With added reporting power and partnerships, Kaiser Health News expands its reach

This week, nonprofit Kaiser Health News (KHN) takes another step toward its goal of becoming, as California bureau chief Julie Marquis put it, “a major source, if not the major source, of health policy news in California.” KHN will begin producing California Healthline, a 16-year-old digest of healthcare news, policy, and opinion supplied free to the state’s policy makers and healthcare professionals by the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF).

The takeover, part of a KHN-CHCF partnership announced in October, offers a chance for Healthline to expand its readership of about 30,000 and for Kaiser to push its brand of health journalism deeper into its home state. (KHN is an editorially independent program of the Menlo Park-based Kaiser Family Foundation.) With a two-year, $1.2 million grant from CHCF, KHN has also hired eight new newsroom staffers—some from California’s leading publications—to join its existing team of five.* Marquis, who came to Kaiser two years ago from the Los Angeles Times, told me KHN aims to expand its reach in California “in collaboration with other journalism organizations.”

Collaboration is indeed the core of what Kaiser Health News is all about, having developed a long list of national partners since it launched in 2009. At that time, Kaiser had its pick of displaced and about-to-be displaced health reporters, and built the news service into a go-to source for health policy news just as healthcare was rising to the top of the national agenda. Its timing couldn’t have been better. National outlets that have run KHN content or partnered to produce stories now include Time.com, The Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times, Money.com, CNN Money, The Atlantic, Newsweek.com, Vox, Politico Pro, and Politico Magazine. Many regional publications, like the Seattle Times, also pick up KHN stories. The reach of KHN’s existing partnerships figured into CHCF’s decision to give Kaiser this sizable grant, according to Sally Mudd, communications director for CHCF. “We think [partnerships] will work to strengthen health journalism.”

To that end, Marquis says one of her tasks is to seek out news partnerships in the state, and she has a list of 200 media outlets, large and small, broadcast and print, that she’s wooing. The mission, Marquis told me, is “to find the best stories and do them with whatever partner suits the story.” Partnerships could take many forms, she said, including offering fully developed stories to news outlets and helping them enhance the pieces with data, graphics, and perspective, or posting co-bylined pieces on the KHN website and offering them to state and national outlets. “We are open to almost everything,” Marquis said, adding that one specific goal is to “deepen our relationship with lots of ethnic papers in California,” noting “they have deep relationships with their readers.” Another goal is to find a way to partner with the LA Times, she told me, since to date “we have not been successful working directly with them.”

KHN has been quite successful, however, drawing Times talent to its own newsroom. Along with Marquis and former LA Times health writer Anna Gorman, two of KHN’s new hires—Chad Terhune and Russ Mitchell—are also from the paper. Terhune, who has done some notable health business reporting over the years, told me it was a tough decision to leave the paper even to join what he called “an all-star team.” But KHN “wanted big, ambitious stories and that’s what I like to do,” he said. “They want investigative projects. That’s my passion. What I wanted to pursue, they wanted more of it.” Bernard Wolfson, the business editor of the Orange County Register, also joined the expanded team as a senior editor. Wolfson, who covered health for the Register, said “it was time to make a change” given the instability in the newspaper business.

I asked Marquis and Wolfson about specific topics they will be covering—pointing particularly to Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange that has too often escaped critical examination from local media. Marquis acknowledged that KHN has “parachuted in and out of that story” and said that the additional staff will make it easier to follow the exchange and other state regulatory agencies. Wolfson says the exchange is now part of the state landscape and something KHN will cover, if not more than other state agencies—although he said he’d like to look into Covered California’s financial viability. Wolfson also hopes to cover the consolidation among health insurers, which he called “dueling consolidators vying for the upper economic hand.” Other issues the team has in its sights: aging and long-term care, building on the work that Anna Gorman has done.

As a regular KHN reader, I’m hopeful that a beefed-up reporting team will deliver fewer generic stories (like, for example, this) and more of the ambitious material that the site has occasionally produced or co-produced—like Jordan Rau’s pieces keeping tabs on Medicare’s hospital readmission penalties, which have helped reporters across the country check up on their local hospitals. Other standouts include Phil Galewitz’s 2011 piece, a collaboration with The Washington Post, that disclosed emergency rooms were actually advertising for patients even as Medicaid sought to reduce unnecessary ER use, and Sarah Varney’s 2014 work (in collaboration with Politico Magazine and with reporting help from Mississippi Public Broadcasting) delving into the Afforable Care Act’s disastrous first year in Mississippi.

If an expanded Kaiser Health News proves successful in California, will KHN look to replicate the effort in other states? David Rousseau, a Kaiser vice president who oversees health policy media programs, told me Kaiser has not sought foundation partnerships in other states yet, noting that it takes time to build a level of comfort with potential partners who, like CHCF, must also value editorially independent journalism. Rousseau did say he was interested in Texas, Florida, and Georgia as potential growth areas. Could we be seeing the outlines of an emerging health news landscape where just a few organizations—like KHN and ProPublica—supply much of the in-depth reporting? What would that mean for local news outlets and for news consumers? For now, it’s good to see resources being put toward ambitious health reporting for Californians.

* This sentence has been revised to clarify that not all of the new newsroom staffers are reporters.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.