Photos courtesy of The Colorado Sun
By Alan Gottlieb
“Parked” a collaborative project that developed organically thanks to the initiative of the Colorado Sun, represents a great beginning to a new spirit of cooperation among Colorado media outlets. Over the course of three days in September 2019, more than a dozen newsrooms across the state worked together to report on the state’s mobile home industry. They found that mobile homes “provide the bulk of unsubsidized, affordable housing in Colorado...but their numbers are shrinking and ownership is moving from mom-and-pop to corporate,” which is leading to displacement and redevelopment.
Colorado Media Project applauds this collaboration and makes recommendations on how to support and deepen such collaborations in the future:
Take time to conduct listening events and develop relationships in the communities will deepen reporting.
Involve more non-traditional news outlets, especially small neighborhood and ethnic media organizations.
Deploy technology for efficient coordination.
Provide funding for an editor to manage future projects.
Get creative with social media and other platforms.
As traditional media newsrooms continue to lose reporting capacity, it becomes increasingly challenging for any single local news organization to execute the kind of large-scale projects that used to be commonplace at daily newspapers and major TV news stations. That makes multi-newsroom collaborations, which used to be rare, an essential part of the landscape going forward.
Major projects often uncover issues that have gone unreported and that have the potential to affect the lives of significant numbers of local residents. Daily news reporting is vitally important as well, but it’s large-scale investigations that often break major news.
That's why a 15-newsroom joint project, spearheaded by The Colorado Sun and completed in Sept. 19, is a significant milestone. A homegrown digital upstart joined with different types of newsrooms–digital natives, TV, radio, traditional newspapers–across the state. Together they reported a story that no one of them could have done alone. This kind of collaboration is essential in a future where resources are likely to remain limited for individual newsrooms.
“I’m proud we participated,” said Erin McIntyre, co-publisher of the Ouray County Plaindealer in southwestern Colorado. “And if a weekly paper like ours with only two full-time staff can be a part of something like this, then I don’t see what excuse anyone else can make to not join in.”
“Parked: Half the American Dream” launched Sunday, September 15, 2019 and ran for three days. Most participating outlets were newspapers, but two online-only outlets, radio stations, and a TV station took part as well (See below for a full list of participating news organizations). Read the full 15-story collection that comprises “Parked” here.
Because the Associated Press was a partner, the project’s reach extended far beyond the outlets involved, and outside Colorado.
Conceived by Sun Editor Larry Ryckman and reporters Kevin Simpson and Jennifer Brown, “Parked” aimed to examine mobile home parks, which for many have become the last form of affordable housing. Yet as corporate ownership of parks expand, many residents fear for the future. The participating outlets looked at the issue from a variety of angles, some statewide in scope, some hyperlocal. The result was a comprehensive and multifaceted examination of an issue invisible to many Coloradans.
What’s more, this collaboration gives CMP, media organizations, funders, and the public an opportunity to learn about how to build partnerships. In the case of “Parked,” a first-of-its-kind effort, organized and executed on a compressed timeline, what worked? What gaps were exposed? What would the Sun and other outlets do differently next time? What role could community voice play in conceiving a collaborative project of this type?
This short report will attempt to answer those questions, to provide some context from outside Colorado on collaborative reporting projects, and offer recommendations for how future collaborations can include a wide spectrum of voices and perspectives and reach even more people.
Origins of the “Parked” project
Earlier this year, Ryckman began casting about for an idea that could drive a statewide reporting collaboration. His initial inclination was to launch a public accountability reporting project: looking at police response times across the state, or pulling court records on a particular topic. “It had to have as much resonance in Durango as in Aspen as in Denver.” But he found it difficult to come up with a topic that felt just right for a first effort at collaboration.
Meanwhile, reporters Simpson and Brown had begun exploring the issue of mobile home parks as housing of last resort. The issue had begun receiving national attention, on John Oliver’s comedy/news program “Last Week Tonight,” and in the New York Times. Closer to home, the Vail Daily had done articles about mobile home parks in Eagle County. But no one had “taken a look at this from a macro level across Colorado,” Ryckman said.
The topic seemed to be a good fit for a collaborative project. The Sun, which launched in September 2018, had developed content-sharing relationships with newspapers across the state, as well as with the AP. Ryckman reached out to those partners and scheduled a conference call in mid-July to discuss his idea and gauge interest.
Ultimately, all but a couple of the outlets on the call joined the project. Those that didn’t said they lacked the bandwidth to take it on.
Only a little more than two months elapsed between that first call and the project’s publication, a timeline all involved agreed was too compressed to be ideal.
Because the idea originated at the Sun, and the collaboration was driven by Ryckman, it fell to him to act as project manager. This meant creating a shared story log in a Google spreadsheet, checking in regularly with all partners and nudging those who were lagging on deadlines, and coordinating photos with AP, (ultimately, AP’s regional director of storytelling and photography assumed responsibility for photos). Ryckman set deadlines for the group, and stayed in regular email and phone contact.
The Sun also sent out a list of 10 questions for every outlet to answer so that information could be compiled and included in the Sun’s three days of main-bar stories, and in an infographic. Those questions included: how many manufactured home parks are in your county; are there manufactured homes not in parks; who owns the parks today vs. in the past; have there been conflicts in your communities about the parks?
As with any collaborative projects, responsiveness and timeliness varied among participants. In the end, though, everything came together and the entire package, 15 stories strong, appeared on the Sun website, with each story produced by other outlets linked back to from the Sun project page. Several outlets also ran the Sun’s three main stories, which offered a broader, statewide perspective.
The project produced a wide variety of stories. The Sun’s stories focused on how mobile homes are housing of last resort and are disappearing; how a new state law aims to provide mobile residents with some eviction protections; and actions towns are taking to preserve what mobile home parks remain.
Among the more localized stories:
The Ouray County Plaindealer told the story of a woman who had to give away her deceased mother’s mobile home because she couldn’t afford to move it, as required by city codes.
KUNC, a public radio station in Greeley, reported on how the catastrophic 2013 floods destroyed almost 300 mobile homes in three northern Colorado towns, and some residents are still looking for permanent housing in the area.
Steamboat Pilot and Today reported on the steady decrease in the number of mobile homes in Routt County.
The Greeley Tribune wrote about how residents of local mobile home parks feel abandoned by local governments.
The Durango Herald focused on how rising lot rents in the pricey town are driving out even middle-class residents of mobile home parks.
Every project participant we interviewed expressed eagerness to be part of whatever collaboration might come next. They felt they were part of something larger-scale and more ambitious than they could have produced alone, and this benefitted their readers or listeners.
“It was a great one-two punch, having the Sun provide overview stories and others focus on what is happening in local communities,” said Michael deYoanna, an investigative reporter at KUNC Radio.
The Sun’s Ryckman seconded the sentiment. “We were able to draw on the strengths of having more than a dozen reporters spread across state. It was a tremendous opportunity to have eyes, ears, and boots on the ground across so many cities and towns across Colorado. None of us could have done it on own. Pulled together flexed our journalistic muscles.”
Having one organization act as project coordinator also made it easier on the other outlets, who needed to focus only on their own work. From the Sun’s perspective, however, running the project put a strain on a relatively small organization’s limited human resources (see next section).
Participating outlets also praised how the Sun and AP displayed and distributed stories. The Sun ran all “Parked” stories on its website, but also included a link back to the outlet where the story originated, with a tagline “support local journalism: read this story at, (for example) KUNC.org.”
The project also benefited from the recognition it garnered by virtue of being such a large-scale collaboration. Catherine Welch, KUNC news director, noted that media organizations not directly involved in the project – she cited Colorado Public Radio as an example – reported on the collaboration itself as newsworthy, as well as reporting on its findings.
Lisa Schlichtman, editor of the Steamboat Pilot and Today singled out KUNC for praise, because the station is interviewing reporters from across the state about the project and running those interviews on its new “Colorado Edition” evening, Monday through Thursday program. “The willingness to share and promote each other’s work without getting territorial the way journalists sometimes do was exceptional,” she said.
Finally, the simple fact that the collaborative project was conceived and executed, and that all participating newsrooms – and others as well – want to work together on future projects, represents perhaps its biggest win. Ryckman has ambitions for one or two 2020 projects with 25 or more outlets involved.
What changes would improve future collaborations?
As one would expect from a first-time effort, the experience of working on “Parked” came with its share of bumps, frustrations, and oversights. No one involved seemed to harbor any ill feelings, but everyone had ideas about how to make the next collaboration run more smoothly.
Suggestions from participating newsrooms included:
Contracting with an outside editor or project manager. Ryckman said he would like to see an outside editor hired with grant money, or provided by the Colorado Media Project. “It’s one thing to coordinate among 15 newsrooms, but if we expand to 25, that’s another matter,” he said. Other participants backed this idea. While they praised Ryckman and the Sun for their management of the project, they said communication was at times spotty, and minor glitches created some frustration. As an example, KUNC’s Welch mentioned a lack of cutlines accompanying project photos stored in a shared Dropbox folder. “My digital editor had to comb through documents and websites to find cutlines,” she said. A project manager could also oversee repackaging content for various social media (see recommendation below).
Allotting more time for reporting. The project’s compressed timeline also proved problematic for several outlets, especially the smaller ones. “There were some topics we would have explored if we’d had more time,” said Ouray’s McIntyre. “Our staff being so small, and the time so short, we just couldn’t dig further.”
Making the main-bar stories shorter, or providing condensed versions for print editions. Small newspapers have small print edition “news holes,” which made running the Sun’s 2,000-word-plus main stories problematic. “We got them in, but those were some very gray pages,” said Justin Tubbs, managing editor of the Montrose Daily Press.
Promote co-reporting across outlets and direct communication among reporters. The Sun worked with other outlets on their main stories, but there was little if any communication among reporters from other outlets working across the state. More robust communication could have sparked ideas or angles that might have been missed. “Most of the communications was coordinated by the Sun, and it was editors or station managers on those calls, not reporters,” said Schilchtman, the Steamboat editor.
Collaborative projects: an outside perspective
The Sun’s Ryckman, a veteran of the Associated Press and The Denver Post, shepherded collaborative projects across all 50 states on many occasions as a national editor for the AP. “You learn in a hurry that you’re stronger as a team than an individual,” Ryckman said. “That’s why we’re trying to move past competition to collaboration. Once upon a time news organizations couldn't work together because they viewed each other as a threat. In some cases that may still be true, but in many cases it's not. Everyone is so thin and short staffed and just don't have resources they used to.”
Ryckman’s sentiment is widespread, not just in Colorado but across the nation. While “Parked” was the first collaboration of this scope across traditional and non-traditional media to occur in Colorado, similar joint projections have shown success elsewhere. Most notably, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University focuses a substantial part of its efforts on promoting and coordinating media collaborations.
Stefanie Murray, the center’s director, believes strongly in bringing in someone from the outside to manage collaborative projects. After his experience with ‘Parked,’ Ryckman agrees wholeheartedly.
“You need a third party. In fact, it is a critical component of a successful collaboration,” Murray said. Why? For many of the reasons Ryckman discovered. Managing a large number of partners is time-consuming and at times frustrating work. Typically, a partner in a collaboration managing the project finds himself or herself spread thin, either failing to find time to do top-flight project management, struggling to keep up with other work, or putting in an exhausting number of hours trying to do two jobs.
What’s more, Murray said, managing a complex project becomes easier if the manager has set up efficient systems. That’s more likely to happen if the manager does this kind of work regularly, and doesn’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” she said.
The center's project management included recruiting partners, helping with fundraising, setting up systems for coordination (e,.g. a shared Google Drive for all project-related documents and drafts), and creating a memorandum of understanding for all partners to sign.
Murray stressed that it’s helpful to recognize that collaborative projects aren’t free, and that finding money to run them tends to make things run more smoothly. As an example, she cites the Stories of Atlantic City project in the spring of 2019 that the Center for Cooperative Media helped manage. The project, a collaboration among 11 media and community partners, produced about a dozen print stories and a handful of video stories. It focused on “untold stories of resiliency in a city that has been battered by bad news for the last decade,” as Murray wrote in a Medium post.
So how much did it cost to produce the Atlantic City project, and who paid for it?
The total budget came to $18,500, through a grant provided to Stockton University by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Expenses included a $5,000 grant to a nonprofit community partner to do community outreach and coordination; $1,000 grants to each of six media partners; and $3,500 for a community storytellers event.
The Colorado Sun’s “Parked” project demonstrates that a hunger exists among news outlets to work together, and that focusing together on one topic can produce strong journalism. Here are recommendations for encouraging collaborative journalism projects in Colorado in the future:
1. Take time to conduct listening events and develop relationships in the communities will deepen reporting. Kevin Borden is co-director of Washington D.C.-based Manufactured Housing Action, an advocacy organization that helps organize residents of mobile home parks. He was quoted in one of the Sun’s main stories. While praising the ”Parked” project and its scope, he said news coverage often misses the biggest story on mobile home parks.
The big story, he said, is not people being displaced, but rather the consolidation of corporate ownership of parks. He said ‘Parked’ did a better job than most reports capturing this reality. But he said too often reporters come in with preconceived notions of what the story is and don’t spend enough time listening. “There’s a tendency to rush in when there’s a five-alarm fire of a story about a community being closed down and people forced to move,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how often the media misses the underlying story.”
Margie Mathers one of of the resident organizers in Borden’s network, based in North Fort Myers, Fla., said she rarely sees reporters come back for follow-ups once they have their story. “It’s always a one-shot interview,” she said. ‘Six months later it can evolve into something very different.”
2. Involve more non-traditional news outlets, especially small neighborhood and ethnic media organizations. While small publications like the Ouray County Plaindealer are close to the ground, there’s no better way to capture the pulse of a community than by going hyper-local, or by including newsrooms that focus on one particular racial, ethnic, or cultural community. Diverse perspectives makes for richer reporting. Because small outlets lack reporting bandwidth, funders would need to provide mini-grants to participating outlets, much as the Center for Cooperative Media did for the Newark project.
3. Deploy technology for efficient coordination. Technology tools are available for collaborative projects. In September, ProPublica published a new open-source tool, Collaborate, designed for collaborative data projects. The tool enables journalists a simple way to upload data, assign tasks to particular newsrooms or reporters, track progress and make notes around each data point, and sort, filter, and export the data–even automatically redact sensitive information. AP DataKit is an open source command-line tool for project management, but does require some knowledge of coding.
4. Provide funding for an editor to manage future projects. Rocky Mountain Public Media will open its Journalism COLab space in the new Buell Center in 2020. CMP will be housed there along with several news outlets, including the Sun and AP. This provides an opportunity for reporting project coordination and other types of collaborations among COLab members, as well as other outlets.
5. Get creative with social media and other platforms. While to some extent the Sun used Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit to promote the series, future projects could have a broader social media strategy, overseen by a project director (see recommendation above). For example: using Sun and AP photos for multi-photo Instagram galleries, rolled out over several days; producing a podcasts or series of podcasts highlighting some of the stories and people in them.
“Parked,” a collaborative project that developed organically thanks to the initiative of the Colorado Sun, represents a great beginning to a new spirit of cooperation among Colorado Media outlets. It provides a bright ray of hope in what has been a bleak media business landscape over the past several years.