POWER IN NUMRERS: Reporters Unite in One City to Cover Health Care Access

Article excerpt

"All Together Now" was the optimistic name coined for an experiment that would test a new model of journalism in Madison, Wis.

The plan was ambitious: Organize competing news media to collectively investigate access to health care. The project offers journalists a narrow but important insight into what collective journalism can accomplish.

Initiated by the editors of two Madison print publications, "All Together Now" sought to create a community impact greater than the sum of its parts.

Its parts were many. Twenty Madison news organizations ranging from local radio and TV stations to magazines and student newspapers to the city's homeless-issue newspaper bombarded the Madison news scene this past October with more than 40 stories on local health care access. All of the content was aggregated to a Web site created for the project: www.atnmadison.org.

Reviewing the journalism produced, it's clear the project succeeded in involving a wide range of Madison's media and produced important stories. But can other markets replicate Madison's model to collectively produce journalism that is increasingly difficult to produce individually?

"The biggest strength is that everybody can do it," says project co-founder Bill Lueders, news editor of the weekly city paper Isthmus.

But there's no denying that Madison is an anomaly when it comes to friendliness among competing news media. The progressive state capital is home to an equally progressive media scene - one with a history of collaborations between companies.

The fact that more than 30 journalists from at least 20 companies showed up to the preliminary meeting speaks more to pre-existing relationships than to the project's unifying nature.

To be sure, collective journalism isn't for everyone. Missing from the action were a couple of the city's biggest players, including its daily newspaper, The Wisconsin State Journal.

What about a collective project didn't appeal to the biggest outlet in town? The paper's editor, John Smalley, said because the project was collective rather than collaborative, it didn't lend itself well to a publication going through a "tremulous" time of newsroom layoffs.

"I think it's a good and useful model for the community and for the marketplace to be exposed to that sort of full-pronged approach, but I don't know that there's any great gain individually for any individual outlet."

Lueders understands the hesitation by some media to participate but believes the success of "All Together Now" should ease those fears.

"I think it's harder for larger publications like the State journal to make a leap like this when it still seems sort of new and risky," Lueders said. "They probably had some well-founded fear. I think they were worried that they would be seen as part of an advocacy effort and that the reporti ng of a 1 1 these other pubi ications wou Id somehow reflect on their publication."

The model allowed each outlet to play to its respective strengths rather than conform to a particular style. A local radio station broadcast the voices of local people telling their struggles accessing health care. College newspapers reported how their university's health insurance program serves the rising number of students no longer insured by their parents' plans. And a number of media produced investigative work, exposing the reasons for a shortage in primary care physicians, the ineffectiveness of a state insurance overseer and the obstacles to mental health care for depressed mothers. …