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Aug. 22, 2018, 9:11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Reveal will fuel local, collaborative investigative reporting by helping newsrooms get the awkward conversations out of the way

“There may be two partners who think they can’t work together, but really you could have a meeting or two and talk things out and resolve some questions — and then they actually could work together.”

Reveal, the multiplatform publishing arm of the Center for Investigative Reporting, has long experimented with different ways of bringing its journalism to the most people possible. It’s distributed its reporting through standup comedy, theater, community-powered art exhibits, and election-themed potlucks, to name just a few. Now, it’s distributing something different: its expertise.

This morning, Reveal announced it’s chosen the first two cities for Reveal Local Labs, a two-year effort to help regional and local watchdog journalism by facilitating collaboration among local newsrooms. Today’s two cities are New Orleans and San Jose; the other two cities will be announced later. The initiative is funded by a $500,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. (Disclosure: Knight has also funded Nieman Lab.)

In each of the cities, Reveal — no stranger to partnerships itself — will help several other news partners collaborate with each other to produce a total of three investigative stories on a single topic. (The focus on local collaboration is what makes this different from other similar partnerships, like the ones ProPublica recently announced.) In the case of San Jose, for instance, the partners are NBC Bay Area, Telemundo Área de la Bahía, The Mercury News, and the San Jose bureau of public radio’s KQED. In New Orleans, they’ll be The Times-Picayune, public radio station WWNO, and local Fox affiliate WVUE.

Reveal’s collaboration help will include everything from logistical assistance (what are the best ways for the newsrooms to communicate with each other?) to data help (which databases are helpful in analyzing housing in the Bay Area?) to community engagement support (when’s the best time to hold a community forum? how do you get buy-in from other local organizations?) to legal assistance. “We’re going to remove as many of the impediments to doing collaborative journalism as we can,” said senior editor Ziva Branstetter, who’s working with Reveal’s newly hired collaborations editor, Bobby Calvan.

Reveal has found that the impediments to collaborative journalism are often as much about emotion as logistics. Things that might seem simple can actually end up being major hurdles. “Branding is the biggest problem that someone runs into with partnerships — someone always gets hurt,” said Amy Pyle, Reveal’s editor-in-chief. It’s better to discuss potential problems at the start: When the projects are released on the outlets’ individual sites, for instance, whose name goes first? If and when collaborative projects are submitted for awards, how should everyone be credited? “These things aren’t that complicated,” Pyle said. “It’s just that if you don’t agree early on, it can become a problem down the road.”

“Job No. 1 is building trust,” said Branstetter, who previously cofounded investigative news site The Frontier in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Reveal had worked with The Frontier on an investigation into Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate (the highest in the country) and ended up hiring Branstetter away. “Every market we go into — especially small markets, this happened in Tulsa — people have been hired from one media outlet to another. There might be hard feelings about that,” she explained. “People’s past experiences may make it difficult for them, in their minds at least, to work together. We’re finding out what the possible combinations are, assessing who can work together in a market. There may be two partners who think they can’t work together, but really you could have a meeting or two and talk things out and resolve some questions — and then they actually could work together.”

In general, based on past experience, Reveal has found that getting people involved early is beneficial. In the case of the Oklahoma collaboration, for instance, Reveal and The Atlantic held a number of community forums after the reporting was already done. In one of those events, several previously incarcerated women participated. “They had never had access to the data before, and there were lots of questions they had on it,” Pyle recalled. “They had noticed a lot of Native American women [in prison] and they wondered what was going on with that. They had questions about repeat arrests.”

If these questions had come up sooner, the resulting project might have been a little different. “Having some of those conversations upfront can inform the story,” Pyle said. “A lot of news outlets don’t think of it that way. It can feel early to let the outside in. But it can be beneficial at the end.”

Reveal’s team is also working hard to draw in regional ethnic media from the beginning. When we spoke, Calvan was in the middle of working the conference circuit, stirring interest and finding editors who might want to collaborate with Reveal. “We’d like these partners to come in at the front of the process, as opposed to being an afterthought,” he said. “It’s also a good business decision to involve them. Legacy media have had challenges reaching out. Having ethnic media involved will open up our brainstorming. Without them involved, there might be gaps in the story.”

Photo by 贝莉儿 NG on Unsplash.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Aug. 22, 2018, 9:11 a.m.
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