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Sept. 21, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

A cross-country network helps Reveal boost its investigative reporting power

The Texas Tribune and Houston Chronicle are home to reporters for Reveal, helping to produce new stories for the radio show as it gets ready to go weekly in 2016.

One of the great benefits of working in audio, says Texas Tribune reporter Neena Satija, is that you have to get out of the office to collect sound. Satija was a public radio reporter in Connecticut before she moved to Austin, but working with audio was not part of her daily duties when she joined the Tribune in 2013 as an environmental reporter.

That changed in the spring when Satija reported on Antonio Buehler, an Austin activist who films police activity as part of the Peaceful Streets Project. You could listen as Satija rode along with Buehler, filming police as they dealt with traffic infractions and other minor incidents. The audio puts you in the backseat, giving you a sense of Buehler’s work and building context through clips from his videos.

While Satija’s story appeared on the Tribune’s website, it aired as part of an episode of Reveal, the public radio show and podcast produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Public Radio Exchange.

“We do a lot of policy-heavy investigative work at the Tribune,” Satija told me. “I’m interested in making that work for radio.”

Satija is part of a growing number of reporters who are creating stories for Reveal through a partner network that connects CIR to newsrooms around the country. Altogether there are five organizations that partner CIR to produce stories. Some newsrooms, like the Center for Public Integrity and San Francisco’s KQED, work in conjunction with Reveal on stories for the program. But places like The Texas Tribune and The Houston Chronicle have dedicated Reveal reporters. In Austin, the Tribune and CIR share the cost. In Houston, Chronicle parent company Hearst is covering the cost.

Launched in summer 2014, Reveal has slowly built itself out as a public radio-style show focused on investigative reporting from CIR staff and partners. From a handful of early pilot episodes, the show worked up to a monthly schedule, airing as a podcast and on public radio stations around the country. According to managing director Christa Scharfenberg, the goal was to be on 300 stations by the end of 2015. Right now Reveal is airing on 308 stations and the podcast pulls in 320,000 downloads a month.

Working with partners has been part of CIR’s strategy over its almost 40 years in operation. That teamwork is integral to producing Reveal; the partnership provides a deeper pool of reporters and story possibilities for each episode. The show keeps partners apprised of themes for upcoming stories. At the same time, the partners pitch the show stories that might be a good match.

“NPR only has so much bandwidth to bring those stories to a national audience, and that’s a role we could play,” said Scharfenberg.

Partnerships will become more important as Reveal tries to make the leap from a monthly show to a weekly in January. It hopes to add more news organizations to its list of partners in the next few months.

For the Tribune, the Reveal partnership follows a handful of other collaborations designed to introduce the site’s reporting to national audiences. Corrie MacLaggan, a news editor for the Tribune, said working with Reveal was an opportunity to expand the site’s readership beyond the state of Texas.

“We’re all about experimenting at the Tribune,” she said. “How can we tell the most compelling stories about Texas government and politics, and what are the different ways we can tell those stories?”

The Tribune is no stranger to producing audio, with podcasts like Tribcast and The Ticket, a weekly show on the presidential election. But developing stories for Reveal is a different process, MacLaggan said.

The ideal story is one that springs from Tribune investigations and might appeal to wider audiences. In many ways, Satija is like any other reporter at the Tribune: she sits in the newsroom and goes to the same story meetings. But part of her job is to pick which stories will work best for Reveal.

The story of the “cop watchers” worked because it focused on the growing tension between police and citizens’ use of video to respond to police misconduct. Satija found other people in Texas who film police interactions, which provided compelling voices to help tell the story in the audio piece. “It worked out really well to report for both radio and online,” she said.

The Chronicle is just ramping up production on audio stories for Reveal after hiring Peter Haden, a former reporter from WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida, in June.

Haden will lend help to other Chronicle reporting projects, which informs the stories that might be translated into radio pieces for Reveal. But his main responsibility is coordinating with Reveal’s team for upcoming shows, which can sometimes be tricky. “It can present some challenges when an editor is in Washington, D.C., the production team is scattered around the country, and the audio engineer is in San Francisco,” he said.

Like Satija, Haden has to perform a kind of balancing act, remaining aware of the needs of both Reveal and the Chronicle, and how those might intersect. “They have different cultures, but they both share the mission of doing meaningful investigative journalism, holding people accountable, and doing that in a very creative and engaging way,” he said.

Photo of a map with pins by Olds College used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 21, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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