by Ben Mitchell
In early 2017, CALmatters education reporter Jessica Calefati grew frustrated while researching a piece about California school funding, after two Los Angeles area schools refused to comply with her records request. Calefati used “open reporting,” a method that gives readers insight to a reporter’s or media outlet’s newsgathering process, to enhance her main story. She wrote a first-person account of the stonewalling she encountered as well as the process she went through as she researched her larger story. The open reporting piece garnered a great deal of response from CALmatters readers, who shared their own experiences and even offered to help Calefati find out more information.
Project Goals: Calefati said she wanted to achieve two goals through her open reporting. First, for readers to be aware of the lack of transparency she encountered when requesting the records. “It just seemed so important to explain that, here I am, a reporter who understands this topic deeply, and even I can’t access this information? That’s important and we need to share that with our readers,” she said.
The other goal was to build readers’ trust by giving them a behind-the-scenes look at her reporting process, as well as providing an opportunity for collaboration, as Calefati sought reader guidance and feedback.
Tools and Technology: Though they did not not exist at the time, two CALmatters reporters – Jessica Calefati and Laurel Rosenhall – now have their own open reporting blog to post these kind of stories.
- CALmatters received a high level of interest from readers after publishing the open reporting piece despite it being “an incredibly complicated and wonky topic that the average person might not care to weigh into,” Calefati said.
- Calefati said she heard from several dozen readers via e-mail, Twitter, and phone. Some of them shared that they too were unable to access funding information. Others expressed frustration over the lack of transparency, regardless of the topic.
- The open reporting story also prompted collaboration between journalist and audience: some readers offered suggestions to where Calefati might find more information. Others offered to find it for her themselves.
- Calefati added that her open reporting piece helped drum up interest in her main story, which was published a couple months later. “A lot of the people that reached out said… ‘I can’t wait to see this piece when it comes out,’” she said. “Giving people a taste of what was to come piqued their interest.”
Organization Background: CALmatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism organization based in Sacramento, Calif., that primarily focuses on California politics and policy issues. The organization, launched in 2015, publishes articles on their website and targets a statewide readership. The majority of its revenue comes from a combination of donations and foundation grants.
Project Resources: Calefati said CALmatters did not incur any additional costs or time beyond her normal work hours.
Here’s how it happened
As an education reporter for CALmatters, Calefati set out to tell a story about a school funding policy advocated by California Gov. Jerry Brown a few years prior. The policy “aims to close a wide achievement gap among California students, directs extra cash to districts with high concentrations of students from low-income families, foster youth and kids learning English,” as Calefati reported in her article. She wanted to know how much money was spent, on what, and what had been accomplished thus far.
However, Calefati encountered roadblocks from government agencies and school districts who were either reluctant to provide information or didn’t respond to her requests at all.
Calefati said that at this point, “the reporting took an unexpected turn,” as neither she nor her editors had anticipated this resistance. CALmatters had done open reporting before, and Calefati and her colleagues came to the consensus that this method was the best way to expose to the public the unnecessary public records rigmarole Calefati encountered.
Here’s what worked
1. Writing in the first person.
One of the main goals Calefati had for this project was to build trust with her readers. Calefati wanted to tell them what was going on behind the scenes with her story, and she and CALmatters colleagues concluded that writing in the first person would be the best way to establish a more meaningful connection with readers.
2. Sharing specific examples of her struggles.
Instead of speaking in generalities about the challenges of accessing public records, Calefati wanted readers to specifically know which roadblocks she encountered. She named the school districts/government agencies and people within those groups who blocked her requests, mentioned the specific documents she was looking for, and detailed responses she did (or did not) receive. Essentially, Calefati gave her readers the transparency she sought from the California state government and schools.
3. Seeking responses from readers.
Part of the reason the open reporting method connected with readers is Calefati sought responses from them on the issue of school funding, and it was a call that was answered, with several dozen reader responses. This fostered a collaborative spirit and also generated greater interest in the final story, Calefati said.
Here’s what could have worked better
Calefati felt the project was a success and didn’t think there was much that could have been done better. She said the one thing she and CALmatters might have done differently was publish more open reporting stories prior to the release of the main school funding piece.
Here’s what else you should know
- Don’t be afraid to use the first person: Though she’s been a reporter for 10 years, Calefati noted this was her first time publishing something in the first person as a journalist.. “I think most reporters who come from a traditional journalism background… sort of cringe at the idea of writing in the first person because we’re trained to not be part of the story,” she said, but that in some situations, “your experience and your struggle is part of the story and telling the public about it can be beneficial in sharing the information that you need to convey.”
- Open reporting opens up story possibilities: Had Calefati not done open reporting, the story of her public records struggles would have a been a minor point in her main school funding piece, she said. Open reporting allowed her to go in-depth on a topic that otherwise wouldn’t have received as much attention. “The nice thing about open reporting is you can highlight and break off pieces that seem warranted, and especially pieces that have to do with process,” she said.
- Open reporting can help reduce mistrust in the media: In the era of “fake news” and mainstream media haranguing, Calefati says open reporting is a way to rebuild trust with readers, to show them their process behind the reporting, and demonstrate that journalists aren’t making stuff up. “I think many readers approach the news right now with an expectation that whatever they’re reading might be biased, because there is more left-leaning or right-leaning journalism out there right now…” Calefati said. Showing readers exactly how reporters have done their work and gathered their data, “gives them more information on which to trust what you’re telling them.”
To learn more about this project, send Jessica Calefati an email, or check out the links below: