Tackling your big idea in a small(ish) newsroom

By on June 17, 2016

This is one in a series of blog posts from the MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 selected each year who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. Applications for the 2016 MJ Bear Fellowship are now open – you can learn more here.

Get a couple of my journalist friends talking about work, and there’s one thing that’s bound to come up: How can we find time for longform or passion projects when every day is already packed with breaking news and daily beat coverage?

Younger reporters ask me about finding this balance more than anything else. It’s something I faced while working on the immigration project that led me to the MJ Bear Fellowship Program (and something I continue to face in the nonprofit realm).

I called up a few friends to talk about the strategies we’ve used to make our in-depth projects successful. It’s not easy, but the right preparation makes it possible.

Have an open discussion about what would make longform worthwhile

The most important factor in being able to work on a more time-consuming project is having an editor who believes your idea has value. With every project, you’re earning their trust. In return, your editor is going to make sure you have what you need to be successful, whether that’s time or resources or the ability to travel.

Rhiannon Meyers, a colleague of mine at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Texas, told me, “It’s finding an editor who has that same passion for a project that you do, having someone who’s an ally and can keep some of that [breaking news] from falling onto your plate. The more you execute really great stories, the more street cred you get in the newsroom. That comes with time and with proving yourself.”

When I had the idea for my longform project, I had editors who saw and wanted to fill the gap in immigration coverage in our region. While reporting on migrant deaths in Brooks County, I learned that forensic anthropology students from around the U.S. were heading to San Marcos to help examine recovered skeletal remains. The problem in covering them? Texas is huge, and it was a two-and-a-half hour drive from Corpus Christi.

It was a big ask, knowing a photographer and I would be out of pocket for an entire day. But my editors were willing to talk about the kind of end result that would justify the time and energy spent on the trip. We agreed on a Sunday package with a photo gallery and video, but all the information I gathered yielded two additional stories. On top of that, I organized reports on the skeletal remains into a searchable database to accompany the main story.

Do your research and get specific

I learned a lot about this back-and-forth from Rhiannon and her husband, Mark Collette — a journalism power couple. They later moved on to the Houston Chronicle. Rhiannon is now in public relations, and Mark remains on the investigative team.

One of the best pieces of advice they gave me was to have more than a general story idea before pitching to editors. Write up list of sources. If you know what documents you’re going to need for a database, request them. Outline what kind of impact you think the story will have. Calculate any costs it might incur.

“It’s enough of a tease so you can see what the finished project might actually look like,” Mark told me, “and an editor might say, ‘It could be a wise investment to give this person some time to work on it.’”

Find your digital allies

It’s a given that stories will have digital elements, whether with video, data, maps, etc.

Strengthen your case by talking to the people who would be working with you on those components before you pitch to your editor. They likely will think of story elements that hadn’t crossed your mind or head into the pitch meeting with you to help champion your idea. You will quickly notice how often having an excited photographer or digital producer on your side can tip the scale in your favor.

If you will personally be producing digital elements for your story, ensure the person giving you the green light understands how they’re going to help immerse the reader or user in the story.

Do what you can with what you’re given

Not every story is going to get the longform treatment, even if it’s related to the topic about which you’re passionate. That’s OK.

I covered county government, then education, when I took over immigration reporting from Mark. At the time, the Texas Ranger Division — a law enforcement agency in Texas — was investigating the burial conditions of a migrant gravesite where some exhumed remains were found co-mingled or in plastic gift bags. I checked in with local authorities for word about the inquiry’s finding, so I got the scoop when the investigator reported that the burials didn’t violate any Texas laws.

That didn’t stop all of the news happening on my main beat. I couldn’t feasibly drop everything I was working on to dive too deeply into the report outcome. So while the burial story was rolled into my daily coverage, it informed my reporting from that point on.

Plan for the future

One great way to help out Future You is to start collecting digital elements now for a topic you know is going to lend itself to in-depth coverage later on.

Whenever I made the 90-minute drive to Brooks County, I tried my best to stop by the offices of my sources even if I wasn’t interviewing them that day. It was an effort to keep myself on their radar but also an opportunity to get updated numbers. People were happy to photocopy information that was readily available.

Beyond that logistical approach, I got a fantastic piece of advice from Sarah Tuley, digital content producer at the Caller-Times. She’s encouraging reporters and photographers to take B-roll in the field that can double as digital content day-of and be tapped again for longform storytelling. That goes for everything from baseball games (thinking ahead to state playoffs) to following law enforcement on the border.

It can sound like just more piling on, but think of it this way: Lots of reporters are already recording their interviews. There’s no need to scramble for video if you’re collecting it along the way.

“I think at first it can be exhausting,” Sarah told me, “but, just like with writing your notes, you get into this workflow that’s comfortable for you.”