How the Connecticut Health I-Team became ‘a leader of niche news’

Photo: AP

In the midst of the Great Recession, Lynne DeLucia and Lisa Chedekel did the same thing many other journalists were doing: They launched a nonprofit news organization. It was impossible to know whether the venture would succeed, but they saw a need, and an opportunity.

Five years later, DeLucia and Chedekel’s project, the Connecticut Health I-Team, is still around—and it has been growing. 2016 will be a critical year for C-HIT, DeLucia said in a recent interview. But as the publication looks to lay a foundation for long-term sustainability, it has a nascent events business, a creative student training program, and the respect of media observers in the state.

DeLucia and Chedekel were in the newsroom of Connecticut’s largest newspaper, the Hartford Courant, when it won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. The Tribune Company, the Courant’s owner, ordered steep staffing cuts over the course of the following decade. The state’s other major daily newspapers, the& New Haven Register and the Connecticut Post, followed suit. At the end of the 2000s, the recession had hit, and President Obama’s signature health care law had been enacted. Just as the supply of quality healthcare reporting was in decline, demand for it was on the rise.

“We saw first-hand that newspapers were pulling back,” DeLucia said. “There used to be health care desks, but now it’s a part-time beat or overstretched full-time reporters.”

The Connecticut Health I-Team, or C-HIT, got off the ground in December 2010 with $25,000 in seed money from the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut and a $100,000 grant from the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation, based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. More grants followed. The publication’s most recent tax filings, from 2014, show total annual revenue of just over $350,000.

“We felt it was our duty to grant them seed money with the belief that it would attract more support for their venture,” said Frances Padilla, president of Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut. “C-HIT has since thrived and is a true independent source for healthcare news in the state.”

The site’s healthcare coverage spans a wide range of topics, from drunk driving and bed bugs to hospital safety, veterans health, and the factors behind rising medical spending. A collection of searchable databases makes it easy to look up information on nursing homes, hospital infection rates, and even school cafeteria inspections.

Susan Campbell, a long-time columnist for the Courant who now teaches journalism at the University of New Haven, agrees that the site has had impact.

“It fills a pretty significant role in Connecticut,” Campbell said. “The writers do this with rigorous investigative pieces that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s a leader of niche news.”

Overhead is threadbare. The C-HIT website runs on a WordPress theme developed by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a membership organization, which also provides technical support. DeLucia, the editor, is the only full-timer; Chedekel, the senior writer, is a part-time staffer.* The rest of C-HIT’s reporting is rounded out by dozen or so freelancers. About 90 percent of the annual budget, DeLucia said, goes to reporting.

C-HIT’s website is easy for readers to navigate, but is also functions as a clearinghouse to present articles to media partners around Connecticut. Editors elsewhere may buy the rights to republish stories; these sales account for more than $25,000 in annual revenue, DeLucia said.

“We are conscious of foundation money not being a lasting resource,” DeLucia said. “Our business plan is to continue seeking foundation funding but also to diversify.”

The experience of similar publications shows how urgent that task is. Health News Colorado, which launched in 2010, closed last fall after its major foundation benefactors shifted their funding priorities.

As it seeks to broaden its funding base, C-HIT is looking to industry trends—among them, the success some publications have had with organizing events and conferences, which can attract paying sponsors.

In 2015, C-HIT hosted two healthcare events, one on breast cancer and another on teen depression; sponsors included health insurers, the state hospital association, and doctor’s groups, among others. DeLucia said she is aiming to produce three similar events this year.

C-HIT also organizes two summer journalism camps for high school students, with their own list of sponsors. The students’ work, on subjects like gaps in concussion reporting in youth football, runs on the site.

C-HIT hopes that initiatives like the sponsored events can not just bolster the bottom line, but help to create community around health care and journalism.

“I’ve also heard from people in the community about the value of networking and information sharing at their open-to-the-public community forums on breast cancer and teen issues,” said Naedine Hazell, special projects editor at the Courant. “Lynne and Lisa’s team and their reports add to the overall understanding of so many issues in Connecticut.”

* Correction: The original version of this sentence incorrectly stated that both DeLucia and Chedekel are full-time C-HIT staff members.

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John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.