United States Project

How a new reporting collaborative is building a newsroom that crosses state lines

March 16, 2016
Photo: AP

When Jeff Young began his job as managing editor of the nascent Ohio River Network earlier this month, one of the first things he did was set off on a road trip. Visiting his three-state newsroom, said the public media veteran, was an essential step in building trust in the new regional journalism collaboration.

Spanning Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, the Ohio River Network consists of seven public media partner stations—led by Louisville Public Media—tasked with producing “hard-hitting, high-quality multimedia journalism that examines the region’s economy, energy, environment, agriculture, infrastructure, and health.” The network, which also has partnerships with NewsHour and Morning Edition, among others, for stories with a broader reach, was founded with a $445,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It is one of eight new “regional journalism collaboratives” that CPB is funding.

All told, CPB says the $4.4 million venture will eventually create 57 newsroom positions, including 11 editors, in places ranging from Little Rock, Arkansas to Buffalo, New York. It’s the latest experiment in a continued push for reporting collaborations at both CPB and National Public Radio–a period of trial and error that has seen some promising results and also some course corrections.

When public radio got started in the 1970s, said Louisville Public Media president and general manager Donovan Reynolds, “everybody thought they had their own independent fiefdom,” but now stations that once saw each other as competitors have become collaborators. The most pressing news doesn’t stop at state lines, Reynolds said, not least the problems stemming from the Ohio River, which is the most polluted waterway in the country. And he’s been alarmed to see the consequences of major newspapers retrenching to the urban core, leaving behind smaller community papers that, he said, haven’t always had “the staff or resources, or sometimes even the guts to take on controversial issues.”

In an attempt to fill the void, Louisville Public Media created the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013, a nonprofit newsroom that it is incubating alongside the three public radio stations that operate under LPM’s umbrella. It also expanded its capital coverage, in part by developing a newscast that it distributes around the state, laying the groundwork for the more far-reaching collaboration of the Ohio River Network.

“Oddly,” Reynolds said, noting Louisville Public Media’s intersecting partnerships, “Kentucky, I think, is on the avant-garde here for how public radio stations can work together in a collaborative.”

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This is where the best practices of previous collaboratives and ventures into local journalism come into play (as does more than one acronym). Bruce Theriault, CPB senior vice president of journalism and radio, said that the regional journalism collaborative (RJC) model builds upon Project Argo, which supported beat-oriented bloggers at member stations, and local journalism centers (LJC), which helped partner stations build authority on subjects of national importance. While LJCs had a single-topic focus, the new RJCs turn the spotlight on multiple interconnected subjects.

Over the past eight years, Theriault said, CPB has supported 127 reporting positions (including 22 editors) in newsrooms in 37 states. The number-one lesson learned: get the right person in the managing editor role. They need not only a strong journalism background but, equally, “strong people skills,” Theriault said.

It’s a unique challenge, after all, to supervise a team spread out across hundreds of miles, and, in the Ohio River Network’s case, across multiple time zones. Reynolds noted that the editor also has a mentorship role, because “we’ll probably be hiring a lot of younger journalists and people who are just coming into the field.”

Enter Jeff Young. Young is a veteran of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, one of the Ohio River Network partners, and he grew up in that state, giving him a more than passing familiarity with the issues the collaborative will cover.

“This is a place that’s been kind of beaten down over the years, and I think there’s a kind of fatalism,” he said. “A lot of people in this region believe that in order to have economic growth, we have to accept environmental degradation and bad impacts on our health. We want to have good journalism around these issues that present some options for going in a direction that’s better and healthier.”

Young is working with the leadership at the local stations to hire seven newly created positions, including a digital media reporter based in Louisville which, Young said, “gives me as an editor different tools in the toolbox to tell these stories.” New reporters will be embedded at each of the partner stations, rather than re-assigning current ones, resulting in a net expansion of news coverage.

The collaborative stretches across both cities and rural areas, reaching listeners that tune in from Athens, Ohio, to Whitesburg, Kentucky, home of WMMT/Appalshop, the legendary documentary outfit that is perhaps the most distinctive station in the network. But Reynolds emphasizes that the collaboration shouldn’t be understood as a homogenization of content that serves diverse audiences.

Young added that it’s important to be “sensitive to how stations definitely have their own voices and character,” and he means that literally: there’s a “wonderful blend of styles across the region … the distinct Appalachian characteristics, and the Midwestern quaver in parts of it. I think those things will come through in the work we do.”

Then there’s the issue of sustainability: how to support the project after the initial funding wanes. The RJCs have two-year grants, and, “for those on the right track,” Theriault said, a third year is possible.

Reynolds said that Louisville Public Media has made inroads by creating a collaborative model for development in Kentucky public media, including the hiring of a statewide underwriting coordinator for development and major giving. That creates a scaffolding to build its business plan, while at the same time, he says, “I’m hopeful as the journalism improves, the development activities improve and guarantee the success of the project as local stations improve revenue.”

As to how the Ohio River Network will measure success, Reynolds, Young, and Theriault each said that the primary metric is its impact on the community: whether the team’s reporting influences policy decisions, and whether it engages more citizens in the education and health of their communities.

And, for Young at least, there’s also an added purpose: to interrupt the tendency in many national media narratives to use Appalachian stereotypes as props.

“As a native of the region, I’ve often felt the stories of this area are not really fully and accurately told to the rest of the country,” Young said. “And that is also part of the goal here, in addition to helping the communities we serve better understand what’s happening to them by providing an honest narrative account.”

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.