StateImpact Ohio, meanwhile, reported last summer on the state’s use of seclusion rooms as a disciplinary tactic in schools for children with disabilities, drawing from record requests in 100 districts and charter schools, dozens of interviews, and visits to “time-out rooms” across the state. The investigation, done in partnership with The Columbus Dispatch, resulted in the state Board of Education revisiting its neglected policy on seclusion rooms and amending it with crucial new limitations. The initial story was picked up by The Associated Press and inspired editorials across Ohio, including in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Dispatch and StateImpact followed the story into this year, with, for example, a report on how 371 Columbus schoolchildren were restrained or secluded 1,871 times in one year.
In addition to delivering good reporting and skillful multimedia storytelling, StateImpact teams have also made an admirable effort to make their reporting transparent and share practical knowledge with listeners and readers. As Clemetson put it, referring to the Ohio seclusion room story: “We were disclosing how we got the information as we went. We built a page on StateImpact, a how-to page for readers: how to file a Freedom of Information Act requests in schools, and so on. It empowers people in the democratic process—not just reporters.” The team also shared digital tools like Document Cloud, where readers could access the actual logs teachers use to track discipline. This is not just “tools for the sake of fancy tools,” Clemetson said. Sharing these reporting resources “pulls readers into deeper conversations.”
So, with this strong track record to date, why is NPR cutting ties with, rather than expanding, StateImpact? Partly, it comes down to a familiar problem: lack of money. “There were clear-cut funding issues,” Clemetson said. “Sustaining these teams that produced great journalism required a funding model at a level that is just not here.”
NPR funded the project from its launch with foundation grants; as of March 13, 2013, it had raised $4.8 million in direct support for the eight StateImpact efforts. Among the major donors were the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The collaborative heart of StateImpact was conceived as extending to fundraising: as its original press release put it, “NPR is working collaboratively with partner stations to seek additional funding for the overall initiative, and local and regional matching funds.”
But that didn’t work out as expected. While “NPR hoped to generate additional grants to fund expanding the project into additional states, ultimately not enough was raised to move forward with expansion,” said NPR media relations associate Caitlin Sanders in an email.
StateImpact also appears to be victim of the upheaval at NPR two years ago. Just as the project was being organized in 2011, those I’m told were its champions—former CEO Vivian Schiller and former vice president for news Ellen Weiss—were compelled to resign within six months of each other after a set-up filmed by activist James O’Keefe and the controversial firing of Juan Williams.
StateImpact was without a dedicated leader at NPR until Clemetson was hired in January 2012, six months after the first partner stations had begun work. (Correction: Cathy Duchamp directed StateImpact at NPR from January through October 2011.)
Despite this unsteady ground, StateImpact did produce strong journalism, while trying out an intriguing media structure. Its experiments with collaboration and reporting on state issues outside the statehouse are worth examination.
As a multimedia journalism project, StateImpact emphasized the importance of choosing the story first, and then the best platform to tell it, be it radio, online, or, via collaboration, in print. Many stories lived in a lot of places at once. In Pennsylvania, for example, Detrow produced the Murrow-winning series, “Perilous Pathways,” focusing on abandoned wells—which grew from breaking news into a two-month project. The story unfolded online through video, photos, infographics, maps, data visualizations, and written stories, including one on the lack of regulation on abandoned wells. The story was also broadcast—two segments were edited with NPR’s science desk and aired nationally.
This method of meeting stories where they are—which, Clemetson says, has been “adopted more broadly at NPR now”—also pushed reporters to deepen coverage by traveling the state to see how policies conceived in the capital were playing out in communities. NPR encouraged its teams to build on their presence in the community by also being participants: moderating panels and engaging in social media. The Ohio team, for example, participates in a Monday evening “ed-chat” on education issues on Twitter, with the topic each week determined by a vote. “I’ve gotten story ideas” from the ed-chat, said Ida Lieszkovszky, who reports for StateImpact from WCPN in Cleveland. “I’ve met sources.”