By Lyle Muller
The numbers were available: Iowa veterans returning from war were waiting at the end of 2012, on average, 313 days before the Department of Veterans Affairs processed their benefit claims.
But what did the numbers mean?
Four Iowa newspapers working with IowaWatch were able to tell you in a report last Sunday. This happened despite December being a tight month for newsroom staffs working holiday schedules and for getting time commitments from people who could talk with authority about the matter.
The story had depth and timeliness because the newsrooms collaborated. At a time when resources for newsgathering show no hint of loosening up, experienced journalists working together still can tell great stories about things that impact lives.
With that concept in mind, IowaWatch, a non-profit news organization that will turn 3 years old this year, reached out to some of the state’s newspapers with a proposal: You interview veterans in your region, we’ll talk with VA officials and others, and we all can put into context data about waiting times for VA benefits that the Center for Investigative Reporting has compiled.
IowaWatch has a relationship with the Center for Investigative Reporting through membership both have in the national organization, the Investigative News Network.
The Gazette, Quad-City Times, The Hawk Eye in Burlington and the Fort Dodge Messenger grabbed the story idea with gusto and interviewed veterans and veterans’ advocates in their part of the state. IowaWatch staff member Robert Maharry, a senior journalism student at the University of Iowa, talked with officials from the VA and Iowa’s state Department of Veterans Affairs while working his way through VA records — and finals at school.
The result is a sobering story about disabled Iowa veterans who cannot get quick help from the government that sent them to war.
Working on their own, each newsroom in this project would have invested far more time to produce such a story, and the story would not be published for quite a while. If more than one did the same story independently, each would have duplicated efforts while skipping other stories on their to-do list.
News consumers who think of media outlets competing fiercely against each other for scoops may be surprised to know that newsgathering collaboration for the sake of informing you has been around a long time.
However, the idea has become more evident recently. ProPublica reporter Sheri Fink won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for an article published in a partnership with The New York Times Magazine. Efforts by news organizations, The Gazette among them, to build communities of collaborating citizen journalists are seen as a significant way to spread news to wide audiences.
IowaWatch collaborated with The Gazette, The Hawk Eye, The Telegraph Herald in Dubuque and the Iowa City Press-Citizen for an investigative report in September that explained the problems facing Iowans who need health care but have no health insurance.
The Des Moines Register collaborated with The Gazette, The Hawk Eye, Quad-City Times, Sioux City Journal, The Courier in Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Ottumwa Courier, Omaha World-Herald, Sioux Falls Argus Leader and Rochester, Minn., Post-Bulletin last fall for stories on how much money presidential campaigns spent on television advertising.
Each collaboration resulted in good reporting about things that impact on you. Neither would have happened with depth in a timely fashion without newsrooms working together.
The bottom line still ought to be telling the citizenry in a timely manner about things that impact it.
To illustrate how important working together on journalism is, Mercer University dedicated a Center for Collaborative Journalism in September. The center is using $4.6 million in grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to combine efforts at Mercer’s journalism and media studies program with The Telegraph, the Macon, Ga., newspaper and Georgia Public Broadcasting. The Telegraph and GPB newsrooms moved to the center, on campus.
The effort sounds somewhat familiar to what we are trying to accomplish at IowaWatch, although not to the extent of moving newspapers and radio stations to a college campus. IowaWatch’s goal is to produce good journalism that fills a void left by newsroom staff reductions while giving college students hands-on experience producing journalism the right way. For that to happen we, too, need collaborators.
If we do this correctly, society should benefit because of how much more everyone — reporters, people living with these impacts, the general public, policy makers — understands public matters.
Lyle Muller, former editor at The Gazette, is executive director/editor of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism in Iowa City. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org