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.”
StateImpact also made inroads in data journalism. Marie Cusick, who joined the Pennsylvania team after Detrow was recruited away in February by KQED,
in Sacramento the NPR station in San Francisco, noted how her training urged her to “interview data just like another source, to use it and incorporate it in daily reporting—not just, once in awhile you make a cool map.” Covering Pennsylvania’s drilling industry, Cusick found that a lot of information, particularly on company violations and accidents, “is just sitting online.” This provided useful context when she covered the breaking news of a drilling accident by a company that had a history of violations: “No one at the company was going to tell us that, and people one the ground didn’t know.”
The digital and data journalism skills of the StateImpact reporters are not incidental: the program put a great deal of work into skillbuilding, both in Washington and at their home stations.
The local-national and intra-state collaborative structure of StateImpact, too, had plenty of successes. Stations got more than they would have on their own, Clemetson said, “but NPR got more out of it, too.” Local reporters had the advantage of specialty skills and resources at NPR, she said, while NPR needed local reporters “to really understand the community and issues.”
Cusick said that digital tools facilitated her communication with NPR: “I work with them a couple of times a week, if not daily. We jump on Google Hangout, or they do a screen-share to explain things to me.” Detrow “spent a lot of time on Google Docs.” But, he said, for big data projects, “there were times when I’d just go to Washington for a week—there’s no way can we do it at a distance.”
But tools or not, “collaboration is really, really hard,” Susan Phillips said. “Anyone going to do that needs to recognize that from the very beginning.” The Ohio team tried to negotiate this by rotating editors among its three participating stations in Cleveland, Kent, and Columbus—an editor at each station rotated into of four-month stints editing stories for the project, so that each had the opportunity to have final say on stories. Acknowledging and crediting each other’s work, noted Cleveland-based Lieszkovszky, is also essential.
Among the challenges: while the arrangement was described as a collaboration, it was in some senses really a training program, with one top-down partner—NPR—holding the knowledge, skills, and resources. What the stations offered NPR in return was not always clear, Phillips said. That undercut the sense of a mutual partnership, and somewhat obscured the chain of communication and decision-making power.
“Who at the end of the day was my boss?” Phillips said. “The boss I’m going to respond to is the one who signs my check. The person with physical proximity, I listen to.” Officially, StateImpact reporters are employees of their home station, with salary subsidized by NPR.