Media Impact Forum: Community News Reimagined
Collaboration and invention were key concepts for the mid-afternoon sessions at the June 4 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.
Community News Reimagined
View highlights from this discussion above, 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. Listen to some of this coverage in the player below.
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 d.school 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.
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.