December 31, 2012

Newsroom Collaboration Gives Veterans Story Life

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The numbers were available: Iowa veterans were waiting at the end of 2012, on average, 313 days before the Department of Veterans Affairs processed their benefit claims. Less than a year, but more than 10 months. After returning from war, with disabilities.

But what did those numbers mean?

Lyle Muller, IowaWatch Executive Director-Editor

Lyle Muller, IowaWatch Executive Director-Editor

They meant real people coming home to Iowa from Afghanistan and Iraq have to wait an extraordinarily long time before the VA Regional Office in Des Moines can process their pension, health or disability claims. Four Iowa newspapers working with IowaWatch were able to tell you some of those veterans’ stories in a special report on Dec. 30. This happened despite December being a tight month for newsroom staffs working holiday schedules and also for getting time commitments from people who could talk with authority about the matter.

The story had depth and timeliness because the newsrooms collaborated.

Collaboration is one of those new-age journalism buzz words, and for good reason. At a time when resources for news gathering show no hint of loosening up, experienced journalists working together still can tell great stories about the things that impact lives.

With that concept in mind, IowaWatch, this non-profit news organization that will turn three years old in 2013, reached out to some of the state’s newspapers with a proposal: You interview veterans in your region, we’ll talk with VA officials and others, and we all can put into context data about waiting times for VA benefits that the Center for Investigative Reporting has compiled.

The Center for Investigative Reporting spent 2012 looking into how much time veterans have to wait to get benefits. Its reporting includes data from the Des Moines VA Regional Office. IowaWatch has a relationship with the center through membership both have in the national organization, the Investigative News Network.

The Quad-City Times, The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, The Hawk Eye in Burlington and the Fort Dodge Messenger grabbed the story idea with gusto and interviewed veterans and veterans advocates in their part of the state. IowaWatch staff member Robert Maharry, a senior journalism student at the University of Iowa, talked with officials from the VA and Iowa’s state Department of Veterans Affairs while working his way through VA records – and finals for his fall semester classes.

NoteThe result is a sobering story about disabled Iowa veterans who return from war with injuries and health problems but who cannot get quick help from the government that sent it to war. It’s a story told in other states, as well, although our report shows that Iowa’s average wait exceeds the national average and is one of the Midwest’s longest.

Working on their own, each of the newsrooms participating in this project would have invested far more time to produce such a story, which would not be published for quite a while. If more than one wanted to do the story independently, each would have duplicated efforts while skipping other stories on their to-do list. So they worked together.

News consumers who think of media outlets competing fiercely against each other for scoops may be surprised to know that news gathering collaboration for the sake of informing you has been around a long time. The Associated Press is a collection of news organizations that share news stories and the expenses for original reporting. Other news syndicates rely on collaborating news media as well, as do television news networks.

Television newsrooms, including those in Iowa, swap video, while newspaper reporters working for competing news organizations help each other at news events by double-checking routine information in efforts to be accurate.

However, the idea has become more evident recently. ProPublica reporter Sheri Fink won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for an article published in a partnership with The New York Times Magazine. Efforts by people – former The Gazette editor Steve Buttry, for example – and others to build communities of collaborating citizen journalists are seen as a significant way to spread news to wide audiences.

Closer to home, IowaWatch collaborated with The Gazette, The Hawk Eye, The Telegraph Herald in Dubuque and the Iowa City Press-Citizen for an investigative report in September 2012 that explained the problems facing Iowans who need health care but have no health insurance.

The Des Moines Register collaborated with The Gazette, The Hawk Eye, Quad-City Times, Sioux City Journal, The Courier in Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Ottumwa Courier, Omaha World-Herald, Sioux Falls Argus Leader and Rochester, Minn., Post-Bulletin in fall 2012 for stories on how much money the presidential campaigns spent on television advertising.

Both of these collaborations resulted in good reporting about things that had impact on you. Neither would have happened with depth in a timely fashion without newsrooms working together.

The bottom line still ought to be telling the citizenry in a timely manner about things that impact it.

To illustrate how important working together on journalism is, Mercer University dedicated a Center for Collaborative Journalism in September 2012. The center is using $4.6 million in grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to combine efforts at Mercer’s journalism and media studies program with The Telegraph, the newspaper in Macon, Ga., and Georgia Public Broadcasting. The Telegraph and GPB newsrooms are at the center now, on campus.

The effort sounds somewhat familiar to what we are trying to accomplish at IowaWatch, although not to the extent of moving newspapers and radio stations to a college campus. Our goal at IowaWatch is to produce good journalism that fills a void left after newsroom layoffs in Iowa the past four years while giving college students hands-on experience producing that journalism the right way and with professional guidance. For that to happen we, too, need collaborators.

If we do this correctly, society should benefit because of how much more all of us — from reporters, to people living with these impacts, t0 the general public and to policy makers responding to it all — understand about public matters.

To read the Dec. 30 story click here.

To read a December 2012 collaboration of IowaWatch, the Daily Iowan and the Iowa State Daily, click here.

lyle-muller@iowawatch.org

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