Every Monday it feels like our entire staff gets shot out of a cannon.
In the past few weeks we’ve produced a story examining an unusual, and lucrative, stimulus contract; a story detailing the alarming increase in maternal death rates in California; and a story this past weekend revealing how police at sobriety checkpoints are far more likely to seize cars from unlicensed motorists than take drunks off the road.
Sunday’s DUI checkpoint story served as a good example of our hectic, intense workflow. Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of how our collaboration with the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, KQED Radio and other news outlets came together last week:
Monday: We started contacting news partners about the checkpoint story, first giving them a several paragraph “budget line.” It pretty closely mirrored the top of the story as written:
California police departments are increasingly turning sobriety checkpoints into profitable operations that are far more likely to seize cars from unlicensed minority motorists than catch drunken drivers on the state’s roadways.
Many of the drivers losing their cars at checkpoints are illegal immigrants, an examination by the University of California, Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program in collaboration with California Watch has found.
These unlicensed motorists rarely challenge the impounds, or have the cash to recover their cars.
Impounds at checkpoints in 2009 generated tens of millions of dollars in towing fees and police fines. Additionally, police officers collected checks for about more than $25 million in overtime pay for the DUI crackdowns, funded by the California Office of Traffic Safety.
In the course of its examination, The Investigative Reporting Program reviewed hundreds of pages of city financial records and police reports, and analyzed data documenting the results from checkpoints the past two years. Other findings include:
• Sobriety checkpoints frequently screen traffic within, or near, Hispanic neighborhoods.
• The seizures appear to defy a 2005 federal appellate court ruling that determined police cannot impound cars solely because the driver is unlicensed.
• Departments frequently overstaff checkpoints with officers, all earning overtime pay.
Every day in newsrooms across the country, editors and reporters try to capture the interest of their bosses with tantalizing budget lines. Our situation is unique. We pitch our work to multiple outlets at the same time. Will they want our story? And if so, how will they play it?
Robert Rosenthal, the executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Louis Freedberg, the California Watch director who oversees our distribution efforts, began drumming up interest. They sent the budget line to numerous news organizations and followed up with e-mails and phone calls.
In the meantime, our copy editor William Cooley was looking over the story. Copy editors are a rare breed. The best ones are pains in the behind. And they consider it the highest possible compliment to be labeled as such. That’s what I love about Cooley. He is a talented intern from San Jose State. But he carries himself like a veteran.
He has not shied away from asking major prize-winning veteran reporters and editors to explain their methods or their premise. He asks uncomfortable but important questions. And he’s made some outstanding catches that have saved us from potentially embarrassing moments.
Tuesday: The reporter on the project, Ryan Gabrielson, sat down to go over Cooley’s comments and final questions from Rosenthal and me. Gabrielson is a fellow at the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program. He won both the Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award in 2009.
Last summer, he was offered a fellowship at UC Berkeley under the direction of the legendary Lowell Bergman. Soon after arriving in California, he began working on the checkpoint story. Bergman and Gabrielson started talking to us about it late last year and a first draft was submitted in January. I started editing it during our “Open Newsroom” on January 21.
We went back and forth on several drafts and were feeling really good about it. But there was work to do. Cooley had thought we needed more attribution and additional context. Gabrielson and I agreed. I also asked to have his methodology reviewed, so Gabrielson sent it to Steve Doig, a Pulitzer-winning journalism professor at Arizona State University and former board member at Investigative Reporters and Editors.
In the meantime, Data analyst Agustin Armendariz and multimedia producer Lisa Pickoff-White polished a snazzy interactive map of all the cities that got federal funding for checkpoints in 2008 and 2009. They built the map with data Gabrielson had gathered during his reporting.
Wednesday: Time to cut the story. The full-length version of Gabrielson’s draft was about 4,500 words – well over 150 inches. No daily newspaper in California would likely print a story of that length. We trimmed it to about 3,800 words – an appropriate length for the California Watch Web site.
Once that was done, the hard work began. I cut the story again – this time by more than half – to about 1,800 words. At that length it could fit in the news pages of our newspaper partners.
I showed it to Gabrielson, and he didn’t have a heart attack. A good sign. Rosenthal and Freedberg continued to work the phones to find media partners and to keep editors informed about our progress.
Based on our budget line, the Sacramento Bee seemed interested. So did the Orange County Register. The Bakersfield Californian and Stockton Record soon came on board. In addition to showing our methodology to an expert in computer-assisted reporting and statistical analysis, such as Doig, Rosenthal thought we needed to write about our methodology so that readers could understand how the reporting process evolved. Gabrielson banged that out.
He also wrote the text for two data pieces that Armendariz helped put together – one focusing on overtime costs and another looking at the UC Berkeley program that helps administer DUI checkpoint money.
Working with Gabrielson was a pleasure. It’s comforting to an editor when a reporter can quickly answer every question you toss their way. Gabrielson had great command of the subject, and he worked quickly and efficiently to turn around all of our requests. By midday, we were ready to distribute both versions of the story.
Even though we didn’t expect any newsroom to publish the full-length story, we made it available in case editors saw things in the longer draft that they wanted in the condensed version. Once the drafts are dispatched to news outlets, we await questions from editors. Because we’re almost always dealing with multiple partners, we end up fielding lots of inquiries from copy editors, project editors and managing editors as the week progresses.
When we launched California Watch last fall, I worried that it might be a little overwhelming to have so many layers of editors. We all know what it’s like to have too many cooks trying to season the soup. So far, knock on wood, it has actually worked. And we saw a perfect example of that just a few hours later. Sacramento Bee Projects Editor Amy Pyle suggested tweaking the first paragraph of our story. It made the top better and tighter. We made a couple of other adjustments and added a new fourth paragraph.
This was the new start (You can see how it differs slightly from the budget line):
Sobriety checkpoints in California are increasingly turning into profitable operations for local police departments that are far more likely to seize cars from unlicensed motorists than catch drunken drivers.
And this was the added fourth paragraph:
In dozens of interviews over the past three months, law enforcement officials and tow truck operators say that vehicles are predominantly taken from minority motorists – often illegal immigrants.
Doig, the Arizona State professor, got back to us and said he was comfortable with our methods. In the meantime, Gabrielson was going through an entirely different editing process with the New York Times. Bergman, who had won a Pulitzer Prize working with the Times, had gotten the newspaper’s new Bay Area edition and PBS NewsHour interested months ago.
Gabrielson tailored a tightly focused draft for the Times that contained mostly information about Bay Area checkpoints. And he was going back and forth with editors there about changes to the story. He also prepped for a KQED Radio interview with Michael Montgomery and reviewed final video.
Thursday: La Opinion had begun to translate the story into Spanish. Web production assistant Sarah McHie made sure all our articles and pieces were coming together for our Web site. Pickoff-White produced a cool graphic showing the cities with the highest impound rates. She did this even though she had been laid up in a hospital for two days over the weekend. Now she had been ordered by her doctors to rest at home because she had what appeared to be swine flu. But a little H1N1 wasn’t going to stop her.
Gabrielson, meanwhile, headed over to KQED Radio in the morning to tape his radio interview. Later, he watched the NewsHour piece one last time before it got shipped to New York. He also went over the story line-by-line with the New York Times to make more changes to their draft.
Friday: We prepared a Word document with final fixes – just two revised paragraphs that added context in response to a question from Orange County Register Investigative Editor Chris Knap and another from the Sacramento Bee. Through this editing process, the story kept getting stronger.
Some news organizations were still weighing whether to run it. The Modesto Bee told us they would publish the story the following week. The Fresno Bee said they also would like to run it later. Freedberg got back the translated version from La Opinion.
One more time, we all looked over the final pieces that McHie had loaded into our content management system. We rewrote one headline on a graphic, but otherwise everything looked ready. Just as we were leaving the office, we received word that three more Southern California newspapers were interested.
Saturday: Logging in from home, Pickoff-White made sure everything went live at the right time. We posted the stories, charts, graphics and interactive map around 6 p.m.
Our California Watch News Alert went out shortly after, and we started sending out our “tweets” announcing the story. We also posted a link on Facebook. As a small startup, these social media tools are especially important to help spread the word about our work.
The New York Times posted their version early Saturday evening. In the meantime, around the state, several newspaper staffs were getting ready to put the story on their front pages for Sunday. KQED Radio would broadcast an interview with Gabrielson on Monday and the PBS NewsHour would devote a segment to the story Monday night.
Sunday: Finally, an opportunity to exhale – but not all of us. Sarah Terry-Cobo, a freelance journalist who also helps with distribution, scoured the Web for newspaper front pages for our own archives. We also kept pushing the story on Twitter and Facebook. Huffington Post picked up the story, driving thousands of new readers to our site. By the time the day was over, we had shattered our record for the most traffic on californiawatch.org in a single day.
Monday: The cannon goes off again.
California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and is now the largest investigative reporting team operating in the state. Visit the Web site at www.californiawatch.org for in-depth coverage of K-12 schools, higher education, money and politics, health and welfare, public safety and the environment.