Betsy Lumbye: Collaboration on high-speed rail report benefits readers

The Fresno BeeJanuary 14, 2012 

Reporter Tim Sheehan's stories today about lessons learned from high-speed rail in Spain come at a critical juncture, when the debate about bullet trains in California is about to reach the Legislature.

This special two-part project, "Spanish Lessons: What One Country's High-Speed Rail System Can Teach California," shows how a system built under the best of conditions has thrived, but faces uncertainty in Europe's recession.

But the project is significant in another way. It represents a milestone for a dozen California news organizations that chipped in to send one reporter on a foreign reporting trip.

“This is an unprecedented model for collaboration,” said Mark Katches, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team and a linchpin in this undertaking.

“In today’s media ecosystem, every editor is dealing with fewer resources to produce in-depth, public accountability reporting on critical issues such as high-speed rail, the nation’s largest public works project,” Katches said. “This is the first time to our knowledge that a large number of outlets has come together to strategize coverage, share reporting and jointly fund one paper’s reporter.”

It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Editors — and journalists in general — are competitive, hard-wired to go it alone. But the recession has taken its toll on all of us. We’ve had to be more resourceful than ever.

In that vein, we all embarked on the path that would lead a Bee reporter to Spain.

It started with a question last year from Katches. Editors from several papers were discussing story ideas with California Watch. Katches wondered what statewide stories could benefit from a collaborative approach.

High-speed rail was looming large for the Central Valley, with a short timetable and enormous amounts of public money and private property at stake. I felt it needed much more media and public attention — far more than any single organization could provide in this economy.

I suggested we make that our project and others agreed. Before long, our small group grew, and the ideas and stories started flowing.

Members of the group, in addition to The Bee and California Watch, are The Bakersfield Californian, The Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, U-T San Diego (formerly The San Diego Union-Tribune), The Orange County Register, The Modesto Bee, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, KQED Public Radio, The Tribune of San Luis Obispo and the Merced Sun-Star.

In the past year, we have produced about 40 shared stories on high-speed rail, written by 12 different reporters, in newsrooms large and small around the state.

Where we might have duplicated efforts before, we now shared strategies and plans. When one newsroom would report on a particular story, the rest were free to pursue other angles. Readers reaped the benefits of expanded coverage.

But a piece was missing. We hadn’t looked at how high-speed rail was faring in a country that had long embraced it. Katches pitched the idea of sending a reporter overseas, and Sheehan, our reporter, was chosen to go to Spain, whose system is seen as a model for California.

Each organization anted up to pay the total cost of the trip, which was about $4,000 for Sheehan.

Said Bakersfield Californian Executive Editor John Arthur: “We thought this would be a worthwhile expense because the project was designed from the start to get behind the headlines and provide a real-world look at a bullet train system that operates in an environment that has many similarities to California.”

Sheehan wrote the stories that appear today and continue next Sunday, and also took photographs and shot video. California Watch edited the video and created graphics. “It’s a win-win,” says Katches. “It improves coverage for the public and makes good business sense for the news organizations involved.” Soon our group will meet to talk about issues to tackle together this year. What statewide issues do you think we should cover? I’m open to suggestions, and will share your thoughts with my fellow editors.

Betsy Lumbye is executive editor and senior vice president of The Bee. She can be reached at blumbye@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6207.

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