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April 4, 2019, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

As the new CEO of the Center for Public Integrity, Susan Smith Richardson wants to serve communities far beyond Washington

“So many of the lessons that have come out of local journalism can be interesting in thinking about reinventing journalism on a national level.”

Thirty years after it was founded, the D.C.-based investigative nonprofit Center for Public Integrity operates in a very different news environment from the one in which it began. Statehouse reporting has declined drastically, as have local newspapers themselves.

Susan Smith Richardson is CPI’s new CEO, the organization announced Thursday, and she’s bringing new ideas with her about the kinds of coverage CPI can do and the audiences it can reach. Richardson, a 2003 Nieman Fellow, is a longtime journalist who was most recently the editorial director of Solutions Journalism Network. She’s worked in newsrooms like the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reporter, and Texas Observer, and reported extensively on gentrification and poverty. She is also CPI’s first African-American CEO, and one of relatively few African Americans in leadership roles at news nonprofits. (Matt Thompson was named editor-in-chief of the Center for Investigative Reporting in February.)

I spoke with Richardson about her plans for CPI and her areas of focus for the organization moving forward. Our conversation, edited slightly for length and clarity, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: What brings you to the Center for Public Integrity, and how do you see your mission there?

Susan Smith Richardson: Most of my career has been in local journalism, and I think there’s a lot that local journalism has to offer national journalism. There are some incredible lessons being learned in local journalism now — involving how we work and engage with communities — that are also really valuable for what we can do, and I think must do, on a national reporting level, to have a better chance of really reflecting what is going on in the country. I think my experience in local journalism can help bring fresh eyes to how we look at covering things from a national perspective.

I’m interested in and excited about this opportunity because I think there’s so much going on right now nationally. Look at who is now in Congress, look at some of the tough but important public dialogues that are playing out across the country, look at critical issues like disinformation and how people are being disaffected by institutions. So many of the lessons that have come out of local journalism can be interesting in thinking about reinventing journalism on a national level.

Plus, let’s just get extremely real: What a wonderful opportunity, to be able to be at the helm of a legacy organization that’s been out there doing its journalism with a strong public interest for 30 years.

Owen: What would you like to change, and what would you like to keep the same?

Richardson: What’s important, to start with, is building on the legacy. The coverage of money in politics is, of course, exceedingly important. The effort to provide some of that information and data to state and local reporters across the country is important. The role as a watchdog of the institutions in D.C. is important. I view this as a reinvigoration — not tearing it down and starting all over again, but building on our assets with a whole new sensibility.

We can start with coverage of what’s happening nationally. We live at a time when, as you know, there’s a tremendous gutting of statehouse coverage. And what happens in the states really defines the national conversation. While CPI has certainly had relationships with statehouse reporters and news organizations across the country — we provide them with data that they can use on a state and local level, and we’ve done partnerships — I want to ramp that up. I want to be a lot more intentional and consistent about how we do those partnerships, and consistent.

From our perch in Washington, we have the advantage of being an expert assist for dwindling statehouse coverage. Instead of doing occasional series, we need to develop ongoing partnerships on a state level with news organizations to help them go deeper on a lot of this coverage. We need to step that up and be very consistent and intentional. It’s not just, ‘OK, we’ll help you cover this’ — what we should be covering, and how, is also a big part of the conversation. We have to be really, really intentional about how we connect and reach people.

And we need to have a really strong grasp of the issues that are playing out for the increasing majority of our country. A lot of statehouse coverage focuses on who’s in the room [when legislation is being made]. But who’s in those institutions, and who’s actually affected by the laws, is radically different. In covering statehouses, we also need to look at how we cover the population of those states.

You can see a lot of trends and patterns emerging in different states, but there needs to be a way to create data and databases on a national level, to connect some interesting trends. CPI and other organizations have done some of that. But we need to be more intentional about finding connections from state to state, and about creating useful tools across the states.

There are other pieces of this that are not just about money and politics, or the coverage of government. CPI has a lot of skills. There are people who have worked for years covering environmental issues, immigration, worker discrimination and workers’ rights. I think we need to work carefully in defining a lane for the organization; we need to look at where we’ve developed a tremendous amount of expertise, and think about other services we could offer. An email newsletter that provides context around immigration? A tool we develop around our deep knowledge of workers’ rights? We need to think about different ways to communicate our expertise, define those areas that we have historically owned as a news organization, and think about new ways to communicate that and tell stories. That means getting out of just thinking about text first.

The second piece of defining our lane means thinking about how to tell stories differently — really thinking from the standpoint of the person on the ground, as opposed to the person on the beltway. What matters? What resonates with people, and what connects with people’s day-to-day lives?

That doesn’t mean that the things one does need to cover in Washington are wrong. There are various readers and communities for the work CPI does — elected officials, policymakers — but in the end, the important thing for us to do is increasingly turn our lens toward communities, so we are serving those readerships that are a distance from Washington.

Owen: Can you tell me a little more about these changing audiences?

Richardson: The other piece I want to talk about is — I hate to say the change in demographics, because it feels so clinical, but, as Pew noted recently, more than 1 in 5 members of Congress is from a racial or ethnic minority. I would really like us to tackle an area of coverage that intersects with race, gender, politics, and power.

That will have many, many fronts to it. One aspect would be how money intersects with those issues, but also, too, how it affects representation, both in ways that are challenging and in ways that may help to increase representation. The other part of focusing on the intersection of gender, race, power, and politics is having the opportunity to spread out across the country and look at these places where you are seeing some interesting change in terms of organization rising up. There is a lot of organizing happening in states on a grassroots level, and we need to be aware of that. There is an incredible amount of organizing happening that is, I think, out of sight of what many of us in the business of journalism are aware of. There are a lot of things going on, in many places of the country, that perhaps are harbingers of things to come. We need to find a way to capture those stories.

It’s a wonderful thing, in many ways, to be in this space at this time. As a country we’re having an incredibly, sometimes painful but meaningful conversation about information, about what it means to participate in your community. It’s uneven, and tough, and really messy, and I think it pushes us as journalists to be more sophisticated and thoughtful.

But we really have to think about how we reach people. An organization like CPI has many [reader] communities. We have a community in Washington, but I’d argue we also have communities in California, or rural Alabama, or Idaho. We need to think a lot more how we can take our stories on the road.

We have to be out there more, in communities and in virtual spaces, in a way that CPI has not [been] in the past. We also need to deepen the partnerships we have with other news organizations.

Owen: Are you thinking about expanding the kinds of organizations CPI partners with?

Richardson: I want to spend a significant amount of time thinking about how best and most effectively to partner with media that is owned and produced by communities of color, and think about what we could learn from working with those organizations and what kinds of unique partnerships we can create there. As we’re talking about our statehouse coverage and working with news organizations that really need support to cover state government, we also need to be looking at news organizations that have a different lens on state government. Given where we are as a country, and given the importance of media by people of color in serving the information needs of their communities, we need to form partnerships there.

POSTED     April 4, 2019, 10 a.m.
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