June 14, 2011

New Models for News: Oklahoma Watch

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This is the second in a series of excerpts from “Partners of Necessity: The Case for Collaboration in Local Investigative Reporting,” written by Sandy Rowe, former editor of The Oregonian, as Knight Fellow this year at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Another new nonprofit journalism outlet had its origins In October of 2008, when Ed Kelley, the editor of the Oklahoma City Oklahoman and Joe Worley, executive editor of the Tulsa World, met for lunch In Stillwater at “The Hideaway,” neutral territory halfway between the two cities.

Kelley sketched out the impact of a large layoff at the Oklahoman, and proposed the two papers, both locally owned, consider sharing some content. Two weeks later, Worley got word that he needed to cut his own newsroom by 15 percent.

By the end of January about 55 journalists were gone from the two newsrooms and the editors announced that they would share content, beginning immediately. Mid-level editors were left to work it out as they went along, warily at first but smoothly now more two years into it.

That cooperation between two rivals and the trust it generated laid the groundwork for Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit, independent, investigative reporting team “producing journalism in the public interest” launched at the end of 2010.

Partners in the venture are the two newspapers, the Oklahoma Press Association, a commercial TV station, a public radio station and the University of Oklahoma journalism department. The $450,000 in start-up funding came in equal parts from the Tulsa Community Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation in Oklahoma City and the Knight Foundation in Miami.

If it lasts, and goes beyond the initial in-depth explanatory series on women’s incarceration rates in Oklahoma (the nation’s highest), Oklahoma Watch will be the first of the current crop of investigative start-ups to launch with all the right players—media, local foundations and higher education—at the table. They are learning as they go, but their structure is promising.

Tom Lindley is the editor. He thinks collaboration is the next wave of journalism.

“I haven’t seen anything like this since I’ve been in journalism.” Lindley has a 35-year history as a reporter and editor.

In 1999, he left Flint, Michigan, where he had been editor, to go to The Oklahoman as an investigative enterprise reporter. Eight years later he moved to the Tulsa World, where he was caught in one of the staff layoffs. He is seeing the value today in maintaining the trust of former employers.

Joe Worley, executive editor of the Tulsa World, says Oklahoma Watch started quickly and without a lot of planning but with a solid base. “I don’t want to say ‘only in Oklahoma,’ but the stars were in alignment.”

The local ownership helped because no national headquarters slowed down or complicated the process.

Personal relationships were even more important. The editors of the two newspapers have known and respected each other for years. Tom Lindley had worked for both and was known, available and trusted. And the foundations were taking the lead on the financing.

The stage was set. Oklahoma Watch launched quickly in December, with less than two months lead time, driven by its desire to be online when the Oklahoma legislature met in February.

Their coverage spurred the legislature to pass a bill that will reduce the prison time served by low-risk, non violent offenders in favor of other treatment.

It is a challenge to “make sure everybody wins,” according to Worley, and to have the stamina to keep pushing the story forward.

For example, because of deadlines, the small paper members of the Oklahoma Press Association distributed some of the stories before they were published in the larger papers that did much of the work on them, a circumstance that would have previously been unthinkable. Twenty-six Oklahoma news outlets have used stories from Oklahoma Watch.