Journalists are good with messes. Problems make for interesting stories with lots of layers, complicated characters and usually thick narrative drama.
Designing for impact, however, sometimes means sweeping the mess aside and clearing a path to action. We talk about information needs; this need is for information that helps me navigate my life.
Take this story about Port Chester, New York:
Gabriel Rom had been on the Port Chester reporting beat for two years when he learned about the village’s election problems.
Port Chester is about an hour north of Manhattan by train. Its people are working middle class, sandwiched between the wealthy communities of Greenwich, Connecticut, and Rye, New York. For more than three centuries, immigrants have been coming there from around the world — first Italy, then Poland, then Portugal and now Central and Latin America. Cross Westchester Avenue north from quaint, upscale Rye and it feels like you’re back in the city again, surrounded by high-density housing and bodegas.
Eighty percent of the village’s school children are non-white Latino, one of the highest percentages in the state.
Voter turnout here hovers at around 10 percent.
Back in 2006, while its people were majority Hispanic, its leaders weren’t. That obvious disparity was the subject of much litigation. In 2009, a federal judge found that the at-large way Port Chester elected trustees — one vote per voter — violated the Voting Rights Act because it diluted the voting strength of Hispanics. In its place the village adopted cumulative voting, a rarely used process where one voter is allowed to cast multiple votes for a candidate.
Now, in 2018 when Rom was on the beat for lohud.com, where I also worked, the village was coming out from under court supervision. Voters had to decide for themselves whether to keep cumulative voting or try something else.
Instinct told Rom this decision was an important story — the community needed his help — but experience told him it wasn’t going to top the Chartbeat real-time analytics dashboard.
“It was an interesting case, interesting history and we’ve got a news hook” — a referendum coming, Rom said. “I saw it as a clear opportunity to connect all this history and background information with a specific news hook.
“This is a story that’s important from a civic education perspective — a story about how our democracy works, a story that needs to be told because it impacts thousands of people. Just because it wasn’t our paying audience didn’t mean it wasn’t a story worth telling.”
“It wouldn’t be the responsible thing to do to ignore the story,” he said.
- An explainer piece for SEO (what it means, how it works, key players, what’s next). This was the centerpiece of the project.
- Another 15-20 news stories updating the process and procedure.
- A narrative story told through the people of Port Chester (personalities, dialogue).
- A 30-second version of the narrative story.
- A five-minute video.
- A Univision interview in Spanish.
Early turning points
Clarity: One key decision we made early on was to consult with the Democracy Fund. Josh Stearns, a friend and director of the fund’s Public Square Program, introduced us to their elections expert, Tammy Patrick.
Patrick helped us see that the story wasn’t the mess but helping people understand a complicated voting process that to many, especially those new to the U.S., could sound like some sort of scam.
“Before I spoke to her I was way into the weeds on court filings from decades ago … snowed in on all the material,” Rom said. “This is what led to that explainer piece. It just felt like let’s try and do the work that citizens don’t have the time to do … show people why it matters, not just how crazy it is.”
The Democracy Fund’s interest in the project also gave Rom the support he needed to pursue a project where he knew he wouldn’t be able to use page views as a proxy for value.
“You need confidence as a reporter when you do stories like this,” Rom said. “People saying it was a good story and you need to do it the right way was a good energy booster.”
Collaboration: Another critical early decision was to collaborate with Univision to reach more Hispanics, especially those who speak Spanish. This showed the story was important enough for multiple news organizations to get involved.
“We wanted to hit Port Chester residents but also Hispanic community leaders throughout the state and nation,” Rom said.
- We needed another person to help with the project — someone to manage the Univision relationship, coordinate events and target audiences we don’t typically reach. It was too much to expect Rom to do that while reporting or his editor to book event space and hang fliers, especially considering our goal of reaching intermittent or unregistered voters.
- We also knew many voters needed to read or hear the information in Spanish but we didn’t have the resources to make Spanish-language fliers and hang them in restaurants and churches, to do direct outreach. We didn’t get deep engagement with the village’s Hispanic population that speaks Spanish as a first language or the village’s undocumented population. A tighter relationship with Univision or hiring our own translator may have gotten us there.
“If we were to do it again, I do think it’s possible to get people to engage who don’t,” Rom said. “But it would have taken more direct outreach. …
“I kind of compare it to a political campaign. You can’t overestimate the power of just getting out and knocking on doors.”
The access was there — in restaurants, etc. — to print and hang fliers, he said. “If we had done that, I feel like the story would have taken a real turn.”
- The village used some of our reporting in its own voter education work.
- We brought clarity to what was happening. “There were people throughout the process — which was incredibly complicated — who … started to understand through our reporting,” Rom said. “We turned them from low-information voters to high-information voters. Ideally we would have done more than that and reached people who wouldn’t have voted at all.”
- We spurred discussion. It was a conversation starter on social media, getting people thinking, debating, arguing.
Voters decided, 746 to 429, to continue the cumulative voting method. “It was the least controversial, the most rational” decision, Rom said.
And it was an informed decision.
USA TODAY’s investigation of reverse mortgages helped spark reforms which stand to help 90,000 seniors. “The piece USA TODAY did was important to focus on these issues and it helped put pressure on HUD,” said Sarah Bolling Mancini of the National Consumer Law Center. “For many people, this will absolutely change their lives — allowing them to stay in their longtime home, rather than being foreclosed or evicted.”
Meaghan McDermott, a reporter at the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, reported on the tragic drowning death of a 3-year-old boy in a restaurant’s grease trap. A $44 device would have prevented it. Within two days of publication, a state lawmaker said she would amend her proposed law to require the devices. I interviewed McDermott back in 2018 after she investigated the death of another 3-year-old. That investigation was a catalyst for reform of the county’s Child Protective Services department.
It’s nice, and life-affirming, when politicians cite our work in calling for change. The Courier-Journal published an analysis comparing Kentucky’s $24 million settlement with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma to Oklahoma’s $270 million settlement. “Why did Kentucky settle a case for 10% of the amount Oklahoma settled?” Kentucky’s Senate president asked while holding the newspaper. “Why did we have to wait for The Courier Journal to ask a question that we should be asking?” another state legislator said. Here’s the story.
Here’s one for the cyber sleuths: A few hours after popular.info alerted Facebook to a “Police Lives Matter” Facebook page and others run by a Kosovo-based network, Facebook took down every page Popular Information flagged. (h/t First Draft News)
If you have an impact story to share, email email@example.com. Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network, and the former digital director at lohud.com. Twitter: @anjdelgado. The Democrat and Chronicle and Courier-Journal are part of the Network.