Let’s get the headline out of the way first: The Merced Sun-Star is hiring a health care reporter!
Now, the interesting part. The Sun-Star‘s new 18-month spot is funded by The California Endowment, which you may remember as a key backer of California Watch. It’s part of the endowment’s 10-year plan to improve local health.
Merced County was chosen as one of the 14 places in the state to work with the endowment in a 10-year plan to help transform communities and neighborhoods into places where everybody can be healthy, safe and ready to learn, according to Building Healthy Communities.
Thanks to that larger mission, the Merced health care reporter will cover some interesting sub-beats in addition to the Sun-Star‘s traditional health coverage.
The endowment started with 10 goals to accomplish over the next decade. After polling folks in those communities, it set three priorities over the next three years: create healthier youngsters to grow, learn, play and lead, which organizers call “Healthy Youth Development;” prevent and reduce violence; and link economic development to community health.
They’re areas that are certainly not foreign to health care journalists, and a reminder that reporting on the health of the community means thinking beyond hospitals and outbreaks.
AHCJ members will probably already remember that this isn’t the first time Merced has taken the lead in health care journalism innovation, and that the new reporter is really the next step in an ongoing process.
The California Endowment’s Mary Lou Fulton posted some background on the project, a sort of “how-to” primer she wrote for foundations looking to support local news. In addition to explaining why the foundation chose to fund local projects, Fulton also spends a considerable amount of time addressing concerns about editorial independence and conflicts of interest.
The new Center for Investigative Reporting-backed California Watch site is an ambitious and, by virtue of its commitment to providing resources for readers’ own investigations, a particularly reporter-friendly nonprofit news site. Unlike many of their peers, they’re looking toward a syndication-based funding model and seem ready to try just about anything.
This spirit of openness is evidenced by reporter Christina Jewett’s list of story ideas, which include meaty standards (hospital finance, aging population) and a slightly less-covered story (problems with the child welfare system), as well as the health subject page, where Jewett is fairly open about what she’s working on, as well as what she’s reading. All-in-all, the site uses a careful balance of self-promotion and transparency to create a compelling news destination.
As you may have noticed, the much-anticipated nonprofit news site Texas Tribune launched today. From the start, the venture is including hard-hitting health news, leading with a data-driven story on the restraint of special education students in Texas schools and following through with a number of state-oriented health stories.
A quick examination of the lead story gives a few hints as to where Texas Tribune health coverage might be going:
Disabled students restrained, injured in public schools
Texas is one of four states that collects data on instances in which special education students are restrained, and Texas Tribune reporter Emily Ramshaw has taken advantage of that data to dig into the practice of restraining special education students in Texas and uncover illuminating statistics and a few distressing anecdotes. With the story, Ramshaw provides PDFs of a federal report and a simple pie chart of the data. The story’s arresting photos were contributed by a victim’s family.
John Ryan of KUOW News in Seattle used publicly available data and records requests to localize the national debate on nonprofit compensation with a piece on top earners at Seattle-area hospitals. Ryan details his information-gathering process here and shares his list of top local earners.
Ryan used a mix of local and national sources, getting explanations from some of the top earners (and perspective from some of the bottom earners) and quotes from those who believe nonprofit workers should not be earning that much money. He also included the thoughts of those who believe nonprofit hospitals need to pay competitive salaries in order to bring competitive talent.
Another story looks at the role of charity care and how much of it is provided: “Only three of the nonprofit hospitals in central Puget Sound give away more than 2 percent of their care to the poor: Providence Regional in Everett, Saint Clare in Lakewood, and Saint Francis in Federal Way. The Washington Department of Health tracks those figures.”
David Wahlberg of the Wisconsin State Journal looked into the state’s nonprofit hospitals and found they “provided significantly less free health care and made more money than the national average in recent years.” Ninety-eight percent of Wisconsin’s hospitals are nonprofit, though the national average is closer to 59 percent, not including the 25 percent of hospitals that are run by the government and also tax-exempt.
Wahlberg focused on the budget surpluses and charity-care obligations of these nonprofit hospitals, reporting that the issues is “likely to take on more relevance this year in the state and the nation as unemployment soars and tax revenues plummet.”
Wahlberg reports: “The amounts of help provided by hospitals can vary greatly, according to an IRS survey of nonprofit hospitals released in 2007. Nearly half of the hospitals said they spent less than 3 percent of their budgets on charity care and bad debt; a fifth said they spent more than 10 percent of their budgets on those benefits.”
In part two of the series, Wahlberg looks at the question of whether a nonprofit hospital become too much like a business, focusing on St. Mary’s Hospital, which made a lot of money and gave relatively little charity care in recent years.
In part three, Wahlberg reports that some public officials are making nonprofit hospitals contribute more to their communities and that the troubled economy could expand this trend.
In a bid to maintain health coverage in communities where newspapers are stretched too thin, The Center for California Health Care Journalism has been hatched by the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California and the California HealthCare Foundation to report on issues of concern to Californians.
Michael Parks of USC and the Center for California Health Care Journalism (left), Mike Tharp (center) and Danielle Gaines of the Merced Sun-Star
The foundation felt that coverage of health policy in California was disappearing. It wanted to know if foundations and nonprofits could underwrite quality journalism while keeping it independent. And so it initiated a “proof of concept” in which a small group of journalists does stories, completely independent of the foundation, which funded the pilot project with $239,000 for six months.
The result: “Sowing Hope,” a series in the Merced Sun-Star exploring the quest for a University of California medical school in Merced, a town in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Thanks to the blend of nonprofit and traditional journalism, the newspaper gave its readers an “up-close and extensive look at UC Merced’s hope for a medical school,” according to Sun-Star executive editor Mike Tharp said
The center is part of a growing trend of nonprofits actively reporting health stories. In recent months, the Kaiser Family Foundation announced plans for its own Kaiser Health News. The Kansas Health Institute – supported by foundations – employs writers and editors in its own news service, and the foundation-supported Web site Florida Health News collects stories and does some original health reporting.