Changes at InvestigateWest

InvestigateWest is announcing some exciting new changes!

With the departure next month of Executive Director and Editor Rita Hibbard, the InvestigateWest board is pleased to announce the Robert McClure, a co-founder as well as an award-winning environmental journalist, is succeeding Hibbard as acting Executive Director.

At the same time, Carol Smith, a co-founder and acclaimed social issues and health journalist, is moving into the role of acting Executive Editor.

“Robert will guide a growing, stable and exciting news organization into its next phase,” said Hibbard, who is leaving to pursue other projects long put on hold by the demands of a thriving nonprofit newsroom. “As a co-founder, he profoundly understands the importance of what we do, and is in a great position to push it forward.”

InvestigateWest is an independent, nonprofit investigative news organization founded in 2009 and based in Seattle. It is staffed by journalists with a track record of producing in-depth stories that produce change in public policy and practice.  It has received funding from both national and regional foundations.

InvestigateWest’s work resulted in three laws passed by the state Legislature in 2011, including two establishing worker safety and health rules after the publication of a story linking exposure of chemotherapy drugs to illness and death among health care workers, and another banning carcinogenic pavement sealant after InvestigateWest wrote about their widespread use.

 “Carol also will bring her investigative and narrative skills to the fore in her new role,” said Hibbard, who has been at the helm since InvestigateWest’s launch. “She’s a wonderful writer and journalist who will contribute hugely to the new organizational structure.”

Social media campaign gets new eyes on our work

On June 13th, InvestigateWest launched its first major social media campaign associated with a story. The story, “Breathing Uneasy – The Air Pollution Crisis in South Seattle” was a joint effort by IW’s Robert McClure and Jenny Cunningham of KCTS-9. IW’s objective was to get the story to readers and viewers through social media channels, in addition to publication and broadcast with media partners, which also included Crosscut.com. Here’s a rundown of what we learned.

Much like a more traditional advertising campaign, the effectiveness of a social media campaign is measured by the extent to which organization goals are met.

However, because the campaign for “BreathingUneasy” was not intended to sell a product or gain customers, we look at success a little differently than does traditional business. When evaluating the success of a story campaign, we exchange measures such as unit sales and new customers for metrics like website traffic, connections/followers on social networks, responses to our messages and content, and whether the audience shares the content within their network. An added dimension is whether the report motivates civic participation.

InvestigateWest and KCTS 9 co-produce “Breathing Uneasy,” a look at the air pollution crisis in South Seattle

“Breathing Uneasy” is the result of a collaboration between InvestigateWest and KCTS 9. Veteran environmental reporters Robert McClure of InvestigateWest and Jenny Cunningham of KCTS 9 spent six months examining the impact of truck traffic on the communities that border the Port of Seattle, an area that new studies say has some of the worst air in the state. Their stories detail how toxic emissions from diesel trucks endanger residents of some of Seattle’s poorest communities, but also contain lessons and implications for any area dealing with major roadway traffic near schools and residential neighborhoods.

In addition, McClure and Cunningham examine how Port of Seattle Chief Executive Officer Tay Yoshitani helped oppose changes in legislation that would have made trucks cleaner, despite his promise to make Seattle the “cleanest, greenest, most energy-efficient port in the U.S.”

A special report on air pollution, co-produced by InvestigateWest and KCTS 9,  will air on KCTS Connects Friday, June 17 at 7 p.m. Click here to view the video.

To read the stories on Crosscut, click here.  And you can listen to Robert McClure discuss the issue with Ross Reynolds on The Conversation during the noon hour Tuesday, June 14 on KUOW 94.9 FM.

Social media in investigative reporting: A conversation with CIR’s Meghann Farnsworth

As InvestigateWest’s new online community manager,  I consider myself a journalist at heart. Although my prior work in social media was for a marketing organization, I bring experience and a mindset of a digital journalist to this new role for InvestigateWest. Some hold that social media is antithetical to journalism, but I disagree. My goal is to share and promote quality reporting through the powerful tools of new media, including social media. Though social media is not as iconic as whirring printing presses and ink smudges, it is connecting journalists with audiences in unprecedented ways.

I came to INVW prepared to plead the case of social media for a non-profit to those who view social media as a new-age marketing tool. Why should professional reporters be concerned with what Joe Anybody has to say about the cost of cereal from his supermarket? I also anticipated that social media activity on behalf of a non-profit reporting organization would need to be conservative and closely scrutinized so as to not embroil the organization in any controversy.

To investigate these assumptions, I called my counterpart at the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting for some answers. Meghann Farnsworth is the Online Community Manager of the CenterforInvestigativeReporting(CIR) and its subsidiary CaliforniaWatch(CW). What I learned about Farnsworth’s role at CIR and the role of social media in investigative reporting is an exciting glimpse into what new media technology offers to reporters and audiences.

Learning from the Duwamish River Communities

Seattle is a city built on water – its identity, its celebrated beauty, and much of its economic lifeblood comes from its relationship to Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it.

But the Duwamish River, which runs through the center of Seattle’s urban industrial core, is not the one you see on post cards. Now named one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, it is also the river in the backyard of more than 38,000 of Seattle’s poorest and most diverse residents.

The goal of my 2010 National Health Fellowship project was to identify the community health issues that face the people living in two neighborhoods – Georgetown and South Park — which face each other across the toxic river in the middle of the Superfund site. 

The thinking was that by identifying these problems, we could call out the issue of accountability, and more importantly point the way toward creative solutions for a portion of the population the greater Seattle community has historically ignored. The backdrop for the story was a looming multi-million dollar Superfund decision about how best to clean up the river, and to what extent.

The precipitating event for the story, though, was the closure of the bridge that links the two communities, effectively cutting off easy access to downtown Seattle a few miles away. To me it seemed the perfect metaphor for the attitude of the larger population toward those struggling to carve a life on the banks of the river that built the prosperous city down the road.

InvestigateWest co-hosts stormwater forum that shows civic discourse is still possible

InvestigateWest reached a milestone this week when we co-hosted a large public-policy forum on the State Capitol grounds in Olympia.

The subject was stormwater, the polluted rainwater runoff I’ve been writing about for perhaps a decade now, with particular emphasis on its effects on Puget Sound, where it is the largest source of toxics.  For two years running environmentalists have unsuccessfully advanced plans in Olympia to raise money to deal with the problem. More bills are pending in the current legislative session, so it seemed like a logical time to raise the issue’s profile and encourage a frank discussion.

That we got. And while we never expected to resolve the entire issue at a lunchtime forum, it did feel like progress to hear all the panelists acknowledge that stormwater is a difficult problem that somehow we are going to have to deal with collectively.

Seven legislators and several legislative aides joined environmentalists, business lobbyists and at least three journalists in the audience of 70. Overall it had the tone of a civil discussion with respect for all points of view – the kind of civic discourse often lacking in this age so seemingly dominated by vitriol. Once upon a time, news organizations did more of this kind of thing. The presidential debates of 1956 and 1960 may be the best-known examples. Journalists do still occasionally organize these events, but it seems to me that more of this sort of discussion could be helpful to citizens and policy-makers on all sides of many issues.

Co-hosting were Sightline Institute and Washington Policy Center, the two think tanks that have most carefully followed the stormwater story in Washington. I was fortunate to work with Brandon Houskeeper, a policy analyst at WPC, and Lisa Stiffler, journalism fellow at Sightline.

Investigating the health of a community

The Duwamish is not only Seattle’s only river, and the original home of its first Native American people, it is now also an industrial waterway classified as one of the nation’s worst toxic waste sites and one of the few federal Superfund cleanup sites in the country to bisect a major urban area.

Through this project, InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith examined how this confluence of factors – location, history and industry – has shaped the health of the communities that have grown up around the river. While reams of data have looked at the health of the river, much less is known about the health of the people who depend on or live near its waters. Smith was a 2010 recipient of the national California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship from the University of Southern Calfornia’s Annenberg School of Journalism. This project was done in conjunction with her fellowship and also appeared in www.seattlepi.com.

Carol, an experienced health journalist, was able to dig deep and find some fascinating public health data to illustrate what living in a Superfund site can do to the people who call it home.

Mental health cuts slash through safety net

Sadly, it’s often a high-profile crime committed by someone with untreated or inadequately treated mental illness that puts the issue of spending for mental health care back in front of the public. But as headlines fade, so does public willingness to face the consequences of cutbacks on mental health spending. InvestigateWest, together with 10 other reporting centers around the country, drilled down to see what state budget cuts were doing to the mental health safety net.

What we found was disturbing: Beds closing at hospitals, short-term treatment centers, and group homes. Caseloads rising for already over-taxed mental healthcare workers. The population of people with mental illness in jails, emergency rooms and on the street escalating.

The way these stories make the news also frustrates those who have worked hard to erase the stigma of mental illness in society. A huge number of people live with mental illness, and almost none of them commit crimes. The vast majority are not violent. Many, however, do need help and support to stay in school, get jobs, and maintain healthy relationships.

In short, the cuts are quickly dismantling many of the gains that mental health advocates have fought for decades to establish — access to treatment, support and housing that helps people with mental illness stay well and able to function in their families and communities. As many of those we interviewed in our story pointed out, the short-term cost savings of the budget cuts likely will wind up costing taxpayers more over the long run.  You can see the national picture in this story from Amy Biegelsen at the Center for Public Integrity.

Journalists cooperated to produce package on dangerous refinery chemical

Today’s stories on the use of super-toxic hydrofluoric acid at oil refineries are the product of an interesting new way in which in-depth news increasingly is being reported.

It’s called collaboration — a path that was viewed with suspicion by many journalists until the current media maelstrom slashed the number of reporters out there turning over rocks on behalf of the public.

That sort of in-depth journalism increasingly is in short supply. But those of us still producing it are finding it really helps if we talk to each other and — this would have been revolutionary not that many years ago — actually work together.

In this case, the Center for Public Integrity teamed up with ABC News to investigate the use of this super-toxic agent at 50 of the nation’s 148 refineries. When their investigation was close to done, the center contacted regional reporting centers such as InvestigateWest to take an in-depth look at refineries in their regions.

Intern reporter confronted by ConocoPhillips security in reporting hydrofluoric acid story

Internships at InvestigateWest are not the coffee-fetching, errand-running type. In fact, as an intern, I recently learned that you may even be confused with a threat to homeland security.

As an InvestigateWest intern living in Bellingham, I was the natural choice for the Seattle-based news agency to visit the ConocoPhillips refinery near Bellingham to gather descriptive color and take photos from outside the facility’s fence. The story was about the refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid, which has the potential to harm thousands of people if it leaks. IWest environment correspondent Robert McClure warned me that, because of a post-9/11 crackdown on anyone taking pictures near refineries, dams, bridges and other potential targets of terrorists, I might be questioned at the refinery. I understood this could be a possibility, but thought the workers there would most likely not acknowledge me. Turns out, Robert was right.

When I first arrived, I drove around to one of the far corners – making observations and jotting down notes along the way. After I had written down a thorough description, I stepped out of my truck and started taking photos of the refinery. Soon after my first pictures, a white Ford Escape quickly appeared. A security guard hopped out and said, “You aren’t allowed to take pictures here, it’s a federal offense.”

I told him I was on a public street and have a right to take pictures from where I was. He repeated himself and radioed the make, model and license plate number of my truck. A woman’s voice responded, “Is he still taking pictures?” I was. The guard said the refinery manager was coming out to speak to me and that they would call the sheriff and confiscate my pictures. Within a minute or two, two men arrived in a white Saturn. They asked me what I was doing and I explained.