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June 6, 2019

How collaboration helped a small NC newsroom investigate high eviction rates in Winston-Salem

“How does a small public radio newsroom produce revelatory work with depth and impact? The answers show the challenge and also how it can be done. Essential ingredients:  A compelling idea, committed partners, the right support and a large dose of determination.

By Melanie Sill

NC Local is a weekly email newsletter aimed at connecting people across North Carolina who inform people with local news, information and storytelling. This post originally appeared in the weekly NC Local newsletter edition on June 6, 2019 , and has been modified slightly for the Local News Lab. Subscribe to NC Local here.

A recent series of stories on WFDD public radio in Winston-Salem revealed some stark truths and surprises about housing in the Triad, home to some of the nation’s highest eviction rates and an affordable housing crunch similar to those in other cities.

The station produced three 15-minute on-air stories, which were expanded with photographs and graphics online, opening a window into struggles of people with low incomes and the Triad’s housing market. Among the discoveries: The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, which operates public housing, is one of the biggest forces in evicting low-income people from rental apartments there, as WFDD’s Eddie Garcia reported. 

Bethany Chafin reported on a lack of investment and effect on residents in the Ole Asheboro neighborhood next to downtown Greensboro, and David Ford dug into the effect of evictions on low-income people with few alternatives.

How does a small public radio newsroom produce revelatory work with this kind of depth and impact? The answers show the challenge and also how it can be done. Essential ingredients:  

A compelling idea, committed partners, the right support and a large dose of determination.

The partners were WFDD and its news staff of about seven; the UNC Media & Journalism school’s Carolina Data Desk and associate professor Ryan Thornburg; and Wake Forest University’s journalism department, led by Phoebe Zerwick. A key front-line leader, who trained, coached and did field work with the team, was independent journalist Mandy Locke, a former News & Observer investigative reporter who worked on the project for the Data Desk and Wake Forest.

The project’s seeds were planted in early 2018 when WFDD news director Emily McCord met Locke at an “engaged journalism” gathering in Charlotte led by the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center. They struck up a conversation in the buffet line about training and data journalism and came away with an interest in working together. More than a year and countless hours of work later, I caught up with the partners this week to get some quick takeaways.

The partners were motivated by core needs that the project addressed

McCord sought training that would lift her staff more than a one-day workshop and lead to stronger reporting using data; Locke took the idea to Thornburg at UNC, whose Carolina Data Desk was looking for newsrooms to work with data sets to produce stories that might be replicable by other organizations. He hired Locke to work with WFDD as a reporting coach and liaison with the Data Desk. Wake Forest University joined the project and hired Locke to teach students in independent studies courses where they helped clean up data, get documents and assist the reporters in other fieldwork.

They saw a compelling story idea that needed partnership to execute 

The radio program and podcast Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting had identified the Triad among metro areas nationally where federal housing and Census Data suggested “modern-day redlining,” or discrimination in mortgage lending. McCord and Locke saw an opportunity to dig deeper to see if discrimination was happening in WFDD’s listening area and, if so, what the effects were.

WFDD committed and stuck with it

McCord said her staff talked over the idea and decided to go all-in on exploring it; that meant not just the three reporters who produced the ultimate stories and worked on the project directly, but the rest of the staff of seven who covered other news and filled in so the team could go deep on the housing reporting. “It’s not been easy on the other staff,” McCord acknowledged. “They’ve had to put aside some of their own projects to focus on the daily grind.”

Training had focus and purpose, and went deep

The WFDD effort launched in earnest in June 2018 with a free two-day data journalism workshop, presented free at Wake Forest with support from UNC’s Reese News Lab. The training, led by CIR data journalist Emmanuel Martinez, focused on Reveal’s data set as a way to introduce and train on a variety of skills and journalism approaches. “That left us feeling incredibly empowered,” WFDD reporter Chafin told me this week.

The stories emerged through reporting

WFDD found powerful stories in the region’s high eviction rate and a neighborhood balancing the need for investment and improvement with the hazards of gentrification, but the team’s reporting didn’t identify proof of current lending discrimination. They dug deeper into evictions after Princeton University’s Eviction Lab showed Greensboro and Winston-Salem among the nation’s top cities in concentrations of evictions. UNC’s Data Desk got data from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts on evictions cases and a graduate student did the heavy lifting in 2018 to clean up the data so it could be analyzed. Because the data ran out in mid-2018, Wake Forest students and the WFDD team got court records in the Triad and added to the AOC records to produce a custom database. The story about the Winston housing authority’s leading role in evictions, and the fact that unpaid utility bills were a factor in many, emerged from the data and evictions court visits.

Benefits go beyond the stories to long-term capacity and confidence

Everyone I talked to on the project team described a boost in confidence the housing project has given the WFDD newsroom: Not just in using data and spreadsheets, but also in other aspects of their journalism. McCord said that extends to her as an editor, “in knowing where the minefields are and what to look out for.” Reporter Chafin said she learned from going into neighborhoods and knocking on doors “about finding people and having them be your guide.” She also called Thornburg “a magician” with data and said that she’d turn to him much earlier if she had the project to do over again. Added Thornburg: “The process of doing this was an education that I think was a well-placed investment in these reporters.”

The partners all benefited

Zerwick, at Wake Forest, saw the project as “an incredible opportunity for our students to learn these investigative skills” and added that “interviewing people in eviction court and in their homes was especially eye-opening.” McCord said the staff gained invaluable experience and confidence, greatly expanded its network of sources and showed listeners “that we’re interested and capable of taking on these stories.” And Thornburg said the project offered a path to reboot the Data Desk with a model for how collaboration could work. 

There’s more to come

WFDD, which also has been soliciting listeners’ questions about housing throughout the process and incorporating some of them into its reporting, plans to package the three stories and more listener questions as a special program. Thornburg says some of the data used for the project now is available via the Associated Press platform for members to share data, and he’s planning to add some information to make it easy for others to find stories. As he noted, the data can spark ideas and inform stories, “but unless you know the local community, you don’t know what questions to ask that would be relevant.” Contact him at ryan.thornburg@unc.edu if you’re interested in more.

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Melanie Sill is a veteran news leader and change-maker now working as a senior consultant on the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. She was the top editor and news executive at The News & Observer of Raleigh, the Sacramento Bee and KPCC/ Southern California Public Radio and directed The N&O’s Pulitzer-winning “Boss Hog” series in the mid-1990s.