Big Projects for Small Papers  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2008

Big Projects for Small Papers   

A Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. program generates ambitious series for its 90 dailies.

By Alex Tilitz
     


In an age when even large newspapers are shrinking their pages and newsholes and laying off reporters, you don't expect to hear about a chain of small dailies spending serious money each year on a handful of ambitious stories. But that's exactly what Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. is doing.

Two years ago, Birmingham, Alabama-based CNHI (see "The Selling of Small-town America," May 1999) decided to use its corporate resources to generate investigative stories for its 90-plus daily newspapers. Each of these pieces would be too formidable for the small papers to tackle by themselves; this would be a way to provide all of them with in-depth reporting.

Bill Ketter, CNHI's vice president of news, oversees the Elite Report-ing Fellowship program. His former position as editor in chief at the Pulitzer Prize-winning Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Massachusetts, which CNHI bought in 2005, made him an ideal candidate to lead the new program.

"We felt very strongly that good journalism is good business," says Ketter, a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "There's been so much negative publicity in our craft about the demise of in-depth journalism, and this more vigorous journalism has almost been eliminated. [The fellowship] creates a regular flow of high public service journalism."

The first package to emerge from the program was "Hooked on Gambling," a three-part series in April 2006 on the problems of gambling addicts and the meager resources available to help them. Since then, the program has produced five more series, including "America's Interstate," which dealt with the Interstate Highway System's crumbling infrastructure, and "Playing Hurt," which looked at the dangers to which untrained coaches expose young athletes.

The stories have a national focus but also "a direct relevancy to communities," Ketter says. Extensive original reporting on national trends is a hallmark of the stories, but an emphasis on human interest is clear. Each piece has a well-defined cast of regular people to put a human face on the numbers. Slick graphics and video accompany the stories on the papers' Web sites and on a CNHI page ( cnhi.com/cnhins/resources_playinghurt').

"We wanted to let our reporters pursue a story with larger implications than just their community," Ketter says. "We wanted to let them try their hand at a more complex, sophisticated type of journalism, and then get them to go back to their newsrooms and explain the experience."

All CNHI reporters are allowed to apply for the fellowship by submitting an application and a sample of their work to a committee of four corporate CNHI editors. Once reporters are accepted into the program, CNHI assigns them topics and they are released from their newsroom duties for the duration of the project (generally a month to six weeks) so they can pursue their stories without interruption. "We encourage the reporters to work from their homes when they're not on the road," Ketter says. "Otherwise they get caught up in the day-to-day business of the newsroom."

Once assigned a topic, a reporter works alone after spending a day or two at the outset discussing the story with Ketter and Executive News Editor David Joyner. Chris Muldrow, CNHI's vice president of Internet operations, and Rick Lepper, online editor of Oklahoma's Muskogee Phoenix, instruct them in the use of audio and video equipment the company gives them (camcorders and editing software, primarily). Then it sends them on their way.

"My supervision was pretty minimal," Matt Milner, a reporter at Iowa's Ottumwa Courier who wrote the December 2006 "America's Interstate" series, said in an e-mail interview. "Bill gave me a lot of freedom. I checked in and e-mailed my work daily, but how I worked, when I worked and how much I did was really up to me. That freedom, conversely, creates a pressure of its own. There's no backup. I either did the job or I didn't."

The job, with its travel and research requirements, presented several challenges. "Finding your way through the federal bureaucracy is never easy, and it's certainly a big difference from what I see day to day in Ottumwa," Milner, 31, says. "The sheer scale was an occasional challenge."

In Ottumwa, "on any given day I can pick up the phone or walk to an office and be fairly confident of getting who I need to speak with in short order. That's not the case in Washington, and it's definitely not the case when you don't have established contacts in the offices you need."

Access was not the only problem CNHI's reporters faced. Randy Griffith a reporter with the 43,000-circulation Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, who wrote the August 2007 "Playing Hurt" series chafed at the three trips the project entailed.

"I've talked to people who traveled for business and I always thought, 'That would be kind of cool' not anymore," Griffith, 50, says. "If I stay in one more crummy motel room...Well, I was on a budget, so some of the rooms were pretty bad."

Despite the difficulties, the stories have turned out well, and reader response has been excellent. "I still get feedback out of the blue," Griffith says. "E-mails come in from all over the country. Locally, I get people telling me, 'You should do stories on this guy,' and I have to tell them, 'I've been off the story for months. I could have really used you this spring.'"

Beyond the immediate injection of high-quality reporting into the chain's dailies, about 80 percent of which run the stories, the fellowship means added benefits for papers whose journalists participate. The newspapers get to keep the video equipment the reporters use while preparing their articles, and reporters are often eager to use it. "The paper is a lot more involved with multimedia," since the project, Griffith says. "Pretty much all the video on the Web site is mine. So far training just looks daunting, so it hasn't been too popular."

At the 14,000-circulation Ottumwa Courier, Milner's experience has ushered in a new era of multimedia and live blogging, a technique the paper has used to cover a local murder trial and election campaigns. "We're a midsize Iowa paper, and the Web wasn't the priority then that it is now," he says. "The program helped change our thinking about how and when to use our Web site."

Still, for Ketter, the articles themselves are the greatest reward. "I'm a believer in the watchdog role of the press," he says. "We're a guide dog and we're a watchdog. Every newspaper, no matter how small, has to fulfill those roles.

"Despite the economic challenges, our company has not backed off one iota. We've invested more last year than the year before [in the program] and I hope we invest even more this year."

Alex Tilitz

Tilitz (atilitz@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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