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Feb. 25, 2019, 10:16 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How Mississippi Today and WLBT balance data and broadcast needs while co-investigating stories

“If people have broadband and can access digital news — which is still not a given here in the state — thinking that news can come from a digital outlet is something new to a lot in the state.”

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of case studies on collaborations that involve local TV news, still the top source and most trusted type of news for Americans. Only about 7 percent of collaborations in the Center for Cooperative Media’s database includes partnerships with local TV stations — like this one.

Look through the series to see how national, regional, and local partners are teaming up with TV news directors and investigative journalists to harness shared resources through collaborations with local TV news: what works, what doesn’t, and what this means for the future of local news and collaborations.

One roadblock to collaboration that almost everyone I interviewed for this series mentioned was distrust — between broadcast and print-based reporters.

You’ll probably find more hairspray at a broadcasters’ conference than unkempt button-downs, and vice versa at a print or online newsroom. The two schools operate on vastly different schedules and procedures — not many newspapers own a branded helicopter — and yeah, sometimes there are stereotypes about the quality of journalism each produce, and sometimes they’re validated.

So how on earth are a broadcast journalist and a journalist with a print background working one-on-one together for 18 months?

A grant from the Knight Foundation to experiment with cross-medium collaboration was the spark, piquing the interests of newsroom leaders in Mississippi. The project brings together the young nonprofit news site Mississippi Today with Jackson’s NBC affiliate WLBT. More specifically, it’s bringing together Mississippi Today journalist Erica Hensley
with C.J. LeMaster, the TV station’s senior investigative reporter. That’s the short answer. Now for the longer answer:

Collaboration “is such a buzzword in journalism right now, and those of us paying attention have known that we’re going to have to figure out how to collaborate, and print and broadcast can’t exist in silos anymore,” Hensley said.

“Newspapers teach you how to write concisely and organize your ideas and thoughts and get to the heart of an issue,” LeMaster, who entered journalism via his college newspaper, said. “For broadcast, the challenge is to take that and make it conversational and relatable. This partnership is the extension of that.”

The pair will report out four investigations for the local Mississippi area over 18 months, as per the terms of the grant. Hensley joined Mississippi Today in early June and not long after was plowing through data from Princeton’s Eviction Lab.

As an investigative reporter — like the other TV journalists interviewed for this series — LeMaster already had a little bit more wiggle room in the amount of time he could spend on a story. He wasn’t being pulled to produce a segment for the newscast every day; more typical was spending two or three weeks preparing investigations for a four- to six-minute package. But he still didn’t have the same freedom as Hensley, who LeMaster, a self-taught data journalist, admitted “did the lion’s share of the work on the data [which] I would not be able to do by myself. Or if I did, it would take me so much longer.”

Instead, LeMaster focused on finding visual elements that would strengthen the final version for both organizations, which was aided by a secret weapon: his “street cred,” as Hensley (a Georgia transplant) put it, with sources who’ve watched him on Mississippi local TV news for more than a decade. (“I didn’t want to be the guy who signs up for the group project and does nothing,” LeMaster said. )

Working with broadcast was a first for Hensley, and TV’s need for visuals limited (perhaps in a good way?) her scope in sorting through the data. “We had to make compromises on what part of the state we needed to focus on,” she said, explaining factors like the record-keeping systems and visual opportunities and logistics. “As we’ve started the second project, it’s helped me think that way quicker, rather than having to end up feeling like I’m making a compromise.”

The first story of the four, which focused on problems with eviction oversight in the state, in the grant aired in September (here’s WLBT’s take and Mississippi Today’s version).

The second story ran last week, looking at doctors still practicing in Mississippi despite accusations of sexual misconduct or problems with substance abuse or mental illness.

Both reporters separately acknowledged to me that they wished they’d done more upfront planning on the structure and presentation of the stories across all their formats: Hensley’s visualizations, LeMaster’s video package, and each journalist’s writeup for their respective websites.

Aside from the format juggling, there’s also the stark difference of WLBT’s needs as a commercial station and Mississippi Today’s approach as a nonprofit. Anything the latter posts online is released under a Creative Commons license for others to republish — which raised some concerns around embedding WLBT’s copyrighted package on its site. Other kinks they’ve worked through: upfront byline recognition, at which point each side’s version should mention the other, and deadlines. (Turns out a timeslot to air is much stricter than a deadline to publish online.)

But as a three-year-old news organization, Mississippi Today appreciates the exposure the WLBT brand brings in a loyalty-driven state where internet access can be limited. “If people have broadband and can access digital news — which is still not a given here in the state — thinking that news can come from a digital outlet is something new to a lot in the state,” Hensley said.

And LeMaster was eager to get more feedback on his work, especially (maybe) from Andrew Lack, the NBC News and MSNBC chairman who founded Mississippi Today. “People might not think it’s a good thing to have four bosses instead of two, but I think it’s great from the standpoint that it allows me to grow,” LeMaster said.

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POSTED     Feb. 25, 2019, 10:16 a.m.
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