Two years ago, with statehouse bureaus taking huge cuts in a contracting media landscape, National Public Radio designed the StateImpact project to fill the reporting void while experimenting with a new model of local-national public media collaboration.

It works like this: NPR member stations joined forces to report on a significant policy issue in their state. Florida, Indiana, and Ohio cover education; Pennsylvania and Texas took on energy and the environment; and Idaho, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma each report on the economy. There are at least two full-time StateImpact reporters in each state; 17 overall. A seven-member NPR team in Washington, DC supports them with training and resources as they produce top-notch radio broadcasts and online reporting. Stories are aired throughout the states, and some are featured on national NPR broadcasts.

NPR intended to expand StateImpact to additional states—a July 2011 press release announced plans to “invite applications from additional stations and states” that fall—eventually setting up shop in all 50.

But that second round of applications never opened up, and the expansion plan has been scuttled. NPR will cease its relationship with StateImpact after the eight pilot projects each reach the end of their contracts between June and October of this year. NPR will not invest in StateImpact in additional states, and it will have no formal role in providing training or resources to support the reporting of the stations already on the ground.

For the stations involved in the eight pilots, NPR’s change of plans isn’t a total upheaval: from the beginning, the plan was for StateImpact to be funded at a 70/30 split between NPR and the member stations the first year, and a 30/70 split the second year. Beyond that, they would operate on their own. In the original concept, though, the Washington team would continue to work regularly with the state teams, providing basic launch training to the expansion states while coaching the original eight StateImpact teams on planning and executing more complex, long-term projects.

The Pennsylvania stations and some in other states—it’s not yet clear how many—have secured ongoing funding and will continue to work independently under the StateImpact banner. The Ohio team has proclaimed its commitment to continue investigating education policy, but without the organized collaboration between stations. It’s unclear whether their future efforts will appear under the StateImpact name. (I’ll focus here on the efforts in Pennsylvania and Ohio, states in the Great Lakes region I’m covering for CJR.)

NPR’s decision not to continue with StateImpact comes despite the acclaimed reporting the project has produced—reporting that moved the needle in how energy, education, and economics are understood both locally and nationally. In a short time, its teams have won a shelf of awards, including seven Edward R. Murrow honors this year, and five more the year before. StateImpact Pennsylvania also won a duPont award for reporting on the impact of fracking on local residents. (CJR praised the Pennsylvania team for its coverage of the intersection of industry and politics last November.)

More significantly, reporters on the project have become authorities in their states, influencing policy and public opinion. “It’s interesting to watch not just other media but politicians reaching out and referencing StateImpact,” said Lynette Clemetson, NPR’s StateImpact director.

In Pennsylvania, “it’s pretty clear [lawmakers] scrutinize our stories,” said Susan Phillips, the StateImpact reporter at WHYY in Philadelphia. “The energy secretary for Pennsylvania, who refuses to speak to us, loves to comment about us.” Her StateImpact partner, Scott Detrow, who reported from WITF in Harrisburg, noticed that the trade group for county commissioners had a link on their webpage about the energy industry that urged readers to visit StateImpact to learn more. “We were proud of that,” he said.

StateImpact Pennsylvania is also reaching listeners who aren’t accustomed to in-depth coverage of their communities. “What we had—what we have—that is unique is access to airwaves across the state, through all the different public radio stations in state,” Phillips said. “Erie, Lehigh Valley—they don’t have newsrooms. They don’t have reporters. … I know we’re closely watched by people in small towns. There are not enough journalists to cover everything.”

Things, for example, like Act 13, which overhauled Pennsylvania’s drilling law in 2012. Phillips and Detrow combed through the measure and noticed a provision that required doctors to sign a confidentiality agreement if they are treating a patient harmed by chemicals used in fracking, resulting in a gag order on information about the chemical’s identity and concentration level. “This wasn’t reported or well known even by healthcare providers,” Phillips said. “I did a story, and suddenly, people I was interviewing started referring me to what I reported—‘did you know about these doctor disclosure forms?’—not realizing we were the source.”

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.”

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.”

Clemetson, for her part, is delighted with the work done by the StateImpact reporters—who she calls “the next generation of public media journalists” —and happy to see them taking the lessons of the program deeper into their newsrooms, or to new roles elsewhere in journalism. “I’m so proud of our model,” Clemetson said. “On this small scale, we changed the way reporting is done.”

Correction: This post originally stated that Lynette Clemetson became NPR’s first StateImpact director in January 2012. In fact, Cathy Duchamp directed the project from January through October 2011.

The post also stated that Scott Detrow was hired away from WITF in Harrisburg by KQED in Sacramento. While Detrow is KQED’s Sacramento reporter, the station is based in San Francisco.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

 

Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The Guardian, Grantland, and Salon; blogs at Isak; and can be found on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.