensely-focused people — that community of interest — than we might be with another one of our regular sort of daily education stories,” Hendrickson says.

EDNC shared the analytics behind their five articles on the Restart program. On  average readers spent three minutes and eight secondsreading their version of the joint project. The numbers also revealed that their initial published article had nearly a thousand page views.

WRAL’s page views remained statistically on par with their daily metrics. So while the five part series of articles didn’t necessarily move the meter by a lot for either organization, both newsrooms looked at the collaboration as a learning opportunity.

LESSONS LEARNED

If Hinchcliffe and Granados embark on another collaborative project, two adjustments will be at the forefront of their planning. The first is setting clear deadlines. For a non-time-sensitive subject, Granados says it’s a minor point, but still something they could do differently.

“I think part of the issue is we didn’t have a good sense of when exactly it should be published,” he says, adding the schedule oscillated for “a million different reasons.”

The second-lesson is more face-to-face contact. Granados and Hinchcliffe met up around every three weeks, for 60-90 minutes. While they were able to coordinate these kinds of issues from afar, in-person meetings were most helpful.

Despite the limits of working in separate newsrooms, Hinchcliffe encouraged other outlets to explore making new connections. She argued that, too often, the focus is on competition. But with collaboration, more can be done.

“If there is a topic you have interest in and you think needs more reporting, and you know someone else who maybe you compete with, but they may also be a good person to work on it with you, just reach out,” Hinchcliffe says. “See what you can do.”

Hendrickson added that if publications check their egos at the door, these collaborations allow different sets of expertise to create a story that goes a level above one newsroom’s resources.

“If you are the media outlet that is taking the lead in the project, you can be tempted to say, ‘Well, we’re going to do this the way we always do and you can contribute,’” he says. “I think if you do that rather than just saying, ‘How can we all contribute?’ you’re selling yourself short.”