When ‘reader engagement’ is more than a buzzword

A collaborative investigation seeks to make readers care about rampant problems in Alabama's prisons

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. 

And readers did keep coming back for more. Overall, as of Monday, 17 staffers had posted 181 different pieces, plus 21 videos. Total page views: 595,963, according to Scott Walker, AL.com’s director of enterprise and investigation. Only a fraction of the stories that ran online appeared in the greatly reduced print newspapers—they don’t publish daily print editions anymore. And some online pieces were designed specifically with an engaged audience in mind, like this one asking readers what the reporters should be looking for.

The collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting helped expand the project’s reach, staffers in Alabama told me. Unlike some projects the center participates in, CIR didn’t contribute reporters to the prisons investigation. Instead, CIR staffers helped the Alabama newspapers set up the partnership with WBHM and worked with the reporting team to develop strategies to engage readers and reach new readers.

“They were very much out of the box, how are we going to change the mold,” Stephens said. “Their whole interest was, how do I get my reporting in front of a wider audience.”

“When you do this kind of collaboration, part of what you’re looking for is folks who, when given the opportunity to work together, seize that,” Joaquin Alvarado of the Center for Investigative Reporting explained. “We’re trying to build a solid network.”

To that end, the newspapers and CIR set up the Alabama Investigative Journalism Lab, with plans for more big-picture investigations in the future. (The center is collaborating with other local papers around the country, too.)

These sorts of collaborations are more necessary now, in an era of smaller newsrooms. But they can also offer opportunities to produce and distribute good journalism that weren’t taken before. Stephens told me that before all the changes, and cuts, at the Alabama newspapers, the three newsrooms operated independently and even competed in areas like statehouse coverage. And none of the papers had set up a partnership with an outside organization like WBHM. 

So did the multifaceted engagement effort work? Did the “call to action” resonate? Stephens acknowledged that he’s “not sure,” and it’s too soon to say if that wider audience will demand the kinds of reforms needed to clean up the prison system in Alabama. 

But, he said, “I don’t feel what we did feel on deaf ears.” And the problems do seem to be getting some attention, with a lawmaker calling for changes at the top and a task force convened to suggest much-needed reforms.

Just persuading readers to care about prison problems would be a significant accomplishment.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: , , , , , , ,