Collaboration and invention were key concepts for the mid-afternoon sessions at the 2014 Media Impact Forum, which honed in on how cross-platform public media initiatives are filling holes in local news and healthcare coverage and influencing audiences and policymakers.

View highlights from this discussion below, or go to our YouTube page for the full session.

Media Impact Funders Executive Director Vince Stehle moderated the discussion on innovation in local journalism, which featured Laura Walker, the president and CEO of New York Public Radio; Laura Frank, the executive director of I-News and vice president for news at Rocky Mountain PBS, and Clark Bell, the director of the McCormick Foundation’s Journalism Program.

Walker heads up a clutch of award-winning public stations—WNYC-FM, WNYC-AM, WQXR, WQXW, and New Jersey Public Radio—which, along with related digital properties and programs, reach an average 14.2 million people each month. She spoke about the importance of partnerships in building better local coverage across the region, especially in New Jersey, where major outlets have collapsed.

With support from such funders as the Charles H. Revson Foundation, The Gates Foundation, The Wyncote Foundation, and the Jerome L. Greene Foundation, New York Public Radio has beefed up beat, narrative and enterprise reporting, Walker said, and worked to integrate radio coverage with data and interactive journalism. To do so “we hired talent,” she explained, and also worked with partners such as online news site NJSpotlight, Philadelphia public station WHYY and independent producer network AIR on joint reporting projects and events.

“We do measure our impact,” Walker noted, citing a report commissioned by the Revson Foundation that offers lessons learned from WYNC collaborations. Along the way, they’ve “developed principles of partnership for sharing coverage and content, “ and begun to approach reporting so that it is about “creating a conversation” — both over the course of the day, and over time with listeners. She gave the example of WNYC’s long-range investigation into the NYPD’s lopsided stop-and-frisk policy. Combining news, analysis, and data mapping, the station’s coverage fed into a vigorous public debate about the policy, which was declared unconstitutional in August 2013. (See WYNC’s coverage timeline.) The station’s reporting on Hurricane Sandy also allowed them to take an ongoing look at cracks in the region’s emergency response systems, said Walker.

Finding ways for audience members to connect more personally with content is an important pillar of WYNC’s strategy. The station’s latest interactive reporting project focuses on sleep — more than 5000 listeners joined WYNC’s Clock Your Sleep data experiment, which allowed them to track their nighttime habits online, via a related app, or using fitness tracking devices. Companion coverage offered insights on the science of insomnia, how slumber differs among various demographics, and shared insights from volunteer teams who tested out various methods for getting more rest.

Walker said she’s also “really excited” about station’s inventive Discover iPhone app, which allows commuters to identify topics they care about, and then queue up a story of a length that matches their travel time. The app, which emerged from WNYC’s work with Stanford’s in a training exercise, has increased digital listening by 45 percent. (Curious to learn more about design thinking? See this event we hosted last year on the topic.)

Frank presented on I-NEWS, a groundbreaking collaboration between Rocky Mountain PBS and the digital-first nonprofit investigative news site that Frank founded after the local paper, Rocky Mountain News, folded. The two projects merged after the local PBS station saw the strong public response to the site’s hard-hitting investigations. Frank spoke about how “important stories can inspire change,” prompting community members, lawmakers, and individuals to respond.

An array of funders, including The Knight Foundation, the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation, and regional and family foundations have supported I-NEWS in conducting investigations such as Losing Ground, which examined the relationship between race, poverty, and education in Colorado. Another series uncovered an epidemic of hit-and-run accidents in the state, which led to a law tightening arrests. Frank is on the board of the Investigative News Network (INN), and noted that I-NEWS is not alone: many INN members are looking for ways to work or merge with public media outlets in order to bring this type of coverage to local stations.

“In the end,” said Bell, “it’s about citizens engaging and becoming a part of an active democracy.” He spoke about McCormick Foundation’s investments in news and civic information projects in Chicago, noting a report that that they commissioned on audience engagement by Jan Schaffer and Erin Polgreen for J-Lab that helped to shape their strategy. The foundation has been working with Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism on the Social Justice News Nexus initiative, a reporting collective which brings together students, faculty and community reporters to produce and cross-post coverage on critical issues such as drug policy. The collaboration is designed to amplify the resources of vital but small outlets scattered throughout the city.

Bell noted a few key principles for funding news experiments. “Start by asking not only if there’s a need,” he said, “but a demand.” Leadership is important, as is understanding the roles of various key players within the project. Periodic reports, mid-stream corrections, and a graceful exit strategy should all be “in the mix,” he said. And sustainability is often the end of the discussion — but perhaps it should be the beginning. News funders are looking for impact, measurement, professionalism, engagement and learning. They aim to not just fund successful individual projects, but to share models and lessons across the field of their grantees.

In the Q&A, Stehle asked the panelists how they balance funders’ interests with editorial integrity. New York Public Radio has two principles, Walker said: “editorial integrity lies with us,” and “there’s a lot to learn from our partners, including funders. Truly, it is the dialogue with many of the funders in the room that has made us better.”  Frank said that the I-NEWS editorial team decides on the issues they will cover first rather than being driven by the interests of those outside the newsroom. “Integrity is the bedrock of all these projects,” said Bell, noting that providing general operating funds is one way to avoid conflicts of interest.

Filling the Gaps in Healthcare Coverage

Elizabeth Christopherson, the president and CEO of the Rita Allen Foundation, moderated the next discussion, which focused on how national nonprofit news sites are collaborating with a wide range of public and for-profit outlets to take a deeper look at healthcare issues. Panelists included Kaiser Family Foundation’s Vice President and Executive Director of Health Policy Media and Technology David Rousseau, Kaiser Health News Executive Editor Peggy Girshman, NPR’s Deputy Senior Supervising Editor Joe Neel, and Center for Public Integrity Executive Director Bill Buzenberg.

Rousseau, Girshman and Neel have worked together to forge a bustling reporting partnership between Kaiser Health News (KHN) and local NPR stations. An editorially independent digital news site supported via operating funds from the Kaiser Family Foundation, KHN covers such topics as healthcare reform, Medicare/Medicaid, rising medical costs and related federal and state policies. Launched in June 2009, the site operates both as a standalone news portal and as a vehicle for distributing stories via major news organizations, including The Washington Post, ABC, NBC, Fast Company, USA Today, Politico, PBS NewsHour, national wire services, and a host of local newspapers. Rousseau serves as the site’s publisher, as well as what he calls the “human firewall” between the foundation and the editorial team. Click the image below to see Rousseau’s presentation.

Syndication Octopus

NPR and KHN formed their partnership to deepen local heath news coverage across 20-plus stations. “Station news rooms aren’t exactly chock full of reporters,” noted Girshman, and this collaboration has beefed up the ratio of original stories significantly. KHN brought the local reporters in for a “bootcamp” to prep them with related knowledge and skills.

The team has found that many more of the local stories than they expected had gone national. The partnership really lit up with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and the stations are now averaging 2.5 stories/week on healthcare issues. Neel observed that stations are now getting more tips and candid interviews from sources because of the investment in beat coverage, which generates visibility and trust. “Growing the system like this has been a really important goal,” Neel said—the KHN collaboration has not only increased station capacity, but the reporting is creating real impact by holding insurance companies accountable and driving policy.

Gershman and Neel also discussed how collaboration among journalistic outlets has become more commonplace, replacing the previous ethos of competition. In part, Gershman said, this reflects the widespread lack of resources for reporting. Neel noted that while NPR journalists are leery of input from foundations, the editorial firewall is very strong, and they strive to find funders such as the Kaiser Family Foundation that they’re already aligned with and that can provide deep issue expertise. Rousseau said that the foundation is interested in working with other funders seeking to support local health journalism.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) pursues a similar distribution strategy, producing high-impact, in-depth investigations and then amplifying them online and via powerful partnerships. Buzenberg (presentation above) spoke about CPI’s first Pulitzer-winning project, Breathless and Burdened. CPI partnered with ABC to extend the reach of this story.

Reporter Chris Hamby spent a year examining how doctors and lawyers on the payroll of the coal industry systematically withheld evidence of black lung syndrome, resulting in denial of miners’ disability benefit claims. A single expert, Dr. Paul Wheeler, has skewed the process of reading X-rays to detect the disease. CPI identified more than 1,500 cases in which Wheeler read at least one X-ray in a way that benefited coal companies. Consulting fees from coal companies in black lung cases went directly to the Johns Hopkins radiology unit that Wheeler leads. The investigation hit its target. In April federal regulators announced sweeping reforms to protect miners’ health, and in the wake of the investigation, Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung program pending a review.

CPI has also filed FOIA requests to seek records on the Medicare Advantage health insurance plans as part of a long-running series of data-driven pieces examining questionable Medicare practices. The earlier 21-month Cracking the Codes investigation, conducted in collaboration with the Wall Street Journal,  revealed how some doctors and hospitals have made millions by “upcoding” their services — billing for more extensive treatment than they had provided. Lax government oversight and the rise of electronic medical records systems have abetted this practice, which CPI estimated has cost taxpayers upwards of $11 billion in inflated charges.

On the day of the Media Impact Forum, Buzenberg said, CPI published a related series in conjunction with NBC — The Medicare Advantage Money Grab — showing how privately-run Medicare Advantage insurance plans are driving up healthcare costs across the U.S. by scoring patients as more sick than they actually are. Led by CPI senior reporter Fred Schulte, the series found that billions of tax dollars are wasted every year through this overbilling practice — and that the lack of oversight bodes ill for the Affordable Care Act, which relies on a similar scoring system. A sophisticated data visualization traces the sharp increase in risk scores for selected health plans in various counties. Learn more about CPI’s data analysis methods here.

Buzenberg notes that while these investigations are widely distributed across TV, radio, print and other online outlets — and increasingly via non-traditional news outlets, including The Huffington Post, Quartz and Vice — making them sustainable is difficult. Much of the funding is project-based, and funders often want to see matching grants. CPI has begun to raise money from individual givers too, but general operating support has declined, which makes it challenging to operate the nonprofit.

Throughout the day, the topic of collaboration among funders to support more journalism and media projects cropped up repeatedly. Want to learn more about how funders are investing in high-impact productions and related communications policies? See the Foundation Center database of Media Grants in the U.S. hosted on our site, and a just-launched parallel resource, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy.

The final panel of the 2014 Media Impact Forum featured three very different documentary photography projects, each innovative in its own way. Each speaker addressed core principles: how the perspective of the person behind the camera can change the way viewers relate to the subject, and how this can help to chip away at traditional negative stereotypes.

Speakers included filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris, writer and editor Austin Merrill, Open Society Foundations Documentary Photography Project director Amy Yenkin and emcee Matt Thompson, NPR’s Director of Verticals (and Mischief).

Thomas Allen Harris — a documentarian and activist — opened the discussion with a glimpse of his new film, Through a Lens Darkly. Based on Deborah Willis’ book Reflections in Black, it focuses on the history of African-American photography, from early vintage daguerreotypes through to the present. Harris narrates the film, which intersperses interviews with legendary African-American photographers with thousands of images from those photographers and their contemporaries that challenge stereotypical depictions. (Learn more here about the film, which will be released in theaters in August with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.) He says that he was inspired to work on this project by his photographer parents, who exposed him to “very different images at home than he saw in the media” of the black experience in America.

Harris also described the companion Digital Diaspora Family Reunion project, which encourages individuals to explore and share their family histories with others through the medium of photo albums. View the video above to see some of this work. The project involves a website where users can upload their own family portraits as well as write and read each other’s narratives. There is also a live traveling roadshow that encourages participants to share these albums, which Harris considers a notable complement to the project’s online content. “It’s important to visually talk about our shared humanity,” he says, “Digital space can isolate — live interaction brings people together.”

Austin Merrill presented his Everyday Africa project, which centered on an Instagram account of the same name where a collective of photographers post pictures of day-to-day life in Africa. Merrill explained that the major goal of the project was to combat the idea that the continent is exclusively home to war, famine, and other stereotypical images of suffering. The project has spread virally across the globe, with users in other countries independently starting their own “Everyday____” Instagram accounts to present a visual overview of their own daily lives, raw and free from the projections of the outside world. For example, see Everyday Jamaica and Everyday Middle East. Merrill has also been working locally with students on an “Everyday Bronx” project.

Amy Yenkin, director for the Open Society Foundations (OSF) Documentary Photography Project, shared how her organization is supporting photographers that shine light on justice and human rights issues around the world. She took the audience deep into the work of photographer John Willis (whose website is pictured above). His work focused on life at the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux people. Yenkin noted that it takes a long time for good photographers to build a relationship with subjects and their communities. A major point of Willis’ Views from the Reservation project was to counteract damaging stereotypes of Native Americans which had been reinforced in previous images of their lifestyles captured by by outsiders who may not have fully understood or appreciated them. To this point, Yenkin said, “Photography should give people agency.”

Yenkin also spoke about the power of participatory photography projects to engage users viscerally in social justice campaigns. OSF funded the Photo Requests from Solitary project, which invited prisoners in supermax prisons to request images that they’d like to see. The project was conducted in collaboration with Tamms Year Ten, a successful long-range campaign to close the Tamms Supermax prison. There, every prisoner was confined to his cell indefinitely with no access to recreation, communal activities, calls or visits — resulting in depression and suicide attempts. The image requests, which ranged from the literal (a gray and white horse rearing) to the symbolic (“my picture with blue sky,” as captured by photographer Laurie Jo Reynolds and Chris X above) brought the prisoners’ yearning for connection home to viewers.

This session continued the discussion from our previous Media Impact Focus: AIM and Shoot event, which was held on March 5th, 2014 at the Annenberg Space for Photography. For more on how OSF is tracking the rapidly shifting field of documentary photography, see these deep reads that Yenkin helped to compile for that event, and mark your calendar for the upcoming  Photo-Ex Symposium in October, which will showcase insights from the Photography, Expanded initiative supported by OSF and the Magnum and Aperture Foundations.