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June 29, 2016, 9:58 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Drawn to the common aim of covering issues around homelessness, Bay Area media organizations unite for the day

“From a purely intellectual, journalistic standpoint, what I think is most fascinating about this is that everybody is more or less covering the same thing, but from their own unique media perspective.”

— How many people in San Francisco are homeless? The go-to figure is 6,600, and while it’s a useful baseline, it’s based on imprecise collection: a point-in-time count by community volunteers and agencies on one night in January 2015. Some estimate that as many as 13,000 people experience homelessness in the city in a given year.

The uncertain total is one of the many questions around homelessness in San Francisco, which has spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars on services for homeless people but has not noticeably improved conditions.

On Wednesday, more than 70 outlets in and around the Bay Area are publishing or broadcasting stories around homelessness as part of the SF Homeless Project, a coordinated effort to double down on coverage of one of the city’s most persistent problems. The initiative was spearheaded by the San Francisco Chronicle and its editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper. (That number doesn’t include similar efforts inspired by this one in other cities along the West Coast, such as Seattle.)

“I originally thought we’d get 15 people, maybe the editors I knew really well. Then the list grew to 30, 40. We held a meeting and I said, there’d be free wine, no commitment, you’ll meet other editors — a low bar to entry,” Cooper said. When I met her at her the Chronicle building off Market Street in downtown San Francisco earlier this month, a New York Times story had also spread the word about the initiative nationally (the Times is not specifically participating in the SF Homeless Project coordinated day of coverage). “And then everyone saw all the other outlets present and got really excited about what was going on and the idea of everyone doing their own thing — but together.”

The list of partners is impressive not only for its size, but its range: There’s BuzzFeed News right alongside Mission Local, Hoodline alongside Univision, KQED alongside Mother Jones, Google News Lab alongside the San Francisco Neighborhood Newspaper Association. CALMatters, the only partner based in Sacramento, is reporting from a state capital perspective. Medium, another partner, is aggregating stories on its platform, asking readers to share ideas for solutions, and featuring accounts from individuals currently homeless. A data team assembled from several publications, including the Chronicle and KQED, pooled resources to offer everyone some usable data sets.

SF-homesless-project-outlets

The Chronicle itself is running pieces on homelessness issues all week and collecting its own stories and stories from other publications in an online space it’s dedicated to the project. It’s offering its stories and other accompanying multimedia to participating outlets for free one-time use. Content sharing is not a requirement for others joining the initiative, but several participating outlets told me that they intend to share their work, even though their staffs are too small to produce anything that, say, a much larger broadcaster would be able to use on air.

“I don’t know how many people are going to take us up on our offer, but we have to put ourselves out there and be understanding of the fact that, out of all the outlets, we have by far the biggest newsroom locally,” Cooper said. There was a Google spreadsheet listing all participating outlets with a column for each to enter in what they were planning to write about, but sharing that information was also voluntary. Cooper and Holly Kernan, KQED’s executive editor for news and another organizer, were hands-off when it came to the exact nature of coverage.

“I’m not going to control what everybody else does. From a purely intellectual, journalistic standpoint, what is most fascinating about this is that everybody is more or less covering the same thing, but from their own unique media perspective,” she said. “We’re seeing the formation of a coalition of people who might not always get along, for something where you’re basically giving away your competitive advantage. At an editors’ meeting, somebody asked, how are we going to know who’s doing what? What I said was that I think it’s actually interesting if it’s redundant. How, say, TechCrunch reports on something is different from how we would report on it — nobody owns any one way of reporting.”

“The whole point was, we weren’t dictating in any way how people cover the issue,” Kernan said. “It was more about the idea that we would blanket with coverage, so that people have to pay attention.” (Some city officials have been approached numerous times now for comment, several people told me.)

Hoodline’s cofounder and editor-in-chief Eric Eldon, who set up a Slack team to help ease inter-news organization communication (imagine getting caught in an 70-publication deep reply-all), was also careful to avoid any big pronouncements about whether the initiative would drive policy change or whether it could be a model for issues-driven journalism, and praised Kernan and Cooper for their cover-what-you-want approach.

“This is so local, and such a nebulous issue. It’s a big topic no one feels they can really get their hands around, with a lot of confusing data and information around it,” Eldon said. “One of the coolest things I’ve found is that some people who aren’t squarely in traditional media are saying, we have data, we can do that analysis, we can contribute this information, we have a platform, we can help out with that.”

Hoodline is a data-driven hyperlocal outlet focused on news at the neighborhood level, and Eldon said he’s hoping to piggyback off some of the data research and analysis to look into breakdowns for specific neighborhoods, which Hoodline “wouldn’t normally have the resources to do.”

“People are learning new things about homelessness, we’re talking to each other — I’m learning new things that wouldn’t be accessible to me otherwise,” he said.

To be clear, all of these Bay Area outlets have always covered homelessness, but a coordinated day, with a few additional resources and the potential to highlight and amplify new voices and perspectives, is no doubt a boon.

Alexander Mullaney, who runs the Ingleside-Excelsior Light (a neighborhood monthly paper with a circulation of 10,000) and coordinates the San Francisco Neighborhood News Association, has been encouraging other publishers to participate. (The SFNNA is a coalition of 14 small papers, each neighborhood-specific.)

“These papers have been covering homelessness for years. We’re all tied to our formats — I need to cover the neighborhood,” Mullaney said. “On my end, I have several reporters working on stories as we speak: doing profiles, figuring out how police have ended up as de facto mental health workers in the city, figuring out how homelessness has impacted outer neighborhoods.”

“The demographics of the city have been changing so rapidly, it’s hard to know what’s going on, and these neighborhoods can often feel neglected because they’re far away from downtown,” he added.

“To me, it feels pretty monumental,” said Laura Wenus, managing editor at Mission Local. The site originated at UC Berkeley’s Journalism School and covers the city’s historic Mission neighborhood. It already has a publishing agreement with KQED, and is happy for other news organizations to link to its stories and videos. “We’re not shy about sharing material. But what we do is a bit niche, and we’re quite small, so I think it’s really good for us to collaborate. And personally, philosophically, I really like the idea of journalists across the field collaborating. It’s cool to have some solidarity. I like that we’re all working on something together but going at it from different angles.”

Some of the “different angle” projects her team has been working on include stories exploring displacement from fires — “once you get burned out of an apartment, it’s very hard to get back” — and other situations people find themselves in that may not look like what people usually think of as homelessness.

“This is an experiment. We didn’t go into it with a certain set of goals,” Kernan said. “But you always hope that there’s some sort of impact, that the public talks about things in a new way, that your journalism might move some people to empathy and action.”

Photo of Pier 1 by sergejf used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 29, 2016, 9:58 a.m.
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