Journalism Effort Focuses on ‘Fixes’

Minnesota Public Radio’s rural reporting project tells the stories of small communities that are working to solve vexing economic and social problems.

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In 2010, when Minnesota Public Radio News launched a reporting project about community issues throughout the state, we had one overarching question: Who’s trying to fix things?

This approach assumed, of course, that there were problems to be fixed, a classic tack for journalists approaching a project. We thought, though, it was worth applying a different lens as we looked about rural Minnesota.

Yes, what are the challenges, we wanted to know. But we also sought to understand the ideas, the people and the conversations that might help communities confront every-day difficulties.

Most important, we started with the notion that journalism and storytelling could help communities make decisions. So we called our project Ground Level and set about asking more detailed questions.

Who’s trying to make broadband available in Grand Marais? Who’s trying to cut a better deal for Sandstone when it negotiates with a hospital conglomerate? Who’s making connections between Latino and Anglo communities? How does a small town under fiscal pressure make a choice between raising property taxes and eliminating the police department?

The result was a series of reports over three years that combined online text, on-air pieces, video, photos, graphics, Google chats and live forums to delve into myriad community challenges. To reach more people, we distributed the reports to several dozen newspapers around Minnesota.

This work shined light on challenges and people leading change. The journalism is produced by a reporter designated to the project, an editor, part of a web producer and radio reporters borrowed from the main MPR newsroom occasionally as stories fit their beats.

After some experimentation, we took a topical approach to the effort.

We might spend several weeks focusing on health care, for example, looking for ways residents in different communities were trying to resolve dilemmas. In Osakis, we produced a video of a doctor working “off the grid” of insurance companies, taking cash only and serving largely immigrant patients. In Sandstone, the story was on the negotiation between the city and Essentia, the large company running the small hospital.

At another point, the topic was public safety – how a fiscal squeeze was forcing small towns to re-evaluate how much law enforcement they needed or could afford. Coverage included a video of a man offering his rural neighbors crime-deterring “watch llamas” and how some counties in sparsely populated western Minnesota cobbled together a SWAT team to deal with drug crimes more efficiently.

The problems and challenges were broad, but the efforts to deal with them often reflected local politics, resources and imaginations. By treating them in concert with a statewide view, we were able to raise the level and the frequency of the conversations in Minnesota.

Here’s a collection page of those efforts, with topics ranging from local food to transportation. Our on-air presence has gotten more robust and our online traffic has grown.

But as we plowed this ground we came to see that we had a larger story to tell. We kept hearing about the same people; we kept running across the same non-profits and activists trying to lend a hand; we kept noticing that all our work was against a backdrop of inexorable demographic, economic and political forces that rural Minnesota residents were dealing with, knowingly or not.

Minnesota Public Radio/Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber
The Ground Level project produced this video as a social-media tool to encourage reader contributions.

As a result, we wrote a book — “Fighting for an American Countryside.” It’s set in Minnesota but it tells a story that applies across much of rural America. Rather than compiling past stories, the book contains new reporting and evocative videos that let you see and hear the subjects in new ways.

One aim of the eBook was to push ourselves into new ways of telling stories, taking advantage of new platforms and trying to follow our audiences as they get their information in new ways. And because, after all, our primary goal is to get our journalism in front of as many people as possible, we made the eBook downloads free and we created a separate, mirror version for online viewing on our website. We’re hearing also from educators who want to take pieces of the project for use with students and community leaders.

Long term, we also think the eBook can lead Ground Level further into seeing journalism as a conversation. For example, we used a video called “My Town Is . . .” in the eBook to solicit contributions from readers via Facebook, Twitter and our Public Insight Network, and keep the topic alive. MPR’s Public Insight Network, in turn, wants to use that as a way to experiment more broadly with bringing together multiple streams of social media contributions.

 And our hope is to learn more about using future Ground Level projects as jumping off points for community conversations. We’d like to learn better how to use the “knowledge networks” that exist in the state – collections of people who have gone through foundation or academic leadership training programs or who otherwise represent emerging community leaders. For journalists, these people represent contributors, sources and audience all in one.

Every state is different, but I think Ground Level can be a model because it tells an American story, not just a Minnesotan one. You can think of this as part of the growing interest in “solutions journalism.” We didn’t say that out loud at the beginning. In fact, we were quite emphatic about not trying to solve people’s problems or even deign to tell them what those problems were. We figured people already knew that and, if we listened, they would tell us and we could find a way to be useful.

And in the end, as journalists, we’re still not trying to solve communities’ problems for them. But if we can inject information and storytelling into a conversation, those communities can learn and find their way more readily than they otherwise might.

Dave Peters is editorial director of Minnesota Public Radio’s special projects.

 

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