How can smaller newsrooms take on big projects? Look to the Portland Press Herald

By Kristen Hare • March 30, 2017

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald is not the first local news organization to do a big project on the heroin epidemic. Last year, the Palm Beach Post documented more than 200 deaths in 2015. The Cincinnati Enquirer has a reporter dedicated to covering the heroin epidemic. And students at Arizona State University did their own investigation.

“We definitely are aware of what our peers are doing,” said Dieter Bradbury, deputy managing editor at the the Press Herald, who followed coverage from other news outlets. “That was a source of inspiration. We really wanted to do something that was unique to Maine and that really put families and people in recovery front and center on this issue.”

The Press Herald’s heroin project, “Lost”, launched this week and, like The Palm Beach Post’s story, profiles some of the dead. It also has reporting on treatment, left behind children, recovery and heroin’s impact on women in the community.

To get those stories wasn’t easy, though, since overdose records aren’t part of the public record in Maine. The Press Herald is also, like a lot of newspapers, smaller than it once was. Of the 90 to 95 newsroom employees, 50 contributed to the project.

How can shrinking newsrooms still make time to cover the crucial and critical stories in their communities? Bradbury has some ideas.

Consider all the ways you might get sources

Because the Press Herald couldn’t rely on records to find the families of overdose victims, the Press Herald tried something totally different — the state attorney general.

Attorney General Janet T. Mills oversees the state medical examiner’s office, which gets all the state’s toxicology reports. The Press Herald convinced the attorney general’s office to send out a letter to the families of overdose victims on the newspaper’s behalf.

“I think we were described as a ‘reputable news organization,'” Bradbury said.

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After the letter went out, they waited for the calls and emails. Bradbury says they heard from scores of families that way. But they wanted more, so reporters reached out to another unlikely partner — local funeral directors.

The Press Herald works with them regularly for obituaries, and the newspaper writes a feature obituary regularly. Through the funeral directors, they were able to find another group of families for the project.

In all, they profiled 60.

Know you’ll pay a short-term price.

When big news happened and most of their resources were already allotted for this project, the newsroom had to scramble. But they knew they were playing a long game.

“I think we all felt like we’re paying a price here, but there will be a payback in the end. We were willing to make those tradeoffs,” Bradbury said.

Use what, and who, you have wisely.

In a small newsroom, it was especially important to match up the right people with the right jobs.

“Every newsroom has strengths and weaknesses, and every reporter has strengths and weaknesses, and with a project like this, I think it’s really important to try to put strengths with strengths so you’re getting the most out of people,” Bradbury said.

Think of your audience. All of them.

Before the series started, there was a debate in the newsroom about how to run it online and in print. Put everything up online? Run it one day at a time, like in print?

They decided on a hybrid solution. The profiles all went up on the first day. They’re running six a day in print for 10 days. The enterprise stories appear each day in print and online.

The Press Herald’s print and online audiences are very different, Bradbury said, and there’s not a lot of overlap.

“We try to pay attention to what their different needs are and try to meet those needs,” he said.

And online, at least, the Press Herald is seeing the results of their hard work and focus. People spend an average of two minutes with their stories. For the landing page for “Lost,” it’s been more like 14 minute. The main stories are getting an average of seven minutes.

The Press Herald is also seeing a different audience thanks to the project. Its traditional audience is between 55 and 64, Bradbury said. The project has flipped that, bringing in a majority of readers that are between 25 and 44. Normally, its audience is 51 percent female. With “Lost,” that number has risen to 71 percent.

They’ve also found big engagement on Facebook, where they’re airing Facebook Live sessions each day. Facebook normally drives between 12 and 14 percent of traffic to the Press Herald. Now, Bradbury said, it’s 46 percent.

Punch up.

“I think we like to think of ourselves as too big for our britches sometimes,” Bradbury said. “We always reach higher than we think we should reach on projects like this. That’s just sort of our default position.”

Often, it’s newsrooms that are the ones stopping themselves from taking on big projects, he said.

“It’s our own sense of what our limitations are. We always try to exceed those.”

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