A big investigation of slaughterhouse safety highlights the promise of media partnerships

Photo by Thomas Bjørkan via Wikimedia Commons

Two years ago this month, Ralph Horner, a 54-year old maintenance employee at a Greeley, Colorado, meatpacking plant, was killed in the middle of the night. The piece of equipment he was working on caught his hair and the sleeve of his shirt, pulling him in. He was suffocated beneath a conveyor belt.

One of the journalists following Horner’s story was Luke Runyon, a reporter for the local public radio station. Every few months he checked in on the case, watching what happened to personal tragedy amid big-ag bureaucracy. When the company that owned the facility where Horner worked was fined only $38,500 for a missing safety guard, Runyon thought it seemed disproportionately low–especially when he learned the company had a history of safety violations and was owned by a parent corporation that reported $650 million in profit that year.

Runyon’s home base is KUNC, an NPR member station in Greeley. But he is a reporter for Harvest Public Media, a collaboration focused on “food, fuel, and field” that is headquartered more than 600 miles away, at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, and has partners across the Midwest. So in January 2015, he came to Harvest’s investigations editor, Peggy Lowe, with a pitch: a long-term project on slaughterhouse safety. 

Last week, after more than a year of research, Harvest released “Dangerous Jobs, Cheap Meat,” the multimedia series that grew out of that idea. It’s an impressive deep dive into a often tight-lipped industry, with each of the stories framed around the voices of the people who are most affected. The package is underpinned by an analysis of federal workplace safety data, conducted with help from Investigative Reporters and Editors, that identified a system with low fines for violations–“embarrassingly low,” as a former federal safety official would tell Runyon. Stories in the series include Runyon’s report on the interplay between federal regulators and the meatpacking industry from Colorado, Lowe’s look at chronic pain and repetitive injuries among workers, and a piece by Grant Gerlock, a reporter for Nebraska’s public broadcasting system, on attempts to improve workplace safety.

In addition, Harvest’s video unit, now in its second year, contributed two videos, while Denver’s Rocky Mountain PBS sent a photographer to accompany Runyon. An online map made by Jim Hill, digital media manager at KUNC, uses FOIA-mined federal safety data to map a year of injuries at the country’s four largest meatpacking companies. The series has been distributed to nearly 20 radio stations; the next goal is to translate the stories to Spanish and get print copies on the ground in meatpacking towns. 

The wide-ranging effort represents something of a milestone for the reporting collaboration, which was founded in 2009. “This has been sort of the first time Harvest has really utilized all of its players,” said Lowe.

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It’s a sentiment that gets at both the logistical challenges and the editorial promise of these sorts of partnerships–something that’s always on the minds of newsroom leaders at KCUR, where Harvest is based.

“We have to do reporting as a collaboration that you cannot do by yourself,” said Donna Vestal, who helped launch Harvest and now serves as its supervising editor, as well as KCUR’s current director of content strategy. “If a station can figure out a particular story and take on the weight of that story by themselves, they have no reason to have a partner.”

But, Vestal believes, there are plenty of stories that do demand that sort of partnership. So it’s no surprise that KCUR has become a hub for not one, but two collaborative newsrooms. 

After witnessing the success of Harvest and the ever-shrinking health desks of local newspapers, KCUR hired Dan Margolies, a former business reporter for the Kansas City Star, to get a health-focused hub off the ground in spring of 2014. The outcome was Heartland Health Monitor, which aims to increase the breadth and depth of reportage on health issues in Missouri and Kansas.

Though Heartland is based on the Harvest model, there are structural distinctions between the two. While Harvest’s central platform is radio stations–it was one of the original Local Journalism Centers launched with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting–Heartland includes members like the Kansas Health Institute News Service. Distribution of Heartland content is not limited to partner news organizations, and Heartland, unlike Harvest, currently receives outside grant funding, much of it from the Healthcare Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

The difference in topics also affects the approach. Since much of the nation’s food reporting comes from the coasts, Vestal said, Harvest has a niche reporting “in the field” of America’s breadbasket, while audiences tend to want health news that is very locally focused, presenting hurdles for wider-angle regional stories. (Heartland’s “Crossing to Health” series, about the disparities between two counties on opposite sides of the state line, is one notable effort to overcome that hurdle.)

But there are challenges, and benefits, in common. Often, the challenges involve meeting the different agendas of different partners. Andy Marso, a KHI News Service reporter who contributes to Heartland, said that “sometimes that means a little extra leg work to add a Missouri angle to the [Kansas] story.” Runyon, the reporter in Greeley, noted that he might have had six or seven minutes of audio for his slaughterhouse piece, but he shaved it down to meet partner demands of four-and-a-half-minutes. 

He said the trade-off is worth it, but it takes some getting used to. “It’s tricky,” Runyon said. “I feel like a good portion of my job is being a diplomat.”

Making those compromises isn’t only an issue for individual journalists: Member news outlets relinquish some control, and some resources, to the common effort. This is particularly the case for Harvest, which relies on partner stations to write the salary of a Harvest-focused reporter into their operating budgets.

“A reporter is a pretty valuable commodity, and giving up control of a reporter can be pretty difficult,” said Vestal. “What is the role of a reporter who is in one newsroom but reports to an editor somewhere else?” 

The payoff, of course, is in projects like Harvest’s slaughterhouse safety series. At Heartland, Marso said he has seen benefits, too. In April, he broke a months-in-the-making story that patched together how Kansas’ Medicaid program had ended up tens of millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, jeopardizing the medical care of thousands of people. The sensitivity of the sourcing demanded that the project be kept fairly in-house, but Jim McLean, the KHI News Service editor, and Margolies discussed the story in advance. And when the story was ready to run, Heartland’s distribution platform helped it reach a wider audience and nab an air segment on KCUR’s Up To Date program. 

“Our needs don’t always coincide 100 percent, and making it work smoothly is a matter of juggling a lot of different imperatives,” said Margolies, the Heartland editor. “But it can be done, and I think we’ve proven that it can be done.”

Meanwhile, having KCUR as the home base for both Harvest and Heartland has helped the networks, and also helped KCUR, journalists there say. Harvest’s editor, Jeremy Bernfeld, has a desk next to Margolies, and their areas of focus overlap when it comes to public health and worker safety. They cross-post each other’s work a few times a year, share advice on their respective expertise, and trade tips on getting the most out of the collaborations. 

“We can work together on, ‘Well, what’s the best strategy to make this relationship work? Have you had success talking to this person? What kind of things did they tell you they are working for so we can best hone what we are giving them?’” said Bernfeld.

For KCUR, Vestal said, hosting the partnerships has created opportunities to reach out to a built-in network for unrelated issues of promotion or underwriting. And it turns out that collaboration begets collaboration: Recently, KCUR launched a short-term group effort to cover the Kansas election, with partners from Harvest and Heartland. Vestal said she isn’t sure yet what it will become, but hopes it will continue to grow. 

“I’m just a believer, that’s all,” said Vestal. 

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Erica Berry is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a reporter with the Food and Environmental Reporting Network. Reach her on Twitter @ericajberry.