Stations team up with NPR in lead

StateImpact pilot begins scrutiny of government in eight states

By Mike Janssen

Pubcasters in three states have started airing reports and posting stories online as the first participants in StateImpact, a large-scale project spearheaded by NPR that could unite the member stations and the network for an unprecedented level of collaborative newsgathering.

The objective: to strengthen coverage of state government in all 50 states in coming years.

Visit stateimpact. npr.org and you’ll see a map of the United States with three states highlighted in green — Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Stations in these states have gone live with their own StateImpact sites, with links from the national site. Five more state sites are expected to launch by September: Florida, Idaho, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Texas.

Pennsylvania reporters have already posted multiple articles about the controversial practice of “fracking,” which extracts natural gas from rock formations. So far, Ohio’s bloggers are casting a wider net around their chosen topic, education, by linking to articles about happenings in other states while also covering issues near home.

The fruit of this eight-state pilot phase will guide NPR as it expands the project to a second wave of stations beginning this fall, while proving to funders that the coverage is worth supporting — or so participants hope. In coming years the network and participating stations want to have hired two new broadcast and multimedia reporters to cover government in every state.

NPR and stations are spending a combined $3.7 million during the pilot, with NPR footing 70 percent of the bill in the first year. NPR expects the total costs of expanding nationwide to come to $16 million annually, to be supported by fundraising efforts shared with stations.

StateImpact already involves a degree of collaboration rarely, if ever, attempted among NPR and its member stations, as well as among the stations themselves. Broadcasters within states are coordinating coverage and sharing reports. They can also share material with counterparts in other states where legislators are handling similar issues.

NPR, which announced the big project in October (Current, Nov. 1, 2010), is closely involved throughout the process, advising stations on hiring reporters, training them in best practices, consulting with them on coverage and shepherding stories to its own website and newsmagazines when appropriate. Combined, these efforts go beyond the usual way NPR and stations do business by establishing a new level of ongoing partnership and support.

NPR is also aiding the project by running the back-end platform that station reporters use to post reports on their own StateImpact websites. Each state has its own website that shares a similar blog-like design and connects to NPR’s main StateImpact site. The state projects also have their own Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.

The network may pick up stories from the project, but that’s not the main goal. “This project is not about getting StateImpact stories on Morning Edition or All Things Considered,” says Cathy Duchamp, deputy program director of StateImpact. “It’s about getting high-quality journalism on local stations.”

Filling a gap in state capitals

NPR has assigned eight staffers to oversee StateImpact. Two editorial coordinators oversee broadcast and digital reporting, with Political Editor Ken Rudin serving as broadcast coordinator. Other staffers include an applications developer, a database reporting coordinator and a multimedia trainer.

Several have previous experience with similar ventures. Duchamp worked as managing editor of the Northwest News Network, a reporting hub that covers Idaho, Oregon and Washington (Current, June 13). Database Reporting Coordinator Matt Stiles and Digital Editorial Coordinator Elise Hu come from the Texas Tribune, a website covering public policy in Texas that has partnered with Austin’s KUT.

StateImpact aims to cover how decisions made in state legislatures affect ordinary people. It was conceived as a response to the precipitous decline in news coverage of state-level government over the past decade, even as state governments grew in size and responsibility.

“It’s really important that this coverage takes place, because people need to know where the policies and the politics overlap,” says Cary Boyce, station operations director at WFIU in Bloomington, Ind. “This is our best hope of doing that.”

The waning of statehouse coverage was summarized in The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age, the report delivered to the FCC last month by Steven Waldman and a working group of experts. It cited an American Journalism Review survey that found that reporters in statehouses fell by a third from 2003 to 2009 — 524 staffers to 355.

The eight StateImpact states were among those that saw losses. The Houston Chronicle said 53 reporters were covering the Texas legislature in 2009, down from 83 in 1989.

The situation is also dire in Pennsylvania. Quoted in the FCC report, Matthew Brouillette, president of the state’s Commonwealth Foundation, said that “now you can swing a dead cat and not hit anybody in the state Capitol newsroom.”

Meanwhile, pubradio stations have often been among the last media to maintain coverage. StateImpact seeks to capitalize on that strength, says NPR’s Duchamp, but to broaden the coverage by helping reporters get out of the state capitals and in touch with citizens who are feeling the impact of state policies.

Most people can’t name their state representatives, says Joel Sucherman, program director for NPR’s Project Argo, on which StateImpact is based in part. Yet they’re affected by state policies, often more than they realize. That’s where StateImpact will focus. If all it does is deliver updates on a bill moving through committees, “we will have failed,” Sucherman says.

Pennsylvania: focus on fracking

The idea of StateImpact took root in NPR’s newsroom, though it also had precedents in earlier collaborative projects. As part of the Local News Initiative in 2008, WITF in Harrisburg, Pa., surveyed stations around the country about their coverage of state government.

After you get reporters on the state beat, says Duchamp, they need to report outside of state capitals and look beyond state boundaries.

That survey highlighted the need for legislative coverage to cross state borders, Duchamp says. Lawmakers often claim credit for bills they propose, but the motivations and inspiration have often come from out of state. “Some lobbyist or organization behind the scenes is working across many states and lobbying many states to come up with those bills,” she says.

In September, NPR asked stations to volunteer for the pilot, and 25 applied. Regional bureau chiefs and staffers from various NPR divisions evaluated the applications. They looked for newsrooms with strong track records in multimedia journalism and nonbroadcast distribution. In states where more than one station applied, NPR encouraged them to team up.

In every state but New Hampshire, where New Hampshire Public Radio is the only big public radio outlet, at least two stations and often more are working together on coverage during the pilot phase. Stations in Florida, Indiana and Ohio are covering education. Idaho, Oklahoma and New Hampshire will look at money and the economy. Pennsylvania and Texas have claimed energy as their issue.

In each state, a lead station is assigned to coordinate coverage and hire two journalists for the StateImpact beat. NPR initially expected that one of each pair would report for radio and the other for the Web, but the Indiana and Pennsylvania stations have both hired two switch-hitters instead.

Indiana’s stations, led by WFIU in Bloomington, chose to cover education at a time when the state faces several pressing issues. Lawmakers are debating support for charter schools, localities’ declining property tax revenues are pinching school budgets, and one-third of high-school students aren’t graduating.

Like other stations, WFIU shares with NPR the task of raising funds to keep StateImpact going. Stations are responsible for 30 percent of the project’s cost this year and will cover 70 percent next year. WFIU is looking to support the project through major gifts and underwriting, including online ads.

In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s WHYY has partnered with Harrisburg’s WITF to expand coverage of the boom in hydraulic extraction of natural gas, or “fracking,” in northern Appalachia. “It’s probably the biggest economic and environmental story in Pennsylvania in a long time,” says Chris Satullo, WHYY’s executive director of news and civic dialogue.

WHYY will employ one of the state’s two StateImpact reporters, serving essentially as a subcontractor to WITF, the lead station.

Satullo calls StateImpact “a great idea,” and thinks listeners may have  an appetite for the coverage it will provide. When Satullo met with a group of environmentalists in suburban Philadelphia a month ago, he told them that two reporters would be devoted exclusively to covering natural-gas drilling.

The attendees stood and cheered.

PILOT STATES

Now operating
Indiana: Education
Ohio: Education
Pennsylvania: Energy

Next phase of pilot
Florida
Idaho
Oklahoma
New Hampshire
Texas

EARLIER STORIES

A separate funding scheme, announced by MPR chief Bill Kling, set a goal for several big-city pubradio newsrooms: 100 reporters each, October 2010.

In the StateImpact project, earlier known by the name Impact of Government, NPR talked of the station project adding two reporters to the corps of journalists covering state government, or 100 total. Since then, however, an advocate and fundraiser for the project, Ron Schiller, left NPR after he was caught in a partisan video sting.

A third project, led by the Center for Public Integrity with PRI, looks at state governments’ actions (and lack thereof) to be more accountable and honest, February 2011.

RELATED LINKS

StateImpact site and Twitter stream

American Journalism Review reported about StateImpact this month. In 2009, it documented the shrinking corps of statehouse reporters.

This article has been corrected. The print version misspelled the name of Digital Editorial Coordinator Elise Hu.Comments, questions, tips? mike@mikejanssen.net

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