Co-authored by Jere Hester and Sandeep Junnarkar
The news resonated from some of the most hardscrabble corners of New York to the highest echelons of City Hall: a federal investigation into “unhealthy and unsafe” conditions – including mold problems – at city-run housing developments and homeless shelters.
Greg B. Smith, the New York Daily News’ hard-charging investigative reporter broke the story in March, which wasn’t surprising: He has spent much of the last several years relentlessly reporting on the deterioration of the 334 aging complexes overseen by the New York City Housing Authority, landlord to 400,000 residents – a bigger population than Cleveland.
At the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, news of the probe represented far more than an example of a newspaper serving the public by sticking with an important story. For us, the investigation marked another real-life lesson in how a journalism school can play even a modest role in shedding light on social ills.
Hacking the Curriculum
In the fall of 2014, the J-School’s NYCity News Service teamed with the Daily News on Stop the Mold, an effort to chronicle the growing scourge of mold in the nation’s largest public housing system. The project was funded, in part, by a $35,000 Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education grant, which aimed to pair students with professional journalists to “hack” journalism school curricula and explore new ways of providing information to local communities.
A team of nine CUNY J-School students, under our direction, used in-person reporting and social media to engage public housing residents and help them tell their stories. The results would provide fodder for a three-day Daily News series – including a front-page story – in December 2014 that detailed how the city had failed to live up to a court agreement to quickly respond to mold complaints.
The series and follow-up stories were followed by reaction – and then action, when the City Council publicly grilled NYCHA officials. A city Department of Investigation report largely backed our findings. The judge in the court case eventually appointed a special master to oversee the city’s mold response.
Making a Media Match
Our students learned a new level of professionalism by working with Smith, Daily News director of digital editorial operations Kristen Lee and their colleagues – and absorbed the raised sense of professional responsibility that comes from reporting on a high-impact, high-profile story. Still, we faced challenges and learned lessons that we’ve boiled down to a Top 10 list of tips for making a successful media match:
- Find a Common Goal: It’s crucial to start with a shared vision. Yes, stories change and there will be healthy disagreements. But a clear, common starting point is a must. Avoid sprawling subject areas and be specific. We homed in on a story you could put in four words: Mold in public housing.
- Commitment is Key: Don’t fool yourself: A partnership like this will mean more work for all involved. Passion for the story is a must. Our students repeatedly visited public housing developments on nights and weekends. Smith frequently visited our class, connected sources with students and helped edit their work. We constantly overhauled our lesson plans as the project evolved and spent nights and weekends editing, giving guidance and delivering pep talks (sometimes to one another).
- Be Flexible: J-Schools and professional news organizations work in different ways on different schedules. Breaking news means broken promises. Work in the format/style of your partners, and keep you calendar flexible.
- Build Trust: A professional news organization takes a huge leap of faith when publishing student work. Building credibility is crucial. Confidence is engendered by demonstrating command of the material and sharing journalistic standards. Faculty members need to be first-line-of-defense editors. Content you send to the news organization must be bulletproof. Don’t assume they’ll just sort it all out.
- Exploit Your Strengths: Work within the parameters of the news organization’s needs while utilizing students’ strengths. Make suggestions: You may have the know-how and troops to pull off ambitious digital elements the news organization doesn’t have time to produce. For example: Our team made videos, including an animated mold-health explainer. We also crunched overtime numbers that showed some city plumbers fighting mold made more than the mayor. That gave The News a front-page story.
- Make Friends: Pre-existing ties to the news organization are helpful, though not a must. Hester worked 15 years at The News before joining the J-School in 2006. In any case, make meetings, in the classroom and newsroom, a priority. Be sure to forge working relationships with multiple decisionmakers. When one key figure left The News partway into the semester, we didn’t miss a step. Still, always have a Plan B for another partner. Be prepared, if necessary, to go it on your own and mount your own platform. We started a Stop the Mold website that included social media and other elements that didn’t make The News.
- Get It Done: Create a structure – whether a class, internship/fellowship – to guarantee student commitment and production. Volunteers won’t cut it. It’s not carrot or stick – you need both.
- Never Over-Promise: That was our approach with The News – and students. At times, we worried whether we’d have anything at all. This was a tough story to report. Our reporters had lots of doors slammed in their faces. Patience, persistence and managing expectations proved vital.
- Be Ready to Follow Up: The story isn’t over when you publish: Be prepared to produce follow-up stories. Though our semester ended the week The News published the mold series, we used grant money to pay postgraduate “Mold Fellows” from our class to continue working. This continuity yielded another major package, produced with Smith, exposing disparities in federal flood protection funding for public housing. Coordinate with the news organization on social media and other promotion – including awards submissions.
- Look Ahead: Always be thinking about the next story – and next partnership. Keep in touch! As of this writing, we’re talking with The News (and others) about new projects.
It’s difficult to measure the impact of news stories, and students’ contributions in particular. But Stop the Mold helped gave tenants a voice – amplified by The News – that perhaps reached the ears of Manhattan Federal Attorney Preet Bharara. The mold hasn’t stopped yet – but neither has the public scrutiny of a public scourge.
Jere Hester (@Jere_Hester) is the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Director of News Products and Projects, and Director of Reporting and Writing. Sandeep Junnarkar (@sandeep_NYC) is the J-School’s Director of Interactive Journalism. A special thanks to Chris Delboni of Florida International University, who participated in our “Making a Media Match” session at last year’s EIJ conference.