Local reporters dig into data and deliver results in promising NC collaboration

By Ryan Thornburg

Ryan Thornburg
Thornburg

In journalism we sometimes find ourselves getting wrapped up in chasing the competition on a story, or — driven by our fierce sense of independence — re-reporting the work of another news outlet. But with fewer reporting resources, collaboration has become a growing part of the journalistic culture. And for the last two months a handful of reporters across North Carolina have been building on a national open-source journalism project and an academic partnership to report on local public health department spending by sharing data resources.

Last month the NC Local News Workshop hosted a hands-on session that showed reporters how to use spreadsheets to interview data about public health spending that had been acquired by reporters at Kaiser Health News and students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. And to make sure the lessons of the data reporting class didn’t get lost in the daily deadline pressure, several reporters who joined the training have continued to participate in a Slack discussion where they traded ideas with each other, shared the data they collected and received coaching from me.

(The collaboration started even earlier, as the NC Press Association hosted an overview session (find the recording here) during its winter convention featuring the UNC student reporting project. The story was published in collaboration with The News & Observer/ Herald-Sun, and the overview session was done in partnership with the NC Local News Workshop.)

Giving something, getting something

It’s a trend we’re seeing more often in journalism — a learn-and-do approach to collaboration. Reporters get professional development in high-demand skills, and they contribute to a shared data set. Everyone gives something. Everyone gives something.

This is more than just mutual back-patting. This collaborative data project has yielded tangible results. In just four weeks, this group has added nine counties to the shares list of public health expenditures. The list — the only place reporters and policy makers can see in one place the trend in local public health spending over the last decade — now covers about 80 percent of the state’s population. 

That updated list is publicly available here, with a county-by-county summary found here.  

And journalists can contribute their county’s public health expenditures data here.

But collecting, organizing and interviewing the data isn’t the end of the story. It provides the “how much?” and “compared to what?” but the hard data in hand, local reporters have been able to start talking with local public health officials to find the meaning in the data — the more important “how?” and “why?” and “so what?” questions that need to be asked now that it’s clear that almost every county in the state saw a slide in spending on public health in the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rachel Keith, a reporter for WHQR public radio in Wilmington is first out of the gate with her story that found changing roles of local health departments as well as growth of private and non-profit health clinics have contributed to the Cape Fear region’s 19 percent decline in public health spending per capita from 2011 to 2020.

This week, Ivey Schofield of The (Whiteville) News Reporter reported that Columbus County women have lost access to key diagnostic services and other health care over the past decade because of public. health funding cuts there.

Other stories are in the works from reporters who have already made important contributions to the shared data set. Be on the lookout for new reporting from Moss Brennan at The Watauga Democrat and Ahmed Jallow at the Burlington Times-News.

Join the collective

While there’s much data still to be collected and reporting to be done, don’t expect this to be the state’s last collaborative data reporting project. The reporters working on the project are already pitching ideas for stories that can only be given proper context by rounding up data at the municipal and county level across the state. 

We welcome reporters to join this growing community at any time. Just email Melanie Sill, interim executive director of the NC Local News Workshop, at msill@elon.edu to request an invitation to our Slack workspace. It’s a good place to learn new skills and do the kinds of stories that can lead to a better understanding of shared challenges.

Working alone on a project like this would take hundreds of hours and cost your publisher thousands of dollars. By collaborating, we are doing better journalism and doing it in a financially sustainable way that helps ensure that there will be professional reporters around as long as there are hidden stories to be told in an increasingly interconnected world.

Ryan Thornburg teaches journalism at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, where he is an associate professor. Before joining the school in 2007, he spent a decade in leadership positions in online newsrooms, mostly working on national and international news at The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @rtburg