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How street papers produce big stories from small newsrooms

By Brie Ripley

“Street papers know better than any other media how to report the news with very few resources,” said Aaron Burkhalter, senior reporter for Real Change in Seattle, during an #INSP2015 discussion about how small newsrooms can still produce big stories.

The goal is “to spread information about social problems and advocate for social change,” added Poul Struve Neilsen, editor of Copenhagen’s monthly, Hus Forbi. His intent is to “humanize the homeless and other socially vulnerable people.” Kate Martin, investigative reporter for the mainstream Tacoma News Tribune, added that it is a journalist’s duty to “tell people things they don’t know.”

So how to accomplish this? Kate’s suggestion was to manage both “your time and your boss.” She added practical tips such as the use of public record requests, Google alerts and a website called ChangeDetection.com that will send an email whenever a change is made to a website. Sometimes it is important for a journalist to put on “a suit of armour” in order to feel brave enough to take on a story that challenges authority.

Rosette Royale, former long-time reporter and associate editor at Real Change, has won numerous awards for his writing and reporting. His 16,000 word “The Man Who Stood on the Bridge,” started when his curiosity was piqued by a note on the police blotter about a young man who committed suicide by jumping from a bridge. He told us he “let the story lead me” and that “the power of coincidence” is significant. Public records requests created the pathway, and hundreds of hours and dozens of interviews later, he had his award-winning story.

“Street papers know better than any other media how to report the news with very few resources,” – Aaron Burkhalter, Real Change.

Rosette added that “an individual reporter is also a newsroom, and you can make it as big as you need it to be.” By this he meant that reporters should have a list of stories they work on day to day, but also have a short list of much more ambitious and long-range projects that take months or even years – likely working nights and weekends – to complete. Kate’s suggestion about “managing your boss” included this idea of “project stories,” that perhaps the reporter doesn’t share with “the boss” until they fully mature.

Questions provoked a stimulating conversation about how to respond to phone calls with suggestions for stories. How does the reporter decide which ideas are worth looking into? It’s hard to know where a tip will lead, but Kate tries to choose which stories to pursue based on “whether people will care and whether it may lead to positive (social) change.” Sometimes the caller is someone with whom the reporter has spoken previously. Aaron got a laugh from the crowd when he described the utility of being Facebook friends with an anarchist.

A final topic concerned the possibility that an article will place someone in an unflattering light or have other negative implications. Kate advocated letting people “be their own voice, but they have to be fully informed.” Rosette stressed being completely honest at the outset. He makes certain the subject of an article knows that people may judge her; when he starts on a story he doesn’t know “where the journey will end.”

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