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Aug. 13, 2018, 10:22 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How not to be a parachute partner: ProPublica’s figured out how to collaborate with local newsrooms without bigfooting them

“We’re really proud of our work at the Southern Illinoisan, but we have a flashlight, not a lighthouse.”

Eight months into its first year, ProPublica’s local reporting network has helped: a radio reporter in Orlando survey first responders about PTSD; a newspaper reporter in southern Illinois scrutinize the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s policies nationwide; and a reporter with 27 years of experience hone his writing as his newspaper was bartered in bankruptcy court. (Among other things.)

ProPublica’s staff is no stranger to collaboration with news organizations of all sizes (see: its project with nine other newsrooms to track the missing immigrant children). In this case, they appear to have mitigated the risk of parachute-partnering with the local newsrooms in their network, instead using its resources to strengthen and amplify local reporting. My conversations with reporters participating in the network confirmed that they see this as a hand-up, not a handout. It’s not a charity case, but a true collaboration.

“It’s nice when you’re in a small newspaper in a little place like Charleston to feel like you’ve got a literal army of people at ProPublica that are on your side, trying to help you take these stories to the next level,” Ken Ward, Jr., environmental writer at the Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, told me.

“We’re really proud of our work at the Southern Illinoisan, but we have a flashlight, not a lighthouse,” said Molly Parker, a reporter at the paper in Carbondale, Ill. “Giving some of these issues that we’ve been seeing a national spotlight or introducing them to a national audience might help change the nature of the conversation.”

Those were two of the 239 applicants — with only seven newsrooms selected — for the first round of the network. In its second round next year, the local reporting network will include a special focus on state government accountability reporting through seven additional newsroom partners, ProPublica announced last week.

(Examples of applicable state-level investigations, according to the network’s senior editor, Charlie Ornstein: The Dallas Morning News’ “Pain and Profit” investigation into the state of Texas’s Medicaid management and the Houston Chronicle’s “Denied” Pulitzer finalist work examining, again, the state of Texas for restricting special education services.)

This expansion comes through a $1.4 million grant over two years, added to the initial $1 million grant over three years, thanks to an anonymous donor who agreed with ProPublica’s concern about the squeezing of state-level investigations, ProPublica’s president Dick Tofel said. (Reminder: Applications are due September 14, and anyone except national news organizations are eligible to apply.)

“There are some very serious problems in society that you can’t solve by throwing money at them. This one, at the moment, is one you can address by throwing money at it,” Tofel said. “The whole point of it is that these are stories that otherwise would not have been written. I hope that also strengthens the position of our partner news organizations in their communities generally.”

In addition to funding each reporter’s salary for the year, ProPublica’s support comes in the form of senior editor Ornstein — “what this has convinced me of is that there’s a lot of amazing ideas in the notebooks and heads of reporters around the country,” he said — and access to Beena Raghavendran, the network’s dedicated engagement fellow, and ProPublica researchers.

“It’s not just that I can ask the researcher to pull cases for me. It’s that the researcher is showing me how to do it and they’re willing to share their process with me as well,” WMFE Orlando reporter Abe Aboraya said. “They are really creating more investigative journalists across the country with this.”

Aboraya also leaned on Raghavendran to help design and distribute an in-depth survey gathering the experiences first responders across the U.S. have had in diagnosing and addressing post-traumatic stress disorder. The form asks participants to detail their relationship to PTSD (is it affecting them or a loved one?), how their employing department has addressed it, if they’ve had to file lawsuits or go into workers’ compensation because of it, etc. But Aboraya also had to develop relationships with first responders’ associations to even convince them to send out his survey in the first place.

On their own, “we could’ve done Google Forms but that would’ve been rudimentary,” he said. He has received nearly 400 responses so far, which has led to stories like this and community events like this.

Parker, in Illinois, leveraged ProPublica’s resources to continue her blockbuster coverage of HUD policies in the southern Illinois area, especially after HUD secretary Ben Carson visited a neighboring town and declared mission accomplished. (Side note: why do politicians keep DOING that.) Her interview requests were treated a little differently after word got around that she was working with ProPublica, which also has had a branch in Illinois since 2017.

The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica Illinois had developed a relationship before the local reporting network opened. (As part of its continued expansion in the state, ProPublica has said it’s fair to assume one member of the next iteration of the network will also be in Illinois.) Parker has also had to balance the good-natured ribbing of her overworked colleagues as she’s taken a step back from the daily reporting in a four-person newsroom — “When are you going to write this, 2020?” she said they jest — but Ornstein and other ProPublica editors have been holding newsroom-wide brown-bag sessions about the art of the investigative interview and finding stories on social media to include others.

“A local paper is able to do these stories but also maybe open other local reporters’ eyes as to what is available,” Parker said. “You can empower other local journalists to make a lot of noise too. Sometimes it takes a lot of noise in a lot of places to move the government’s policies.”

Over in West Virginia, Ward has been tackling reporting on the coal crisis for the past 27 years at the Gazette-Mail, which had been owned by the same family for over 100 years — until January. The family’s company filed for bankruptcy, putting the paper at risk of acquisition by potentially unsavory characters. Though a different group ended up victorious in the bankruptcy sale, you might have heard about the layoffs that pushed longtime Gazette-Mailers from the newsroom (and the coal executive who celebrated their departures). One of those exiters was the editor who helped Ward brainstorm the ProPublica proposal in the first place, Rob Byers.

“Every day I’m working on this, I’m thinking about Rob and wishing he was here with me,” Ward said.

The other reporters and their projects (some of the wording is from the announcement in December:

  • Christian Sheckler, a criminal justice reporter at the South Bend Tribune in northern Indiana. His hard-pressed approach with police officers “hasn’t gotten me invited to any barbecues,” he wrote in his application, “but I believe I’ve better served my readers with aggressive reporting on issues such as excessive force, the imperfect protective order system for domestic battery victims and policies on deadly high-speed police chases.”

    His work so far has focused on wrongful convictions under former Indiana governor — and now U.S. Vice President — Mike Pence.

  • Rebekah Allen, a reporter at The Advocate, based in Baton Rouge, La. She is a member of the paper’s small team of reporters focused on investigative projects and enterprise stories. She produced a three-part series highlighting how the state’s powerful nursing home lobby fought off efforts to make it easier for the elderly and disabled to receive care in their homes. “As a result, nursing homes, ranked last in the nation in quality, have seen their budgets soar in a punishing financial climate where everyone from higher education to hospitals has seen dramatic reductions,” the paper said in introducing the series online.

    Allen recently announced her departure from The Advocate to join The Dallas Morning News, but Ornstein said the network will stay with the newsroom in Louisiana. She’s reported on how legislators promote bills that help their relatives and clients.

  • Jayme Fraser, a reporter who will be working with the Malheur Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in Vale, Ore. Fraser has been an education and statewide projects reporter at the Missoulian in Missoula, Montana, and before that, at the Houston Chronicle. She has written about how the Indian Health Service isn’t meeting the needs of Native American patients, and about questionable science presented in a local “shaken baby” case. Fraser has also helped lead a first-time collaboration between the Missoulian and the University of Montana School of Journalism to investigate an issue at the intersection of health and criminal justice.

    Through her reporting, Fraser has raised questions on how states manage violent offenders with mental illnesses.

  • Rebecca Moss, a reporter at the Santa Fe New Mexican. Moss covers energy and environmental issues, focusing on Los Alamos National Laboratory and nuclear waste. She co-wrote about how a company that processes and distributes fertilizers and other agricultural products had found a friendlier regulatory climate under the state’s Republican governor than under her predecessor. In 2017, she wrote about how a New Mexico town had stepped up to be part of a nuclear waste disposal experiment, even as other states and towns had balked.

    With ProPublica, Moss has investigated worker health and safety violations of U.S. Department of Defense contractors with ties to New Mexico.

POSTED     Aug. 13, 2018, 10:22 a.m.
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