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Competition or Collaboration: Tony Bartelme on News Deserts

Tony Bartelme tests floodwaters for fecal contamination for his "Rising Waters" series in May 2020
Tony Bartelme tests floodwaters for fecal contamination for his "Rising Waters" series in May 2020. | Lauren Petracca/The Post and Courier

As local news deserts expand, deep reporting about science and other complex topics also has dried up. Tony Bartelme, a 2018 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award winner, offers one way to fix that.

In just the past 15 years, a quarter of America’s newspapers vanished, leaving roughly 1,800 communities in news deserts – places without a local news presence. At the same time, many surviving newspapers have cut staff, creating ghost papers where a handful of reporters dash from council meetings to sports events. In a growing number of small towns and cities, these journalists simply have no time to dig deep into complex issues, such as government corruption and climate change.

Is there a way to fill that void?

At the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier, where I am on the investigative projects team, we asked ourselves that question recently as we launched two ambitious projects.

Charleston is an old coastal city where much of the land is inches above sea level. A rapidly warming planet has made this low-lying place more vulnerable to torrential rains and rising seas. Time and again, I’ve felt the effects firsthand when I walked down my front steps into thigh-deep floodwaters on my way to work.

But the incremental nature of these impacts can dampen a sense of urgency. So last year we spent months exploring the latest climate science findings. We built new databases to identify vulnerable homes and areas that had lost trees – even analyzed floodwaters for fecal contamination, a hidden public health threat. Then we waited for one of those increasingly common downpours and tidal floods to make a mess of things. When they did, we embedded our deeply reported climate science pieces into breaking stories. We called the project "Rising Waters."

Our goal with "Rising Waters" was to cover climate change as the breaking story that it truly is – but with more depth and when the effects were as visceral as the chaos swirling through readers’ yards. The project was well-received and helped shape new policies, including a $10 million push to protect the city’s medical district.

But our work was limited mainly to the Charleston metro area. Towns and cities along South Carolina’s marshy coastal plain face similar climate-driven threats. We knew our in-depth coverage didn’t reach those communities. It didn’t fill that news desert void.

So, we tried a different approach, for a different kind of flood: a surge of government corruption. In doing so, we discovered a more promising model, one that enhances our own coverage and supports those smaller papers. Here’s how it played out:

During the past three years, our investigative team had exposed a shockingly long roster of crooked sheriffsprosecutors and judges. And we’d noticed a pattern: Many were in rural corners of the state – the same areas where so many small-town papers had closed or were just hanging on.

We also knew that it took time and money to investigate these corrupt officials. We had already shelled out thousands of dollars in fees to obtain government documents and spent months developing networks of whistleblowers. Many smaller papers didn’t have the resources to do this kind of time-consuming work.

During that reporting, we had identified new targets in several rural areas. We could have gone solo – run stories that exposed misconduct in these places and big-footed those smaller papers in the process. What if we worked together?

For its "Uncovered" project, The Post and Courier collaborates with a statewide network of local news outlets.

We began calling and emailing editors across South Carolina with a pitch: We would offer our new round of government corruption stories for free. If they wanted to write their own stories based on our findings, terrific. If they wanted to work with us directly on future stories, even better. And if they wanted to merely publish our stories, no problem. We knew some reporters had more time and experience than others. We hoped each partnership would unfold organically, in ways that best suited our partners’ needs.

We called the project "Uncovered" to capture the double entendre of exposing wrongdoing while highlighting the problem of expanding news deserts. Responses from our state’s papers were swift and heartening. At least 15 news organizations signed on, including ones that serve Black and Latino readers. Time and again, editors told us they were excited to offer their readers deeper dives than they could do on their own.

With this network in place, the first installments of the project swept through South Carolina with powerful effect. Within days, the governor of South Carolina called for ethics reforms. South Carolina lawmakers filed legislation to close loopholes that allowed some agencies to gorge on a buffet of junkets and discounts. Public officials vowed to revisit how they spend tax dollars. One agency canceled a retreat at a pricey resort. Another took the unusual step of publicly explaining why they went to a conference at a beach resort, then thanked taxpayers for footing the bill.

People behave differently when they’re being watched, and a statewide network of corruption watchers was difficult to ignore.

But the project was expensive. We calculated that our first installments cost at least $50,000 in labor, database analyses, document requests and travel. Our ambitious climate change projects have cost even more. So, to bridge this funding gap, we paired our coverage with a new campaign to build a nonprofit investigative reporting fund.

OK, full disclosure: The Post and Courier is a bit different than many medium-sized American papers. It’s privately owned, not a faceless shareholder-driven chain. Some owners have roots in Charleston that stretch back to the early 1700s. Perhaps because of this long historical horizon, our paper has been less quick to follow the self-defeating strategies of axing reporting staffs to squeeze more profits.

Still, we face the same brutal economic headwinds as all newspapers. That’s where the new nonprofit fund came in. We targeted investigative reporting because it’s so expensive, and because it’s an easy sell: When news organizations hold government officials accountable, they spend tax dollars more efficiently.

Our campaign mirrored one by The Seattle Times, another family-owned metro paper that set up an investigative journalism fund. Contributions don’t go directly to the newspaper. Instead, donors give to the Coastal Community Foundation, a well-established nonprofit. The Post and Courier submits invoices and other paperwork to justify expenses, an arms-length arrangement that adds an extra layer of accountability.

"Uncovered" has revealed 100 government corruption charges dating back to 2015, represented here by yellow dots. | Bryan Brussee/The Post and Courier

How has all this worked?

Before we launched "Uncovered" on Feb. 14, our investigative fund had raised $20,000. A month later, donors had given more than $400,000. Digital subscriptions are up. Reader interest is as high as we’d hoped it would be. One measure: We’ve been inundated with new corruption tips. We’re actively investigating more than 50 of them.

Clearly our readers want aggressive watchdog-style reporting. They appreciate the collaborative approach with smaller papers. Decision-makers are reacting to our findings.

Will the model we used for "Uncovered" work for other topics, such as climate change and other complex science-based topics? We think so. When a hurricane hits, why not tap the Uncovered network to create a much more robust region-wide story? Why not share the contextual pieces about climate change? A "Rising Waters 2.0."

Our collaboration has worked because it’s loose and respects the independence and differing needs of our partners.

But it requires a new way of thinking. Personally speaking, it felt unfamiliar talking about our investigative findings to other journalists before they were published. For so long, competition was part of our DNA.

Now we must try new things to survive, though our "Uncovered" model shows that an old African proverb still applies:

If you want to go fast, go alone.

But if you want to go far, go together.

Further reading, see two papers by Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “The Expanding News Desert” and “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?”  

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and author of "A Surgeon in the Village: An American Doctor Teaches Brain Surgery in Africa." He won a 2018 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Silver Award in the small newspaper category for his reporting on the impact of destructive algae blooms.

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