A Q&A with Sarah Rafacz, editor of Spotlight PA State College
Having grown up, earned her degree, and started her editorial career in the State College area, Sarah Rafacz has strong personal and professional ties to the community.
When in summer 2022 Spotlight PA launched its first-ever regional bureau, based in State College, Rafacz was named its first editor. The goal of the pilot bureau is to serve as a model for how to bring the rigor of Spotlight PA’s statewide collaborative coverage to the local level and help address the crisis in local news in communities across Pennsylvania.
“Our ultimate goal is to do a public service for the people who live in our communities and so they benefit more when we collaborate with other newsrooms than when we compete with them,” Rafacz said.
Her experience in previous newsrooms has helped drive the development of the four-person bureau forward, but so has her dedication to investigative accountability and news organizations promoting solutions to build up and strengthen the communities they serve.
We recently spoke with Rafacz about her background in journalism, her role in Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau, and the developments and challenges that lie ahead.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you begin working at Spotlight PA?
I started at Spotlight PA in mid-April. I was hired as the State College Bureau editor. The bureau is new; we just launched in July. I found out about this role in the winter, when Spotlight was planning to launch its first ever regional bureau in State College. I had been in discussions with Chris Baxter and a few of the other editors throughout the winter, interviewed, and was offered the job in March. At that point, I started doing a little bit of work to get myself ready to take on the job full time because we were looking at hiring our team to get ready for the launch. It was a busy spring.
Why did you want to work at the State College bureau?
Out of college, I started working for the local newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, and had a few different roles there, including on the copy desk as a page designer, and then as a reporter. Then I went on to be the editor of State College Magazine, which is a monthly community focused magazine. The opportunity at the State College bureau was just too good to pass up because it is the kind of journalism that I’ve been wanting to do since school. It’s very public service-driven and really focused on digging deeper, looking beneath the surface, and trying to provide more context. Seeing that kind of investment in local journalism, especially in the community that I’ve lived in all my life and where I started my career, it was just really exciting to get the opportunity to be the one to help bring that to life here.
Tell me more about the collaboration with the Centre Daily Times. How does it benefit your work and also the community?
[The Centre Daily Times] is one of our 92 partners around the state. It runs our work either online or in the paper, and is a really strong partner for us in this region. What we’ve really been trying to do, since we’re so new, is take Spotlight PA’s approach on statewide issues and use that in a local setting. We still want to focus on that same high-quality, investigative accountability, public-service journalism, but we’re applying it to a more local and regional scope.
Having partners like Centre Daily Times is really valuable for us, not only because they republish our work, which helps us reach our audience, but because we don’t have our own printed product. It’s great because we can collaborate on stories. We have the luxury of not doing daily news. We have a little bit more time and can work with reporters who are already in the area, who’ve already been on their beats for a while, who might have really great story ideas, but who just don’t have the time with their daily news obligations to really see those through. We can collaborate and have our reporter work with one of theirs to bring those stories to the finish line. I think it’s really beneficial for the people who live here to get that high quality, investigative journalism and a little bit more than just day-to-day news, which is also super important.
What has it been like managing this work between four people at the bureau? How did you go about building that team?
There are four of us in the bureau, but we’re really lucky to have Spotlight PA’s infrastructure where we have a lot of resources being part of that newsroom. Our executive editor and editor-in-chief, Chris Baxter, describes it as “a hub and spoke” about how we are an offshoot of that. We still have that infrastructure support. It’s great that we’re able to start something new without having to go through all of the setup that comes along with being a startup, because they’ve already gone through that. We have great editing support and we have the opportunity to collaborate with other reporters in the larger Spotlight PA newsroom, so we were really lucky for that.
The regional area has about 14 counties in North Central Pennsylvania, so we’re really focused on having that coverage. We have three reporters, including a Penn State investigative reporter. Obviously, Penn State has huge influence in our region and across the state. We also have a reporter who actually came to our newsroom thanks to a partnership with Report for America; he’s focused on rural issues in North Central Pennsylvania. Then we have a local accountability reporter who’s focused on looking into governance, especially of small local governments, which tend to not get a lot of attention because not many people live in that area, and there aren’t newspapers for every community in our coverage area. So we’re really looking into how those local governments are operating. We’re diving a little bit more into local and regional issues.
The great thing about being part of Spotlight PA is that we already have a built-in statewide audience. So we can not only provide news for people who live in the North Central Pennsylvania region and are interested in these stories, but really elevate the stories of this region to the statewide audience that we already have built in. A lot of things that people are experiencing in our region can also be relatable to people living elsewhere in the state, in terms of how their local governments are functioning and government transparency. Issues like infrastructure, broadband access, health care — those are issues that people across the state are facing, not just in our region. We’re able to tell the stories of people who live here, but also make them relatable to people who live anywhere in Pennsylvania.
Although you’re in an editorial position, can you speak a little bit about the fundraising at this new branch? How has it gone? What are some challenges and hurdles around it?
We have a great team on the development side and it’s actually grown a lot since I started. Our development director, Joanna Bernstein, is fantastic, and has had the job of five people since she started. We recently hired a major gifts director and a membership manager to help with the fundraising. We have a major gifts advisor specifically for our bureau, Kathleen Pavelko, and she comes from the news business. She has ties to our area, which is really great, because she’s really helping take the lead on fundraising for the State College bureau specifically.
The fundraising has been interesting for me, because it’s not something that I’ve ever really been a part of through my job. But it’s been cool to talk to people about the bureau because it’s something I really believe in and it’s easy to talk to people about something you believe in and are excited about. I think our reporters feel the same way.
We hosted an event for current and prospective donors on September 22 at the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County. It was wonderful to have conversations with people who truly value and care about local news and recognize its importance to the health of our communities. It was great to connect with donors and hear their excitement about what we’re doing. We’re so grateful for everyone who donates to and supports Spotlight PA and the State College regional bureau. It’s an amazing feeling to know that people believe in our work and our public-service mission.
What tools/tactics have proved to be effective to reach your audience? What stories have proved to be affecting the community?
One of the most helpful things for us is just going back to the basics, trying to get out there and talk to as many people as we can, and trying to reach people in as many different ways as we can, whether it’s through community listening sessions, attending community events, our stories, or our weekly regional newsletter. We want to hear from people about what’s happening in their community, whether it’s something they’re concerned about or whether something positive is happening and could be an example of a solution-based story. We’re really just looking to hear from as many people as possible, and I think that really helps inform our reporting to gain a better understanding of the challenges and the nuances of where we’re reporting. Obviously, we’re in a fairly big coverage area geographically, so we’re not always going to know everything that’s going on. We have to build those relationships with people so they know they can come to us if they see something happening in their community that’s not quite right.
Our first story out of the bureau was about water contamination near the University Park Airport and township. We were able to tell the story of people who are having to rely on bottled water and their questions about why they weren’t told sooner about this contamination. That story, I think, resonated with a lot of people and was picked up by our partners across the state. We’ve also learned that people really want to hear more about ways that institutions and people with power are being transparent or not. We’ve covered stories about Penn State, some issues that have come up there, and how Penn State responds to them. We also had an intern over the summer who did a salary data project for Centre County and its 35 municipalities, literally just writing about who’s making what, what kind of positions are paid in each municipality, and asking people what they want to learn from the data. We had a good response from people who were saying, “Could you do this for my county?” So I think people really do want to see deeper journalism that’s just holding people accountable and providing context and depth.
One of Spotlight PA’s goals is to take a solutions-oriented approach to journalism. How do you leverage your reporting to do that?
I think something that we’re trying to do with our reporting is to really think about things as part of the larger picture. For example, we just published a story about a local fire company, its local government, and how their relationship has changed. It’s a volunteer fire company, so it’s a private organization, but it provides a public service. They used to be able to rely more on donations, but now with COVID, rising costs, and donations not being as consistent, they are turning to public tax dollars as a more reliable source of funding. With that comes a question of: should there be more oversight of how they spend it?
This is an example of a municipality with not even 5,000 people, yet this changing relationship is something that volunteer fire companies and local governments are navigating all over the state. From that perspective, we’re really trying to look at these issues and say, is this an isolated incident that we’re seeing in this particular area? Or is this something that is a larger issue that’s happening across the state? People might read this story and say, “This sounds like what’s happening in my community too. I wonder if I should look into that more.” Maybe that generates some discussions throughout other communities. That’s one way we’re looking at our journalism — to at least get some conversations going when we’re first seeing issues that might be happening statewide.