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Feb. 22, 2019, 10:21 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How Your Voice Ohio worked with Youngstown’s WFMJ to highlight solutions in the opioid crisis

“If it’s half of what we think it could be, then everyone here is going to reach more people with this subject of such critical importance here.”

Editor’s note: This is one 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.

Check in over the next few days 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.

Remember the 2016 election? (Who could forget it.) For many, it felt like a breaking point between journalists and their audiences; neither party in that pairing seemed to be very good at listening at the other. But the fissure between writer and reader had been opening up for some time.

“Journalists embarrassed themselves as they talked about their feelings toward the public — it was one of disdain or disrespect, and the citizens picked up on it and called us on it,” said Doug Oplinger, a journalist of 46 years, who watched an exchange with this theme at a 2015 retreat that included members of both groups.

Out of that realization came Your Voice Ohio — a regional collaboration through the nonprofit civic engagement organization Jefferson Center, and also funded by Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation — meant to bridge that, well, awkward gap. It first attempted to use citizen juries and feedback to encourage Ohio media coverage of the 2016 presidential race centered on the substantive issues. But there was this one guy who kind of shook up lots of media coverage plans; you might’ve heard of him. The 2016 project became a “total failure” in terms of helping Ohioans shape the issues to discuss, Oplinger said, but also a “learning point [where] journalists began to realize there is a new way to deliver information.”

Your Voice Ohio continued on, with focuses on the state’s opioid crisis and, more recently, the economy. Oplinger serves as the collaboration’s project manager, communicating with the 53 media partners — including seven local TV stations — centered in larger cities like Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati but also Marietta (pop. 13,000) and Youngstown (66,000).

Oplinger — who retired as managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal in 2017, having worked there since 1971 — sought more broadcast partners after the 2016 election version only had one TV participant. Your Voice Ohio’s polling had shown 12 percent of Ohioans got their news from newspapers — versus 37 percent from local TV.

The 2017 opioid crisis collaborative was a no-brainer for WFMJ Youngstown’s news director Mona Alexander when asked to join. She had been leading the station’s coverage of the crisis, which kills more Ohioans than car crashes, and was eager to amplify their work. (Donald Trump used Youngstown as anexample of the worst of the crisis.) “If it’s half of what we think it could be, then everyone here is going to reach more people with this subject of such critical importance here,” she said of their thinking when invited. It was WMFJ’s first involvement in a collaboration like this.

A major component of the collaboration was participating in roundtables Oplinger organized with members of the media and individuals who had been impacted by opioid addiction one way or the other to talk about the issues and solutions they see. It wasn’t exactly a made-for-TV moment — “a lot of the material that was being generated vis-à-vis these groups didn’t fit for television,” Alexander said — but she still sent a handful of reporters, anchors, and leadership to the two-hour long meetings to absorb; the assistant news director did a writeup for the website. The other print journalists, who have more leeway for long interviews, behaved — but one particular station, well, didn’t, Oplinger said.

“We had a Sinclair station determined to do an hour-long documentary on how the Republican governor is winning the crisis,” he said. “I told the journalists ahead of time to sit down [with the participants]. They stood at the edges. I said, ‘You’re missing incredible stories. There’s a man who is former Air Force with his wife over there who lost everything because they became addicted.’ Immediately the news director and camera person went over and disrupted our conversation and produced the soundbites they wanted.”

“When we sat down and talked with people, we were so struck by the depth and breadth of the problem in that area and how eager they were to share with us,” Alexander said separately. “That helped us to really focus on what became the thrust of the whole project, which was solutions oriented reporting.”

WFMJ produced stories on needle-exchange programs and the number of residential treatment beds, among other potential (if partial) solutions. It shared content with other partners in the Youngstown collaboration, and Oplinger rewrote some of the radio scripts to post as full stories on WFMJ’s site as supplementary content. WFMJ was the only Youngstown TV station participating, so there were no exclusivity issues.

(“It’s the smaller markets where people are more fun to work with,” Oplinger said. “They’re more innovative and less competitive. That goes for all platforms.”)

The solutions journalism focus was also a top selling point for WFMJ. “We really went the extra mile to find out if there were solutions, and if there weren’t, what might they be and can they realistically be looked at, funded, or legislated,” Alexander said.

Now, the Solutions Journalism Network is embarking on a project (funded by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) to equip more local TV stations with this mindset. SJN’s regional director of newsrooms (and former broadcaster herself) Carolyn Robinson told me about 14 TV stations across the U.S. they are working with — the network’s first “serious, sustained” partnership with local broadcasters. The team has already trained four of the stations and plan to work with them on solutions-focused reporting work through September.

Photo of WFMJ reporter Michelle Nicks participating in the Your Voice Ohio roundtable courtesy of Doug Oplinger.

POSTED     Feb. 22, 2019, 10:21 a.m.
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