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Keeping longterm coverage fresh: Collaborating with multimedia to show tale of Medicaid expansion Date: 02/12/16

Jeffrey Young

By Jeffrey Young

When you write about the same subject all the time, thinking up new ways to engage readers on ongoing issues can be difficult. That's especially true with slow-moving stories you cover iteratively over a period of months and years, such as the advancement of the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion.

Over the past three-plus years, I've written numerous stories about the policy, political, economic, and human interest aspects of Medicaid expansion.  The stories tended to focus narrowly on one or a few states, or broadly on the overarching debate. Because the Medicaid expansion is such a crucial part of the Affordable Care Act – and in particular the dramatic reduction in the uninsured rate – I wanted to come up with a new method of presenting this information that both would appeal to those who'd been following the story and attract interest from those who hadn't.

One of the nicest things about working for a large, digital-native news organization is I have the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with professionals with expertise in areas I don't, such as video, graphics, and multimedia production. I previously had very positive experiences using video and audio to tell stories in fresh ways, so was pleased when my coworkers were eager to join me in telling the Medicaid expansion story visually.

Working with our data visualization team, and in consultation with editors on our politics desk, I conceived an interactive feature that would literally show the progress of the Medicaid expansion across the country, provide a timeline of notable events beginning with the ACA's enactment, and illustrate its impact on people in every state.

Credit: The Huffington Post

The reporting itself was fairly straightforward, and enabled me to repurpose work I'd already done. I also contacted federal and state officials, as well as experts in various states, to help me pin down what happened when. For the second half of the feature, we used Gallup polling data to demonstrate how much more the uninsured rate had declined in states that adopted the Medicaid expansion compared with those that didn't, a phenomenon that's more striking visually than it is when explained with words.

Tale of two Americas 
Credit: The Huffington Post

Producing this was a truly collaborative effort with our data viz team. We shared decision-making about the visual aspects of the post and the data sources we used. I had a pretty clear notion from the start about what I wanted, and my colleagues had the knowledge and creativity to steer me away from things that wouldn't work and provided their own ideas to make the project better. This process took time (with lots of emails and meetings and instant messages) but it was worth it. And as more states take up Medicaid expansion and more data emerges on the uninsured, we can easily update and re-publish it.

Just as important as making the information and art as good as we could was planning how best to put it in front of readers. When we got close to a finished product, we brought in our social media editors to help devise strategies for pushing the feature on Facebook and Twitter. This starts with the headline, of course, but I also learned about the importance of tailoring the same content to different platforms.

The map that made up the bulk of the featured requires readers to actively scroll through to see the story unfold, which wouldn't be effective in an ordinary Facebook post. So the politics team's social media editor and a member of our video team created a short, Facebook-native video telling the same story in miniature. We posted it to Facebook along with a link to the feature itself. The data viz team also created an animated GIF of the progress of Medicaid expansion in the states for us to use on Twitter.

 Credit: The Huffington Post

One thing to stress about putting together multimedia content like this is you have to test, re-test, and re-test again to make sure it looks good and that the user experience will be positive. When we do things like this, we're giving readers a different experience than they're used to, and a small glitch can be enough to make someone click away.

Our project did come up short in one respect: the animated map wouldn't display properly on mobile devices. So we created an alternate, mobile-only version  using static images. We weren't satisfied with the user experience, but never came up with a better solution. Like everyone else, we're getting an increasing share of our readership from mobile devices, and although this feature earned good traffic overall, it suffered on mobile. It’s a lesson I'm taking with me for the next time I embark on a project like this.

My final word is that if you have multimedia professionals on your staff and you haven't taken advantage of this resource, you should start right away. There are so many ways to communicate information and to get readers interested in your beat that you as a writer might not imagine. And if you have an idea yourself but don't know how to pull it off, there's a good chance you have a colleague who does. The combination of a reporter's ability to tell a story, with a multimedia producer's talents at catching readers' eyes, can be powerful.

Jeffrey Young is a health care reporter for The Huffington Post and is based in Washington. He has covered health care, business, and politics for 15 years at organizations including Bloomberg News and The Hill.