At the Dodge Foundation, we just gave a first-time grant to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) for a collaborative investigative reporting project here in New Jersey. I’ve been an admirer of CIR for a while now, not just for the quality and impact of its investigative journalism, but also for its creative storytelling which helps illuminate and illustrate issues in unconventional ways.
Pioneering Creative Storytelling
Here’s one example: Last fall, CIR published an investigation of California strawberry growers’ pesticide use (“Dark Side of the Strawberry”), which found dangerous levels of chemicals used to grow the fruit year-round and keep it cheap for shoppers.
Rather than simply publishing this series — hoping people would read it and be compelled to take some kind of action — CIR developed a whole series of community engagement activities around the investigation to ensure that the public got the information they needed about the pesticides. It created an app that allowed people to type in their zip codes to check for whaspotift chemicals were being used near their homes and how much were being used; it also mailed out postcards letting people know how to look up whether they lived in pesticide hotspots or not.
But they didn’t stop there.
CIR also commissioned a play in partnership to tell the strawberry story. “Alicia’s Miracle” was a one-act play imagining a pregnant woman who lives and works near strawberry fields. The play premiered at the Tides Theatre in San Francisco, which hosted community discussions after each performance. CIR also took the play to Oxnard and Salinas — ground zero for the strawberry fields — where the cast performed the play in English and Spanish.
Using alternative storytelling techniques like this — pairing art and investigative journalism — to help inform and engage the public around pressing issues is groundbreaking. CIR also routinely uses poets and poetry for storytelling, as well as other art forms, like graphic novels.
I appreciate the innovation of these approaches, and more importantly that community engagement is at the heart of what CIR does. This is an incredibly clever way that we get to a more civically engaged public.
Building Networks, Leveraging Partnerships
My colleagues and I at Dodge frequently talk about what amazing, creative things might happen if we facilitated more collaboration between our arts, education, environment, and media grantees. We believe it would lead to greater impact of their work and ultimately better communities here in New Jersey.
Which brings us to the new grant to CIR — for a large-scale investigative reporting project led by CIR in collaboration with a number of Dodge grantees and other organizations. This initiative will not only bring some much-needed solutions-oriented journalism to this state, but also the kind of creative storytelling and engagement that would help our grantees expand their reach into the communities around issues they care about. Moreover, we hope this project will foster deeper connections between Dodge grantees as they work together.
Although we’re just at the beginning of this grant, CIR has led a convening of Dodge grantees and others to gauge interest, explore shared issues and concerns, and map out potential ideas and a plan for collaborating and engaging community over the coming year.
This would be a good time to note that Dodge is not funding CIR for the content of the reporting — we have no stake or say in that. Rather, this is an experiment on several levels that we’re eager to test and observe, including how to develop and shepherd a large collaborative project like this, nurturing better partnerships, and inviting more community participation around issues that they care about.
Fundamentally, we want to explore the power of creative, meaningful community engagement: what impact it has on the community, on local news organizations, and on the nonprofits we fund across the state.
A year from now, we hope to see that the New Jersey news organizations participating in this project will have clear examples and guidance, through CIR’s expertise, on how they too can create more engagement around their reporting, leading to a broader base of community support for their organizations over time. Additionally, we hope that participating Dodge grantees will also learn new and clever community building and engagement skills in order to expand and mobilize their constituents around issues they work on every day.
Over time, we can see this work having a transformational impact on local news, community organizations and civic participation in New Jersey.
As with all of our work focused on the New Jersey news ecosystem, we will share what we’re learning, including what’s not working. In the meantime, for further information about CIR, you can visit their website and listen to their Reveal podcast and public radio show.
Molly de Aguiar (@GRDodgeMedia) is a contributor to Local News Lab and Director of Media & Communications at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. She is also a blogger, a list maker, a weekend baker, and an avid traveler with her family.
This post originally appeared on the website of the Local News Lab, a website launched by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to document and share our work and lessons learned around the sustainability of local journalism.