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Project launches test of a new model for health journalism Date: 12/10/08

By Pia Christensen
Association of Health Care Journalists

“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, is the first venture from the Center for California Health Care Journalism, a new organization blending nonprofit and traditional media support for health care stories.

The newspaper gave its readers an "up-close and extensive look at UC Merced's hope for a medical school," Executive Editor Mike Tharp said. It resulted from a partnership between newspaper and center staffers.

Center project leader Michael Parks, former editor of the Los Angeles Times and professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, was pleased with the result. “I thought it was a good piece of journalism accomplished at a reasonable cost. I thought it brought to the public a range of issues involved in establishing a medical school to solve a serious health care deficit.

Michael Parks
Michael Parks

“I think it will contribute to the debate when the regents make a decision in January.”

Sowing Hope,” which includes about 15 elements – articles, sidebars and multimedia presentations – was done in just six weeks. One of the center’s goals is to do the projects quickly. “If the projects are going to have an impact in the community, they need to be there,” Parks said.

The Center for California Health Care Journalism is a new organization formed to report on health care issues that concern Californians. The center is supported by the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California and funded by the California HealthCare Foundation." [Learn more about the center in this brochure (PDF).]

The California HealthCare 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.

In an attempt to determine that, it initiated a “proof of concept” in which a small group of journalists does stories, completely independent of the foundation. The foundation funded the pilot project with $239,000 for six months.

Parks believes health care deserves much more coverage than the public is getting now. “If there’s an area to invest in, it’s health coverage,” he said.

Dividing the duties

Tharp explained the genesis of the partnership. CHCF communications director, Spencer Sherman, told Parks about the Merced paper and, about six weeks ago, Parks and Richard Kipling, a longtime Los Angeles Times editor now working with the center, visited Merced. Parks offered the center’s assistance.

“We will provide the additional talent, in terms of resources that you need as an editor to do projects,” Parks said. In the partnerships, the center has ideas about projects that can be done, but they have found that often the local editors have better ideas that fit community needs. The editors often have ideas about things they would do if they had time, resources and people.

“We have to blend into the culture of a particular newsroom,” Parks said. “We can‘t come roaring in with our big metro ideas.”

The editors of the papers have the final say over a project. For the Merced project, Parks said that “In the end, the decision about what goes into the paper resides with Mike Tharp.”

Mike Tharp, editor of the Merced Sun-Star
Mike Tharp

Danielle Gaines, Merced Sun-Star education reporter
Danielle Gaines

For this project, the center contributed reporter Deborah Schoch, formerly a writer at the Los Angeles Times. She split reporting duties with Danielle Gaines, the Sun-Star's education reporter. Tharp took Gaines off the education beat for the duration of the project, except for essential coverage. The two reporters "split the work down the middle and collaborated" on who would interview whom and what points they wanted to be sure to touch on in the stories, according to Tharp.

Anacleto Rapping, formerly a photographer with the Los Angeles Times, came to Merced to provide the images for the project. Kipling was the main organizer of the project and handled the first edit of the stories before turning them over to Tharp.

Tharp says there's "no way" his paper, with a circulation of 20,000, could have produced this project without the partnership with the center.

"For one thing, Richard and Deborah brought a national focus to the piece. Deborah, for example, found something of a template for rural medical schools." That became a sidebar about the model provided by the WWAMI consortium, a nationally acclaimed rural medicine program named after its five member states: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

"Anacleto brought his talent and visual storytelling skills to the project that none of our photographers could have done nearly as well," Tharp says. In addition to taking the photographs for the project, Rapping produced several multimedia slideshows for the Web site.

"Richard and I felt ... that these stories could have been in any newspaper in the country," Tharp says. "I like to pride the Sun-Star reporters for hitting way above our weight." The paper has won a number of awards but, "Even with that talent, we couldn't have parlayed the time that it took to turn this project around."

The McClatchy-owned paper has done two large projects recently, one about the effect the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on the community and one about poverty in Merced County. "Those projects took months to do with reporters working on their parts of the project while still working their beats,” Tharp says.

Transparency is essential given the partnership, Parks says. The project ran with what Kipling calls the “truth box,” a box explaining the partnership and telling the reader how this project got to their breakfast table.

Parks says the relationship with the California Healthcare Foundation has been exactly what it should be and there has been “no attempt to shape, interfere or suggest” what the coverage should be. He said the partnership doesn’t preclude the possibility that, in another project, reporters might go to the foundation as a source, just as reporters would if the foundation was not involved.

Impact and reaction

The package generated some community reaction. “The comments we have had have been positive and constructive,” Tharp said. He thinks that a company-wide redesign of the paper’s Web site that launched last weekend may have stymied some of the usual online commenters.

He is pleased with the results of the project and says the paper wants to partner with the center again and they have a theme in mind. Tharp wrote about the partnership and project in a column that ran in his paper on Nov. 29. Parks says the project has been “fairly widely discussed within McClatchy as an interesting approach to a project.”

The paper, which does not publish on Sundays, ran the project on the days of its largest circulation – Thursday, Friday and Saturday – a departure from the newspaper tradition of starting projects on Sunday and then having subsequent installments run on the days of least circulation.

Tharp was able to negotiate additional space in the paper by involving copy chief Jesse Chenault and pre-press people in the backshop. In an e-mail, Tharp said, “Their layouts and designs turned out beautifully, and Richard was singing their praises for days.”

Tharp also wrote about the support from the Sun-Star’s publisher.

“Publisher Hank Vander Veen was high on this idea from the get-go. I think he saw around the corners that, despite some of the cutbacks we’d have to make (say, for instance, in Danielle Gaines’ coverage of some high school board meetings) that the finished product would resonate widely around the community, county and Valley. “

Louis Freedberg, in a blog posting for the California Media Collaborative, said, “What seems clear is that because of the Sun-Star's limited resources and small staff, this report benefited hugely from the outside help of Schoch, Kipling and others associated with the project.”

Looking into the future

The center is in the process of hiring two more people. Parks declined to name them because they’ve not yet been formally hired but he did say one has been a reporter at The Orange County Register and the other a reporter at the Sacramento Bee.

Parks said the Center is in talks with the Fresno Bee, the North County Times in Escondido, Calif., and a couple of papers in northern California to do projects.

As far as the goals of the center, Parks says “We are engaged in solutions-based journalism.” That amounts to reporting on issues and problems but also exploring solutions. “We hope these projects create a civil dialogue. …Part of the responsibility of journalists is to go out and examine the solutions.”

Parks sees radio as a medium in which the partnership model could be effective. “I think we would be able to do a lot on the public radio stations. I think we’d be able to do a lot on Spanish language radio.” He acknowledges that doing these kind of projects on television is a real challenge because of equipment and staffing needs, as well as time constraints.

The center is about two months into the six-month trial. Once the trial is over, Parks will report to the foundation for a review.

The center is part of a growing trend of nonprofit organizations 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.


Pia Christensen is managing editor/online services for the Association of Health Care Journalists.