August 6, 2010

Toolshed journalism: How we help newsrooms to help themselves

The Sunday front page of the Green Bay Press Gazette Aug. 1 featured a WCIJ-instigated boating story.

I like to think of each newsroom as a toolshed of diverse expertise and experience. In Wisconsin, some of those sheds are stocked with some serious hardware; others have been stripped bare by trying economic times.

Here at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, our nonprofit model is to give away stories. But we also provide tools to help other newsrooms chop them up, rework them and make them better for their local audiences.

This week we rolled out two statewide reports to our collaborators across the state, on military recruitment and boating safety. Along with the stories, we gave out databases and maps.

What resulted were some hard-hitting investigations tailored to specific places.

Our boating story started with a lead in the Madison area, an elderly gentleman who survived a dangerous collision last summer. That story worked well as it was for the southern Wisconsin market.

Green Bay Press-Gazette reporters, however, used our data and mapping and did their own reporting. They produced a new report that served more than 200,000 Fox Valley and Central Wisconsin readers.

For the military story, check out how the Oshkosh Northwestern dug down to localize the coverage of rural communities like Omro, Ripon and Winneconne.

Green Bay took it a step further and stripped down our contribution to a minimal amount, using the statewide data to write an entirely new report.

Having enough lead time was key, said Jon Styf, the Press-Gazette reporter who worked on the military story.

“I could definitely see doing it again,” Styf said of future collaborations. “The main factual data that the story was pinned on was solid, and the database allowed us to really localize the story with a lot of the legwork already done.”

That’s what we like to hear.

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