Youngstown Vindicator reporter Jordyn Grzelewski has covered the opioid crisis in the northeast Ohio city for nearly four years, but this spring she took a new approach based on feedback from dozens of community members.
Grzelewski and the Vindicator took part in Your Voice Ohio, a collaborative reporting effort on the opioid crisis bringing together outlets to share coverage and hold structured forums where reporters, community members, and policymakers discussed the crisis and how best to solve it.
“We were really participants in the sessions, rather than observers,” she told me. “I think it let people know that we are part of the community too and we do care about this. We live in this time when people aren’t super trustful of journalists and it was a really good engagement thing to do to sit at tables with them.”
This week in Solution Set we’re covering Your Voice Ohio. We’ll dig into the collaborative’s deliberative approach to journalism, how it organized convenings, and how it got competing publications to work together.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one interesting thing in journalism, share lessons and point you toward other useful resources. (A quick note: SJN has collaborated with Your Voice Ohio, but they had no oversight of this report.)
Here’s the TLDR version of what you need to know:
• The Challenge: After the 2016 election, news organizations across Ohio wanted to better understand and serve their audiences.
• The Strategy: The Jefferson Center, a nonprofit research group, worked with news orgs to create Your Voice Ohio, a collaborative reporting initiative on the opioid crisis centered around facilitated community conversations.
• The Numbers: Your Voice Ohio has staged 11 events across the state. About 50 outlets joined the effort, along with hundreds of individuals.
• The Lessons: Listening to readers helped journalists rethink how they cover the crisis. One key to success has been the work of a central coordinator who helped guide all the outlets.
• The Future: Your Voice Ohio is expanding to cover the state’s economy ahead of this fall’s election.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down for other examples of cool collaborative journalism projects.
Now, let’s dig in a little deeper:
The initial work for what would ultimately become Your Voice Ohio began before the 2016 presidential election.
In late 2015, as the campaign began to heat up, the Jefferson Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit research organization that works to facilitate informed conversations, wanted to rethink campaign coverage. It began working with Doug Oplinger, then-managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, who similarly wanted to take a more purposeful approach to covering the election.
The collaborative conducted four surveys of 2,000 citizens each, polling them on the issues they thought were important, how they decided who to vote for, what they thought of the news media and more. They then wrote stories based on that data, and every participating outlet could publish the stories.
The Jefferson Center also hosted deliberative events it calls Citizens Juries. These are the center’s signature events. They bring together demographically representative panels of residents for three-day-long discussions of issues facing their community. Based on their conversations, participants then offer suggested policy solutions.
The participants were also asked about their perceptions of the news media, said Andrew Rockway, the Jefferson Center’s program director.
“From that, we got a playbook of how citizens wanted these issues covered and started thinking about different presentations of data and information,” Rockway said. “Not just 1,000-word articles but more graphics and charts, different presentations of data that more people can digest effectively.”
And then Trump won.
News organizations were caught off-guard by his unexpected victory, and they reached out to the Jefferson Center to figure out how they could continue the work to better cover issues that mattered to the state’s residents.
“For many of our partners, that was a [red] flag that we’re not doing enough to listen to our audience and engage them,” Rockway said.
The Jefferson Center’s research showed that the public thought the opioid epidemic was one of the most important issues facing the state. In 2016, 3,613 Ohioans died from opioid-related overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That’s a rate of 32.9 deaths per 100,000 people, more than double the national average of 13.3 deaths per 100,000 people.
“We rode into 2017 with the idea that the Jefferson Center has delivered some ideas about how we could re-engage with the community, so let’s run with that,” Oplinger, now the Your Voice Ohio project manager, told me.
“Let’s take the issue that people have identified as most important in our polling in 2016 and let’s also think about how journalists right now are engaged in this opioid crisis,” he said. “How do we cover that differently? The crisis is getting worse, we’re covering the hell out of it and it’s not making any difference. What can we do differently?”
That’s how the Jefferson Center came to launch the current iteration Your Voice Ohio. Oplinger retired from the Beacon Journal in May 2017 and later that year took on the Your Voice Ohio project.
Community forums are at the heart of the Your Voice Ohio model. Rockway and the Jefferson Center designed and facilitated group discussions based on the World Café methodology, which was designed to encourage productive group discussions.
Members of the public, journalists, along with government officials and policymakers were invited to take part. Many of the community members who attended were personally affected by the crisis. The participants were intermingled, and they sat at tables in small groups and together responded to three questions:
- What does addiction look like in our community?
- What do you see as causes of the addiction crisis here?
- What steps might we take to combat the addiction crisis?
Before they left, participants were asked to write down questions they’d like reporters to look into. “It’s an in-person Hearken situation,” Rockway said, referring to the company that offers a similar question-asking platform.While Rockway and the Jefferson Center organized and facilitated the discussions, Oplinger focused on getting news organizations to participate and collaborate. Prior to the launch of the program, Oplinger travelled to newsrooms around Ohio to recruit them, explain how Your Voice Ohio works, and encourage them to set aside their competitive differences for the good of the public.
Coverage that was produced through Your Voice Ohio was shared among all participants. They also held a retreat with reporters from across the state to share story ideas and best practices for covering the crisis.
Once the program started, Oplinger wrote stories introducing the public to the program and helped coordinate coverage among participating news organizations. After each public forum, he’d gather the journalists to discuss what they heard and divvy up stories.
“We have to set aside our competitive instincts and work together to help us all fix this,” Oplinger said of the opioid crisis. “We had those conversations in which people shared some incredible personal stories, opened their hearts. People were crying and … the journalists couldn’t believe people were opening up like this. They were watching people with different life experiences have different ideas about what the causes were, but as they started moving toward solutions there were consistencies that kind of bubbled up. The journalists began to realize that what they were providing in their stories was not what the people needed and didn’t address what the people said were policy solutions that need to be addressed.”
Your Voice Ohio launched in Fall 2017. Since then, the collaborative has held 11 events in three different regions. It’s holding another three forums next week.
51 news organizations have participated in Your Voice Ohio so far. And hundreds of community members participated in the community forums, which has enabled news organizations to include more voices in their coverage. The Jefferson Center tries to bring 60-120 participants to each forum.
“You can interview five people and get unique perspectives. But if you’re in a situation where in two hours you can hear unique perspectives from 100 people — and the output of that conversation is questions, themes, etc. that focus on what 100 people are thinking and the interaction between all of these people in terms of what they see — you get more nuanced, deeper ideas and questions than you would spending two hours interviewing a few folks,” Rockway said. “That’s part of the value-add we’re looking at here. How do we make these in-person interactions effective for journalists as a new way to get a sense of how their community is thinking about an issue?”
Your Voice Ohio is supported by a two-year $250,000 grant from the Democracy Fund and a $75,000 grant from Knight Foundation.
• Listen to your community: Dayton Daily News reporter Katie Wedell attended three Your Voice Ohio forums in southwest Ohio. The paper has covered the crisis for years, and it became Wedell’s full-time beat in 2017. She told me that one of her biggest takeaways from participating in the program was that she was able to get a better understanding of the coverage that readers wanted.
“We came out of those sessions with a big, long list of things people wanted us to write about. Some of it was stuff we already had written about it, but it was interesting that people didn’t know that we had already covered it,” she said. “How do we make sure that people are seeing the work that we’re doing?”
“Some of it was things that I hadn’t even really thought of,” she continued. “Some people were still confused about what is an opioid. … We forget sometimes that when we’ve covered something for so long that some people are new to the story and don’t know what we’re talking about. The big thing that we took and have run with is that they really want to hear positive stories. We want to hear stories of people recovering, stories of hope and the good things going on, not just who overdosed that day or how many deaths there were that week.”
That feedback and experience influenced Wedell’s approach as the Daily News launched a project recently that’s focused on solutions-oriented reporting on the opioid crisis. That feedback also informed how she covered Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s recent visit to Dayton to discuss the crisis.
“It gave me the confidence to ask questions that I knew were the questions our readers wanted answered because we had heard from them,” she said. “When we’re covering a topic, we try to be experts and we try to know what the right questions to ask are. But this is a hard one because it’s something I haven’t personally experienced and you do have to go through it to know some of the things you’d want to ask…The main thing I took from Your Voice Ohio to that interview and others since then is that I understand this problem from more angles and more sides now than I did when I was just starting out on a foreign topic to me.”
Reporter Jordyn Grzelewski has worked at The Youngstown Vindicator for four years, and for most of that time she’s covered the opioid crisis. She said she was hopeful that participating in the forums with community members could help build trust between news organizations and those they cover. “I think it let people know that we are part of the community too and we do care about this,” she said.
She said the sessions also helped her get a better sense of the types of stories that would be most impactful.
“As a reporter, you have this idea that these are the stories that are interesting or these are the stories I should be doing. A lot of times, while those may be important stories what people may be looking for is a lot more practical, resource-driven, stories. That’s what I got from the questions that we received. They were really more: ‘I need help with this,’ not ‘Do this huge think piece on the trends.’”
• A central organizer helps: Collaboration is one of the key components of Your Voice Ohio. By partnering together, news organizations can expand their reach and have greater impact. But collaboration can be a challenge. Outlets have limited resources to dedicate to the initiative and newsrooms that are traditionally competitive can be hesitant to work together.
That’s why it’s important to have an independent leader to organize the collaborative. When it comes to Your Voice Ohio, Oplinger isn’t beholden to any newsroom, so he’s able to prioritize the collaborative and cajole newsrooms to work together. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s well-respected across the state and been a part of three Pulitzer-winning teams.)
“He keeps it rolling and moving forward when the rest of us come back to our newsrooms and we have other things competing for our time,” Wedell said.
Your Voice Ohio coordinates much of its work via phone calls, emails and shared Google Drive folders. It tried Slack, but there wasn’t much uptake.
Still, not every newsroom Your Voice Ohio has approached agreed to take part. Oplinger said it was often easier to work with smaller outlets who realized they had a lot to gain by working with their peers. “When I get to the larger markets, it’s harder,” he said. “There’s always one outlet that thinks we can win this.”
But among the outlets that are participating, Oplinger has made it as easy as possible for publications to share coverage, making sure the pieces are well-edited and accessible
“Doug would deliver stories to us that were ready to go. It wasn’t a lot of effort on our part,” Grzelewski said.
If you’re thinking about launching or participating in a large-scale collaborative effort such as Your Voice Ohio, you should also be thinking about naming a point person to keep things on track and make sure the collaboration runs smoothly.
• Look beyond journalism: The Jefferson Center is not a news organization. It does not practice journalism. But its participation in Your Voice Ohio was critical to the program. The forums it designed and facilitated helped the journalists better understand the opioid crisis and better understand the communities they were serving. This led to better journalism.
As journalists, it’s easy just to focus on our own industry (I am someone who does journalism about journalism, so I am as guilty of this as anyone), but it can be beneficial to sometimes look beyond the news business to collaborate with and get inspiration from others.
The Jefferson Center has unique experience in education and community dialogue, and that background helped shape Your Voice Ohio’s journalism.
“We’re trying a lot to see how we can best support journalists in dealing with a turbulent time and with a lot in transition and in flux in the world,” Rockway said. “It’s definitely experimental for us as we try to build the best collaborative. What are the tools and strategies that go into that?
Earlier this year, representatives from Your Voice Ohio met with state government representatives at the Capitol Building in Columbus. Oplinger said they wanted to share what they learned and share what residents across the state said.
“They said, this is kind of depressing because we think we’re doing good work. The problem is that it’s not touching the people who need it. There are too many people who are falling into the cracks,” Oplinger said. The state officials told the group that ultimately the decisions were up to officials on the local level.
“There is nobody at the state level saying you need to do needle exchanges, you need to do intervention teams, you need to do these things that work,” he said. “The reason the state doesn’t want to do it isbecause they then have to take responsibility for funding it … that was something that was highlighted and I think we can make an issue of that. We’ve started to. This local control thing is allowing people to die.”
The response wasn’t what they thought, but they’ll continue to work with state officials to share lessons and inform them what Ohioans are thinking about the issue.
Your Voice Ohio is also planning to expand its coverage. This fall, in advance of the 2018 midterm elections, it’s going to focus on the Ohio economy. About 40 news organizations are participating.
The group plans to do statewide polling, researchand stories that will be co-published by outlets across the state. It’ll continue to do community conversations and also wants to use the questions and information that emerge from those conversations in debates with candidates.
Still, Your Voice Ohio doesn’t plan to use the word economy much when it interacts with community members. “We’re going to ask people, ‘If you were to envision a more vibrant Ohio what would that look like? And what would you do to get there?’” Oplinger said.
“That will allow people to say we need more jobs and higher pay,” he continued. “Or they may say, we need better education. In the barbershop this morning I just tried it out and one of the guys sitting in the barber shop said we need to get along first. That’s not something I was expecting from an old white guy sitting in a white guy barber shop with Fox on the TV screen. I can’t wait to start having these community conversations and find out what kinds of things people say. This may take us someplace we hadn’t expected.”
Want to know more?
• Want to get a better sense of Your Voice Ohio’s coverage? You can check out its archive, sorted by topic, here.
• Check out this Jefferson Center post for a detailed walkthrough of how it organized the community forums.
• Journalism.co.uk wrote an excellent profile of Your Voice Ohio earlier this spring.
• Here’s a CJR profile of another awesome collaborative journalism effort: Broke in Philly, a partnership between 19 news organizations in Philadelphia covering economic justice in the city. (Disclosure: Both the Lenfest Institute and Solutions Journalism Network support the program.)
• In May, I wrote about another cool collaboration: Verificado 2018. More than 90 organizations partnered together to cover Mexico’s elections, which were held on July 1. Here’s a post from Meedan’s Tom Trewinnard wrapping up the initiative.
• SJN’s Amanda Ripley earlier this month published a post looking at how journalists can better cover complicated topics. You should absolutely read the whole thing, but here’s a key takeaway:
The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.
Anything to add?
Is your newsroom taking part in any neat collaborations? Tell me about them.Send me an email, I’m at [email protected]institute.org.
I’ll share some of the responses in next week’s edition.
See you next Thursday!