MIAMI, FL — Journalistic investigations into prisons and jails are difficult. They’re hard because authorities often won’t cooperate and inmates often don’t have the freedom to. But most of all, as I’ve written before, they’re hard because a certain percentage of readers simply doesn’t care what happens to criminals.

So when three Advance-owned newspapers in Alabama teamed up to investigate the state’s prison system, their efforts culminated in a 12-page special print section, published on Sunday, that opened with an editorial urging readers to care. The reporters had exposed gross mismanagement, cruel overcrowding, women subjected to sexual assault by guards, and staff indifference at the highest levels.

“We bring you a trail of shuffled wardens, unpunished crimes and a state budget hemorrhaging into decrepit cells and overcrowded dorms. We ask you to read these stories and discuss them in your homes and schools and churches. Then, we ask you to join us in calling for reform.”

A bit of over-earnest editorial-speak, arguably. But the investigation, by the Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and the Press-Register of Mobile, in partnership with WBHM, Birmingham’s NPR affiliate, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, put engagement at the forefront throughout—often in creative ways. 

Reporters for all four local outlets have been working for months to get readers and listeners to care—participating in conversations online, asking print and online readers to fill out a form detailing their experiences with the prison system and setting up a text-messaging system so readers could send in their ideas and concerns. Reporters posted stories about their reporting even as they were doing it. Some of the stories were published online at AL.com, where work from all three newspapers appears, weeks before the special section was printed, creating a drumbeat of coverage and sustained attention. Last week WBHM and AL.com hosted a panel discussion on the prison problems that drew 250 people. Meanwhile, WBHM did its own radio stories on the prison system, including this story on the difficulties of life after prison.

“In investigative reporting, traditionally the focus has been wait until you have everything and get the story finished,” said Michelle Holmes, vice president for content for Alabama Media Group, which includes the three papers and AL.com. “We were talking to our audience as we were reporting.”

The emphasis on “talking to the audience” is one of the hallmarks of Advance’s online approach, of course, and CJR has sometimes made light of the way it’s been implemented before. (Advance’s larger digital strategy, paired with steep layoffs at its papers, has also been controversial.) But while some efforts at reader engagement are silly, in this case engagement did help address a real challenge about prison reporting (and about newspaper series, which always run the risk of getting noticed but not read).

It also showed that if you give readers something of substance, you can have a conversation that matters.

In some ways, the substance of the solid reporting was unsurprising—prisons are horrible places in general, and as systems they are vulnerable to corruption, abuse, and neglect. The Alabama series comes on the heels of earlier investigations by the US Department of Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center that found Alabama’s prisons, which account for almost 26 percent of the state budget, are rife with abuses. 

While AL.com reporters found more examples of abuse, they also looked for the reasons behind the problems. Neglect—no one caring—is what got Alabama to where it is today, they found

“Prisons are unpleasant. That’s by design. They are meant to be unpleasant places for unpleasant people. But the Constitution says they are not meant to be cruel. Alabama has struggled with this distinction, repeatedly blurring the line between treatment of man and beast,” reporter Challen Stephens wrote.

The stories have gotten a strong, and sometimes mixed, response from readers.  And AL.com has published that too.

Stephens, a veteran of newspaper investigations and the former city editor of The Huntsville Times, said the digital-first—and sometimes online-only—strategy took some getting used to. 

“Back in the beginning, I drew up an outline—here’s day one, here’s day two, here are the sidebars,” he said. “That got thrown out pretty quickly. Instead, we produced a lot of incremental reporting and did pieces of the story that might not have made it into a big investigation before.”

Initially, readers didn’t seem very engaged in the reporting, he acknowledged. But after about a month and a half, Stephens saw the tone of readers’ comments change.

“We started being associated with this issue,” he said. 

Susannah Nesmith is a Miami-based freelance writer and the faculty adviser to Barry University's student newspaper, The Barry Buccaneer. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.