Collaboration Lets KUSA, Post Expand Reach
Denver’s two digital powerhouses spent much of 2012 collaborating on a sweeping investigative project about the fatal consequences of failures in the state’s child welfare system.
For 10 months, a team of reporters from the Digital First Media-owned Denver Post and Gannett-owned NBC affiliate KUSA-TV worked side-by-side to understand why so many children had died despite supervision by Colorado’s child protection workers. The results, published and aired in November, are powerful journalism, but the project is also an example of how pooling resources can engage a huge digital audience.
Teaming up made it possible for the two news organizations to sift through countless documents, build a database from scratch and tell the eight-part story in words and video. It also put the reporters’ work in front of more readers and viewers than either outlet could alone.
“I like that the newspaper has a different audience than we have,” said Nicole Vap, the executive producer of KUSA’s investigative team. “I think (the series) got the response that it did because it was on both platforms.”
It’s not unusual for big-name news organizations to work together. In December, The Boston Globe and WBZ-TV announced plans team up on breaking news videos. Public television’s Frontline, meanwhile, has worked on in-depth reporting projects with ESPN, NPR and ProPublica.
Reporters from the Post and KUSA have worked together in the past, but on a much smaller scale. Editors in both newsrooms had discussed the possibility of a larger joint project, and the opportunity presented itself in early 2012 when a reporter pitched the idea of finding out what was behind a troubling string of child deaths.
“We knew it was going to be a massive project,” said Kevin Dale, the Post’s news director. “It was almost impossible to think of doing it ourselves.”
Both newsrooms brought important — and similar — skills to the table. The journalists involved were some of the most experienced investigative reporters in the region; both outlets are known for producing quality video. Their goal was to avoid any duplication of effort, something that became vital in a year full of other big news stories like the Aurora movie theater shooting and the general election.
The Post and KUSA took turns assigning videographers to multi-day assignments, something Vap said allowed them to invest time in building trust with child protection workers and see courtroom proceedings firsthand.
“We shared the burden of losing those photographers out of our daily mix,” she said.
At first, the investigative team considered building a shared site devoted to the project.
The Post and KUSA eventually chose to feature the project separately on each of their sites. The information is the same, although there are some stylistic differences to integrate the series with each new organization’s content management system.
The two outlets are at the top of the local digital market, so the potential audience was large.
The Post treated the online package the same as any other digital content, which means visitors may see ads as they read stories, watch videos or flip through photos. The series was extremely popular online, Dale said, as were follow up stories and live chats with the investigative team.
“All of that got much larger engagement than we would normally see on anything other than the Broncos,” he said. “For a news story, it was pretty high.”
Overall, the project received just over 250,000 views and the individual installments were the among the most read stories of the day. Online readership is important, but Dale stressed that the project was about more than Web traffic.
“We don't gauge its success based on pure page views,” he said. “There is too much at stake in letting the state's child services system go unchecked. If the project has an impact on fixing the system, it will be a success."
KUSA partnered with a local children’s hospital to produce public service ads about child abuse prevention that appeared on the air and online. In addition to the ads, a home for abused children sent volunteers to the station for five nights to answer calls from viewers with questions about the signs of abuse and neglect.
Vap and Dale were careful to use each platform to tell different parts of the story. The print components focused heavily on documents, data and policy. The videos featured some of the families involved and showed the stresses of working as a welfare officer. Online, the series was aggregated and augmented with additional background information.
The work was emotionally draining for everyone involved, especially as the months passed and the number of victims grew. Dale said it wasn’t uncommon to see a reporter cry while researching a particular child’s case. But both newsrooms hope that their efforts will lead to lasting changes in Colorado’s welfare system.