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.
Those hurdles notwithstanding, Clemetson sees ways to adapt the StateImpact model to other projects. “Rather than hire an education reporter, and someone else hires an education reporter, you can hire an education reporter together; we can share the content without duplicating resources and get coverage we can’t get covering individually anymore.”
This sort of partnership is particularly suited to public media stations, who needn’t think of themselves as competitors, she said: “It is a public media network, after all, and we’re all stronger when one of us is stronger.”
While Clemetson calls StateImpact a “clear-cut success,” there are some outcomes that she hoped for that didn’t come through well. One of them is in cultivating diversity in the public media hiring process. Clemetson said that she’d look at the pool of people applying for a position and wish there were more applicants who came from the varied communities StateImpact covers.
“Having communities that reporters report about well-represented [in public media] is a really critical part of good journalism,” Clemetson said. “It helps us to reach all of audiences we want to reach,” as well as fully understand the nuances of the stories they cover. Clemetson noted that this is something NPR as a whole is working on, in part by launching CodeSwitch—a six-person team focused on race, ethnicity, and culture in both on-air and online stories—last month.
As NPR winds down its involvement with StateImpact, “what’s left are really good investigative reporters, statehouse reporters, multimedia reporters,” said Phillips, who will leave in August for a Knight fellowship in science journalism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but plans to return to WHYY after her fellowship year. “That’s a great outcome of this.”