Scott Stanford: ‘Losing Ground’ helps I-News Network gain ground

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Scott Stanford

Scott Stanford is general manager of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Call him at 970-871-4202 or email sstanford@SteamboatToday.com

Losing Ground

When it comes to statistical measurements of household income, education and health care, gaps between whites and minorities have widened significantly in the past 40 years. The I-News Network's “Losing Ground” series explores the complex reasons why.

— Sunday's newspaper includes the second of four parts in the “Losing Ground” series, an in-depth reporting project by Denver-based I-News Network. You can read the second installment here (for the first installment, click here).

We’re one of more than a dozen newspapers and media outlets publishing this important public service journalism. The series uncovers a disturbing trend in Colorado: When it comes to statistical measurements of household income, education and health care, gaps between whites and minorities have widened significantly in the past 40 years. “Losing Ground” uses census data to show just how bad things have gotten and explores the complex reasons why.

I love the series. It’s the kind of journalism I envisioned being part of our Sunday newspaper when we went to our new design earlier this year. Two more installments of the series will publish Feb. 3 and Feb. 10.

The team that produced the series spent 18 months researching and writing it. But the project really was born four years ago on Feb. 27, 2009, the day the Rocky Mountain News closed its doors.

The first thing Laura Frank thought when the Rocky folded was that a story she had been working on “was never going to be published.”

Frank spent more than 15 years doing investigative and special project reporting at newspapers across the country, including USA Today and the Nashville Tennessean, before coming home in 2005 to join the investigative reporting team at the Rocky.

The Rocky was known for great public service journalism, a reputation backed by four Pulitzers from 2000 to 2006. But these days, great journalism and Pulitzer Prizes aren’t always enough to sustain a newspaper. In the midst of a terrible recession, declining circulation and falling ad revenue, the Rocky published its last edition.

Everyone in the newspaper industry — and many outside of it — knew the Rocky was on shaky ground, that closure wasn’t just probable, but inevitable. Still, the announcement was one of the gloomiest days I’ve endured in this business. Most depressing was that suddenly a lot of really talented journalists like Laura Frank were out of work.

But here is the silver lining — without the Rocky’s demise, there wouldn’t be an I-News Network. “It was absolutely a fabulous organization,” Frank said this week about her time at the Rocky Mountain News. “I have never been in a newsroom like the Rocky Mountain News, and I would never have left if it hadn’t closed.”

In the days leading up to the Rocky’s closure, Frank worked on a follow-up story to a series called “Beyond the Boom” about the impacts on energy-boom communities once drilling activity ceased. She spent several days doing reporting on the Western Slope and quickly realized her story wouldn’t see the light of day.

The reality, Frank thought, is lots of important Colorado stories weren’t going to be told. The Rocky was gone, and the rest of the state’s newspapers were shedding staff. Few could afford to dedicate a single reporter to investigative reporting, much less a team of reporters.

But what if a team of experienced investigative reporters could do in-depth journalism on behalf of newsrooms that no longer had the resources to do it themselves? What if the team could analyze and break down data, not just at the state level but by individual communities, doing reporting legwork that would allow small media outlets to localize complex public service stories?

That was the concept behind I-News. It was, and is, a noble and ambitious idea.

I met Frank at a Colorado Press Association convention in 2010. I instantly admired what she was trying to accomplish but also was skeptical that I-News was sustainable. Frank needed partners, and most newspapers I knew were so overwhelmed with revenue and staffing challenges that it was hard to give I-News much attention, much less financial support.

But give Frank credit for persevering. Grants — especially ones from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Colorado Health Foundation — helped I-News land on solid financial footing. A merger last year with Rocky Mountain PBS allowed the organizations to pool some resources. Today, I-News employs five full-time reporters, photographers and editors, all of them veteran, award-winning journalists. All spent time at the Rocky.

“Losing Ground” is a breakthrough project for I-News. It includes graphics, data, text and video. It has been reported on TV and radio. The series is being published and read in newspapers in every corner of the state, from Durango to Fort Morgan and from Pueblo to Steamboat. The plan, Frank said, is to take the journalism to the next level, to host public events across the state so that communities can come together and discuss the issues raised in “Losing Ground.”

Personally, I’m sold. I salute Frank and her team, for the work in “Losing Ground” and for sticking with I-News to build it into the organization it is today. I can’t wait to publish the next project.

Scott Stanford is general manager of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Call him at 970-871-4202 or email sstanford@steamboattoday.com.

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