When Kris Cahak of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc. stood up in February to bravely tell the story of her daughter’s suicide, she might have been one small-town mother sharing her grief. But because the town is served by the Daily Tribune, a Gannett paper that’s part of the newly formed USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, she was actually part of a much larger story.
Wisconsin has a public health crisis on its hands when it comes to youth and mental health. With a teen suicide rate nearly a third higher than the national average, the state lost almost 250 young people to mental illness from 2004 to 2013. Yet with few metropolitan areas and hundreds of small communities dotting the state’s glacial landscapes, the commonality of Wisconsin’s problem was easily lost.
Until USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin decided the state had had enough.
Throughout the year, the news group has dedicated resources to its “Kids in Crisis” series on youth mental health. The series included traditional news stories covering the issues and the toll of losses. But the team stretched beyond those familiar tools to include efforts focused on problem-solving, transparency and community engagement.
The USA TODAY NETWORK model and the team’s open-minded approach to engagement extended the reach and impact of their reporting on a critical public health issue. But it also offered a playbook for other publishers, showing how collaboration and involvement may mean the rebirth of strong community journalism.
The Promise of a New Model
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin includes daily publications in 10 communities, employing 13 journalists, plus another 15 at weekly publications. Formerly known as Gannett Wisconsin Media, the news organization now operates in a fully formed network model. Each publication covers its local community as always.
But the network now knits reporters together to do larger investigations on issues that affect the state as a whole. They take the small stories of Wisconsin Rapids—with just 18,000 people—and link them with the stories of Oshkosh, Green Bay, Marshfield and others. “Kids in Crisis” is the ideal example of the model at work.
Jim Fitzhenry, the network’s state business development director, based at The Post-Crescent in Appleton, led a team of 25 journalists across 10 newsrooms to report on “Kids in Crisis.” About six months of initial reporting preceded the January launch of the first set of stories.
The team had a strong vision: work seamlessly across the state to simultaneously offer local coverage and provide a wider lens on the overall impact.
“It was something that was painfully very local,” Fitzhenry said. “Editors were talking about things happening in their own kids’ communities.”
For Joel Christopher, the network’s vice president for news, the USA TODAY NETWORK structure enabled the movement from painfully local to statewide understanding.
“Two years ago it would have been nearly impossible for us to do what we did with ‘Kids in Crisis,’” he said. “We now have a statewide structure that can direct those big, complex, long-term projects.”
Charting a New Course on Transparency
But the innovation of the series is not limited to the new and networked structure. The team took other risks and earned both traffic and community appreciation in response.
The first reach the team took was a leap of personalization and transparency. As lead reporter Rory Linnane, also based in Appleton, worked through her reporting, she wrote a companion “Reporter’s Diary,” covering her feelings and reactions to what she was learning. An effort that pushed back against traditional thoughts about objectivity, the diary also stretched Linnane’s own feelings about her work.
“Every time I wrote a diary, it felt uncomfortable to talk about myself,” she said.
Fitzhenry said the decision to have Linnane write in this way was purposeful. He knew some readers would respond to “the authoritative, traditional news story,” but that wasn’t enough.
“With transparency as the common denominator, we wanted to have someone walk you through how we got there and what their own emotions were because this was a subject that is deeply emotional,” he said. “Why not offer that window to readers and let them enter through a different way? It turned out to be extraordinary.”
The other new element for the team was a commitment to community engagement. A buzzword surging through the news industry today, engagement is often misunderstood and thinly practiced, said Andrew DeVigal, chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.
But Christopher, Fitzhenry and the rest of their team saw the concept playing out in three ways. First, they dedicated themselves to opening up from the outset and letting people involved in and affected by youth mental health guide them. Linnane was particularly active in engaging with people who had been left behind by suicide, as well as youth wrestling with mental illness.
She’s convinced these activities improved the series and must be foundational to journalism. An up-close interaction with the experiences, needs and feelings of diverse sets of community members is critical, she said, and must replace more distanced reporting strategies.
“(Those) could be really dangerous because we are in positions of power as journalists,” Linnane said. “And you don’t want to be calling for something to happen that’s going to have all these adverse effects that you didn’t think about because you weren’t talking to the people it’s going to affect.”
Second, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin saw itself as a public forum, where people affected by youth mental health—essentially all the state’s residents—could connect with each other. The primary example of this is an element of the series called “Faces of Kids in Crisis,” where readers tell their own stories of experiencing this crisis. Teens, parents, friends write of excruciating loss, relentless questions and remarkable resilience.
Kris Cahak was one of those faces. A psychiatric nurse, Cahak lost her daughter, Morgan, to suicide in June 2015. She wrote in her own words in the series: “It will now be Morgan’s mission for me to tell our story in hopes of helping others. I believe her story is not over. Please hear me when I say to adolescents, whom I pray are reading this, ‘We are here.’”
Cahak and the USA TODAY NETWORK team shared a common interest in using the “Faces” pieces as a public forum: reducing the stigma attached to mental health and suicide. “I still think the stigma should be gone,” she said. “It should not exist, and that’s why Morgan didn’t tell me she needed help. I think she thought the world would look at her differently.”
For Fitzhenry, awareness of the stigma came early and lasted throughout. “When you get into mental health, one of the things that I was struck by very early on is the taboos surrounding it,” he said. “What we didn’t want to do is get into it and have people psychologically check out from it.”
Finally, engagement meant events. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin hosted town hall meetings in each of the 10 communities they serve geographically, drawing 1,000 people to discuss youth mental health and ways to address the crisis. They also organized a “Day of Action” in the state’s capital, Madison, inviting legislators to hear from experts, parents and teens who face anxiety and depression.
Reflecting on what he termed “the coarseness of political discourse today,” Fitzhenry sees tremendous promise in news media helping citizens engage effectively with each other.
“Our role in our communities is to create a safe zone for people to be able to go engage in civil society,” he said. “It’s really important for the news media to not abdicate that role of bringing people together, of providing a forum where people can talk about things.”
Michael Newton, a University of Wisconsin police officer who serves on the board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Wisconsin, attended the Day of Action and thought the USA TODAY NETWORK focus on the issue was a departure from what he sees from other news media and a welcome change, at that.
“It’s refreshing to see news media take a different approach,” he said. “They’re actually looking for solutions, rather than just reporting.”
Fine Lines of Advocacy and Objectivity
That solutions orientation is not one that’s often comfortable in journalism. Linnane was clear from the beginning that she and her colleagues were engaged in advocacy. Wisconsin has a problem, and they want to see it solved. But she was careful throughout her work to advocate not for any one idea or political position, but instead for giving a voice to people and concerns that had been previously silenced.
DeVigal sees this as a nuanced and important—but often overlooked—distinction. “We’re advocating for that story to be told,” he said. “We’re advocating for the community, not for a particular side.”
This distinction, however, is not easy for many journalists, who have so embraced the ethics of independence and objectivity that simply the word “advocacy” makes them uncomfortable. They see themselves in the business of disengaged, neutral reporting.
“It does challenge some of the norms in journalism that we’ve considered a core component of what we do,” DeVigal said.
Yet Christopher argued those very norms ought to be challenged in a new era of news. He said his team felt a sense of purpose when they bucked some traditions and committed to engagement.
“We see the necessity of strengthening our ties to our communities and getting beyond the model of the ‘uninvolved critic,’” he said. “The 30,000-foot view of the community that you live in, that almost portrays you as not a part of it, we don’t think there’s a lot of value in that. And we think that’s part of the problem that’s fractured the connection between news media and the people that it serves.”
Christopher rejects what he calls the “false choice” between neutrality and being involved in community, saying journalists can make objective decisions in their work and report neutrally while still retaining their humanity. He believes some in news media keep at a distance from their communities not so much to maintain neutrality, but instead to shield themselves from challenge, from staying accountable to the public.
“When you give them (the public) that front-row seat, it also opens you up to defending the choices that you make and explaining how and why you choose to cover certain things,” Christopher said. “In the traditional gatekeeper model, we didn’t want people to be in that part of the process. This is a reversal of that model.”
A Possible Rebirth of Community News
Christopher is betting that such a reversal is not only important to effective journalism, but also to shoring up the business model of local and regional news. The “Kids in Crisis” series was a metrics winner for the organization, with half-a-million page views in its first four months and thousands of livestream views of the town hall meetings.
And the success of taking new steps toward engagement was apparent well beyond media management circles. “Engaging the community differently for some of these papers may be a way for them to resurrect themselves,” said Newton, the police officer and mental health advocate. “What’s different here is pitching ideas and solutions.”
For DeVigal, engagement truly means, “How we honor and authentically involve the public in how we produce journalism,” and it may require a shift in mindset from “information provider” to “community facilitator.” That shift is critical to the future of community journalism.
“Community members telling their own stories—it generates more journalism, it generates more trust and it builds more credibility,” DeVigal said.
Christopher sees engagement as his organization’s connection with and responsibility to the communities it serves. “I would argue we are much more effective watchdogs and we have much more credibility when people understand that we are invested in the communities we cover.”
For Kris Cahak, that investment meant more than news, more than events.
“I really truly believe that what they have done has already saved lives,” she said, noting that her primary emotion involving the series was not one of sadness, but of gratitude.
“They really made a difference, and I know if they did for me, they did it for other parents going through this.”
Kathleen Bartzen Culver is an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. She also serves as visiting faculty for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and education curator for MediaShift.