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Collaborating on New Jersey's dirty little secrets

by: Amy Gahran |

How do you get nearly a dozen news outlets scattered across a state to collaborate on an investigative environmental journalism project with lots of local angles? New Jersey has a "dirty little secret" about how to accomplish that.

Dirty Little Secrets is an ongoing reporting project organized by the Center for Investigative Reporting (with support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation), and by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. It features content created by nearly a dozen N.J. news outlets, including local independent news. Contributors include New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO, New Brunswick Today and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies, among others.

The project emerged organically over several months, explained Cole Goins, CIR's senior manager of engagement and community collaboration.

"Last April, several people from CIR held a workshop with Dodge grantees in New Brunswick, N.J. It was a day-long session around creative ways to engage communities. Attendees came up with topics that would be important to cover in N.J., and environmental contamination was high on that list," he said.

In a followup workshop in June 2015, held at NJ.com, editorial partners brainstormed to further hone this topic. They decided to explore theme of environmental contamination at local level. "Rather than cover the Superfund sites, we wanted to explore more hidden contamination," said Goins.

Scott Gurian, Sandy Recovery Reporter for NJ Spotlight and WNYC/NJ Public Radio, pitched some story ideas -- as did other reporters present. Sometimes, their personal experience provided the impetus for the coverage.

"As it happened, Scott had inherited a gas station in N.J., and of course it was sitting atop contaminated soil. So he'd inherited a liability, not an asset." said Debbie Galant, Associate Director for CCM. "In N.J., there are many abandoned gas stations. So I contributed a story, The Strange and Compelling Beauty of NJ's Abandoned Gas Stations, about a photographer who thought they were interesting."

The gas station issue led to the issue of contamination from underground residential oil tanks, which are common in N.J. "I had just gone through this at my house, the remediation cost $10,000," said Galant. NJTV reporter Brenda Flanagan ended up contributing a story to the series on this topic, The Hidden Liabilities of Hidden Oil Tanks.

Other strongly local topics covered in the series included water pollution, lead contamination, diesel exhaust, and more.

The Center for Cooperative Media played a key organizing role in this series. Galant explained that a good mix of tech tools supported communication and collaboration.

"We use a story tracker spreadsheet from CIR to help manage this project. Emails are organized in a Google group. We also have a shared Google Drive which is our central repository for stories, assets, raw materials, boilerplates for credits, article templates, and so on," she said. "We also have weekly conference calls to check in, update people on progress, and talk through issues."

Initially the conference calls included mostly the reporters working on the project. As the first stories were readied for publication in December 2015, they started including the editors. "We probably should have included the editors in our coordination process earlier," said Galant.

This collaboration is working very smoothly for number of people and organizations involved, Goins observed. "It isn't like everyone is working on one story. We have a general theme, and everyone peels off a piece and does their own story. People are working independently, but they're aware of what the others are doing, so the stories complement each other. Instead of competing with each other, as news outlets often like to do, we all work together."

Each news organization directly publishes the stories in the series produced by its own reporters. However, they have the option of also syndicating through their own channels other stories in the series -- and several have done that. One of the most popular features, used by many contributors, was WYNC's interactive map of N.J. contaminated sites.

The entire package is aggregated via Medium.com, a free platform that supports collaborative publishing. This not only eliminates the need to build and maintain a website for the series; it also offers attractive, mobile-friendly design and considerable flexibility, and it supports a unique domain name (ToxicNJ.com) that makes the package easy to find.

Decentralized distribution of a series has pros and cons. Joseph Amditis, coordinator for the Center for Cooperative Media, noted, "Our approach to publishing allowed contributing organizations to run any content they wanted from the collaboration -- but they didn't have to republish stories that didn't fit their style or standards. However, through Medium.com, smaller venues could have their work presented alongside that of larger venues. Of course, analytics became a challenge with this approach. But overall I think the benefits outweighed the challenges."

The series contains several stories, and more are in the works. Right now, the leadership team is focusing more attention on engaging communities around N.J. with this content. One of the more innovative efforts is CIR's plans to commission a theatrical play that will be performed New Brunswick, N.J., on themes raised by the series -- part of CIR's Storyworks project.

There's no end date for Dirty Little Secrets, but there are landmark dates. For instance, the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies is holding a student environmental reporting contest. In April, the best stories will be published in the series.

This model could be replicated in other states or regions, with other topics. The Dirty Little Secrets team recommends putting thought up front into effective, transparent project management tools -- especially for schedules and workflow hierarchy. Also, involving editors early can help with understanding the timing of when certain stories will be ready to add to the series.

Impact is also something to be considered up front. "How are you going to know whether your stories had any affects on the issue or communities? This is important for the sustainability of local news outlets, that they can communicate the value of what they're doing so people are inclined to support it."

To that end, CIR is developing an Impact Tracker tool, which chronicles individual instances of the impact of news coverage on may levels. Right now that's being tested internally, but later it will be released for use by news publishers.

"We saw the impact with this series especially with stories by Sarah Gonzalez of WYNC," said Goins. "She was reporting on communities that did not have cleanup plan in place, and cleanup plans were initiated as a result of her reporting. We can point to that and say, here's what this project did."

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Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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