California News Outlets Collaborate on Bullet Train Reporting

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By: Nu Yang

California News Outlets Collaborate on Bullet Train Reporting

Five years ago, the thought of several news organizations collaborating on one story was rare, but with today’s shrinking newsrooms and budgets, news leaders are looking for different ways to cover stories with the resources they have.

Last November, Fresno (Calif.) Bee business reporter Tim Sheehan spent eight days in Spain to report on the country’s high-speed rail system and compare it to what state officials have planned for California. A proposed $100 billion rail project would connect the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles in 2.5 hours on trains traveling up to 200 miles per hour.

The $4,000 trip was made possible due to the collaboration of 12 news outlets. Each news outlet contributed about $400 to help fund the trip. They include the Fresno Bee, California Watch, The Bakersfield Californian, The Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, U-T San Diego, The Orange County Register, The Modesto Bee, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, KQED Public Radio, The (San Luis Obispo) Tribune, and the Merced Sun-Star.

The story collaboration started a year ago when California Watch, a branch of the Center for Investigative Reporting, launched its media network. When the network was created, it was meant to not only get stories into news outlets across the state, but also as a way to bring newsrooms together to collaborate.

Fresno Bee executive editor Betsy Lumbye suggested the network cover high-speed rail — a topic that affects many communities throughout the state. Shared coverage resulted in 38 stories written by 12 different reporters.

Last summer, California Watch editorial director Mark Katches brought up the idea of an international trip. Spain was selected because the country’s rail system is similar to the one proposed for California. Members of the media network were eager to participate.

“All of them were very interested in new ways of developing content,” Katches said. “They realized if they were looking inward, they would be shutting doors to other possibilities. Instead, they found new ways to partner.”

Sheehan was chosen as the reporter to take on the task, because he had been covering highspeed rail since 2010. He also had photography and multimedia skills that allowed him to take photos and record video. It helped keep costs down for the group by sending just one reporter instead of a reporter and a photographer. California Watch edited the videos and created graphics.

From story ideas to budgets, the news organizations communicated closely throughout the process, turning it into a true collaboration. All participating members published and broadcast Sheehan’s two-part series (fresnobee.com/spainrail) in January.

“What I learned is that this kind of collaboration is possible,” Lumbye said. “This was a groundbreaking trip that showed we could really be unselfish as a group, combine our efforts, and help each other across company and geographical lines.” Sheehan said that in the future, “it’s going to be necessary to do these kinds of collaborations whether you’re a big or small paper.”

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