“In Crisis” project: Making a multi-platform, multimedia, dual-newsroom series succeed

By Emilie Ritter Saunders & Audrey Dutton

In October, Boise State Public Radio and the Idaho Statesman launched a collaborative, multimedia series exploring Idaho’s fragmented mental health system. The collaboration was the first of its kind for our two organizations. Instead of simply sharing content, the series was a true cross-platform collaboration where both of us crafted stories specifically for three platforms: Print, radio, and online.

The idea of the collaboration started – as many of these things do – when we were having drinks back in June. We both were eager to take on a big project, but felt with our regular workload that adding a multimedia series and diving into Idaho’s mental health care system was too big a job for one person. We settled on mental health care because it’s a subject that is underreported and is in the midst of systemic change in Idaho.

With a loose idea of the topic framework, and pages full of questions we wanted answered, we pitched the idea to our respective newsroom leaders. Both agreed instantly that it sounded like a worthy series to explore; both also questioned what the collaboration would look like. Who would be the lead editor? Who would publish first? Would all the content live on both organizations’ websites? Would we share equipment? Would we share interviews?

After spending several weeks researching and conducting pre-interviews with sources, we were able to nail down five specific feature stories that would be told on all three platforms. Boise State Public Radio’s News Director Scott Graf would be the lead editor on all radio content. And the Statesman’s business editor David Staats would be the lead editor on all print content.

We agreed to publish/broadcast all content simultaneously. The radio feature broadcast during Morning Edition Tuesday morning was the same feature running in that day’s Statesman. All corresponding web content, including data visuals and video, also were published in their entirety on both BoiseStatePublicRadio.org and IdahoStatesman.com, with identical headlines.

The cross-media collaboration also allowed us access to resources we don’t typically have. For example, Emilie worked with Statesman photographers for all the images used in her pieces – which was a first for her given most public radio stations don’t have staff photographers. For Audrey, she had access to professional audio gear, allowing her to produce NPR-level features – another first.

We were in daily communication about interviews and data-gathering. We shared all of our tape, transcribed interviews, data, background, and sources – which helped to be more efficient and kept both of us informed at the same level. Those elements were key in keeping the series on track, and ensuring that we weren’t missing the story. In some cases, it allowed us flexibility to shift the focus of the stories as we started to tug more on each thread.

The collaboration also gave us more time to dive deep into the topic. We started brainstorming in June, by August we had five firm stories outlined and by the end of September editing was well under way. We published and broadcast all five pieces on consecutive days at the end of October, forward promoting each piece as it progressed. The series also was accompanied by a public engagement event, where we assembled a panel of mental health experts and invited the community to have a live discussion.

Like most series reporting, we broke some news along the way, and ended up with a handful of web-only components, like a topic explainer, understanding the stories through data vizes, resources for people wanting to learn more about mental health, and extended interviews.

All of this took thoughtful, strategic planning.

So, would we do it again? Absolutely. Would we make any changes in scope, work flow and deadlines? Absolutely.

Here are our basic tips to launching a successful collaborative multimedia series.

  1. Talk. A lot. Communication among reporters and editors was key. We met regularly as a group to talk through problems, work out details, and keep everyone on the same page.
  2. Have a focused, detailed plan. It’s one thing to say ‘Let’s do a series on mental health,’ it’s quite another to have a cohesive finished product. Map out each of your stories, down to headline possibilities and visuals, before you finalize your reporting.
  3. Brainstorm potential hiccups, and plan for them.
  4. Have a clear plan for editing, producing, and who-owns-what.
  5. Give yourself plenty of time. These things always take more time than you anticipate, so give yourself some room. Keep an eye on your editorial planner and try to avoid pushing out a big series when you know other news will need your attention.
  6. Expect to discover differences in your newsroom flow, editing style and even something so basic as understanding the best or worst weekday for audience reach. (It’s different for print and radio, for example.) Take it as it comes, be flexible, and keep a healthy sense of humor.

Explore the series at BoiseStatePublicRadio.org and at IdahoStatesman.com

 Emilie Ritter Saunders is a reporter for Boise State Public Radio, and is the secretary of the Idaho Press Club board. Audrey Dutton is a business reporter for the Idaho Statesman, and is a member of the Idaho Press Club’s Southwest Chapter board.