by Karla Salinas and Anna Lueck
The Great Salt Lake Collaborative (GSLC) is a newly formed organization, currently composed of twelve newsrooms and six community organizations across Utah. It was formed in 2022 with grant funding from the Solutions Journalism Network and is an effort to educate Utahns about the crisis facing the Great Salt Lake and empower them with potential solutions.
In recent years, the lake has sunk below the lowest level previously on record, now holding half its historical average amount of water. The shrinking lake affects everything from drinking water to tourism to farming and ecology; appropriately, the Collaborative’s storytelling methods have been similarly broad. In its first year, the Collaborative has collected stories—print, video, and audio—from newsrooms about the lake, funded more in-depth investigations, hosted in-person events like library panels and archaeological tours, and engaged its audience with Q&A surveys and a creative anthology. Their work focuses heavily on solutions reporting.
- The Collaborative’s goal is to better inform and engage the public about the crisis facing the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is ‘too late.’ Through rigorous journalism, innovative storytelling and unique community outreach, the Great Salt Lake Collaborative explores solutions to save this body of water.
- They work to illuminate how people can better support the Great Salt Lake through solutions stories, reaching new audiences, elevating the issue of the lake’s crisis and thus impacting change in water policy and water conservation.
- In their application to Solutions Journalism Network, the Great Salt Lake Collaborative pledged to create and share 80 stories. They surpassed that goal with 245 stories in their first year.
- Additionally, they pledged to create 20 solutions-specific stories. They surpassed that goal with 77 solution stories in their first year.
- The Collaborative is funded through a grant from the Knight Foundation via Solutions Journalism Network’s Local Media Project, whose goal is to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems.
- Journalists currently come from these partner news organizations: Amplify Utah, Axios Salt Lake, Deseret News, Fox 13, KSL.com, KSL NewsRadio, KSL-TV, KRCL, KUER, Salt Lake Tribune, Standard-Examiner, and Utah Public Radio.
- The Collaborative also hosts events and creates projects in tandem with community partners. Current partners are: The great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air at Utah State University, Salt Lake Community College Community Writing Center, Salt Lake Community College Geosciences Department, Utah Humanities, and Utah Film Center.
Tools & Technology
- The Collaborative uses a variety of tools, including a content management system, and a Google form to source audience questions.
- Their produced assets include a video library, interactive map, newsletter, social media posts, and a community anthology, all housed on a Collaborative-specific website.
- They also hosted lake tours and in-person panel discussions.
- The Great Salt Lake Collaborative elevated the issue of the crisis facing the lake by creating/sharing 245 stories about the lake.
- They issued a call for submissions for a community anthology. The result is a 431-page book called “Consecrate Desecrate,” which includes over 200 poems, short stories, photography and other artwork about the lake.
- Since the Collaborative was formed, the Utah Legislature has done more for Utah’s water and to protect and preserve the lake than ever before, to reduce water use on farms, by homeowners and businesses. Lawmakers also took action on some of the solutions reported by the GSLC, including:
- Allocating funds to replace water-thirsty lawns and to meter water use of homes that use untreated water.
- Spending $44,000 in ongoing and $232,000 in one-time funds to monitor lake dust to understand if dust storms are coming from the lakebed and if dust control efforts are working.
- More information on solutions reported by the GSLC compared to legislative responses can be found here.
- The Collaborative won the Local that Works contest, which included a monetary prize of $20,000, and was named one of the top collaboratives of the year in 2022 by The Center for Cooperative Media.
How it Happened
Prior to 2022, several Utah newsrooms regularly shared stories with each other through a group called the Utah News Collaborative. In 2021, the Salt Lake Tribune (one of the leaders of that collaborative) and partners from Amplify Utah heard about SJN’s Local Media Project Initiative, funded by the Knight Foundation, and decided to apply. Part of this application required the collaborative to come up with a problem they wanted to tackle through a solutions lens. They settled on telling stories about and increasing community engagement with the shrinking Great Salt Lake. SJN awarded this proposal a two-year grant, and the Great Salt Lake Collaborative was born.
This funding provides $100,000 per year for two years. This pays for a project manager, as well as in-person events, a website, travel costs for reporting projects, and miscellaneous other operation costs. Reporters contributing to the collaborative do not receive additional pay, but see non-monetary benefits in the form of solutions journalism training and increased viewership for their work.
Heather May, a freelance journalist and former employee of the Salt Lake Tribune, currently serves as project manager for the Collaborative. At first, her work involved expanding Collaborative membership beyond newsrooms to include other community partners like libraries and universities. She was additionally responsible for sourcing member input into their co-written mission statement, holding reporter meetings, managing their funding requests, and monitoring a Slack channel for ideas and story shares.
In the Collaborative’s second year, her role has shifted to ensuring newsroom members stay focused on solutions reporting and promoting the Collaborative’s work in the community and online through the website, social media, and a weekly newsletter. She also continues to work with community partners to create new engagement opportunities (for example, an elementary school curriculum about the lake).
1. Raising Public Awareness
Heather believes the Collaborative elevated the issue of the crisis facing the Great Salt Lake by creating and sharing stories about the lake. She cited a recent poll that found 80% of Utahns are concerned about the lake and 73% want lawmakers to spend more money on mitigation. The Speaker of the Utah House said at a forum in October, “I could not imagine seeing that high of a number even 10 months ago.” The Great Salt Lake Collaborative was created 10 months prior. Their stories have influenced a national audience, with stories about the lake published by the New York Times, PBS NewsHour, CNN, and Science Friday, among others.
Heather also noted a shifting tide overall on Capitol Hill. Since the Collaborative was formed, Utah lawmakers have done more than they’ve ever done before regarding water legislation and protecting and preserving the lake, with $1 billion put towards the water and the lake over the past two years. The funds are paying for water rights for the lake, improving agricultural efficiency, and promoting water conservation among residents and businesses. “I’ve never seen a local environmental issue rise to public and international consciousness as swiftly and broadly as Great Salt Lake has,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. “We need to cite our partners from the Great Salt Lake Collaborative.”
2. Emphasizing Solutions Reporting
All newsroom partners were trained in the pillars of solutions journalism and produce rigorous reporting on potential solutions. Heather says they aim to change the local media ecosystem.
3. Connecting Through Different Mediums
Heather notes one of the strengths of the Collaborative is the diversity of tactics they employ to provide Utahns with facts about the lake. From short audio stories to written journalism to in-person events, “we want to be able to be where people are, to reach them in the ways that they already consume their news,” she says. “I think it’s huge because we acknowledge that those who follow news…some of them are listening, some are watching, some just get their news from Instagram.”
The collaborative also conducted archeological tours, held community conversations and created a community anthology that included poems, short stories, and artwork about the lake.
What Could Have Worked Better
1. Targeting Outreach to Specific Demographics
Heather notes that, while the GSLC was effective in reaching lawmakers, policymakers and news consumers, there are other essential groups they don’t feel they’ve connected well with so far, primarily young people and farmers/people in rural Utah. Connecting with these two demographics is among the Collaborative’s primary goals for 2023.
To reach young people, the Collaborative is working to develop a K-5 curriculum out of the Collaborative’s existing reporting and other resources. It also connects with high school journalism classes, encouraging them to tell their own stories about the lake, and hiring two interns to produce social media content that might appeal to younger viewers.
In terms of rural communities, the Collaborative is working on programming— specifically site visits—around tributaries that feed into the lake, to understand how these rivers and the farmers that depend on them affect and are affected by changes in the Great Salt Lake.
2. Identifying More Sustainable Funding
The original grant from Solutions Journalism Network funds this project through the end of 2023- meaning Heather needs to spend most of this year identifying other funding, or the project will fold. She is currently casting a wide net, from university partnerships to local philanthropists.
3. Improving Promotional Strategies to Drive Engagement
Heather hopes to increase engagement with the Collaborative’s content across all demographics. To do this, she plans to build out more promotional materials for their largest reporting projects and continue to build relationships with community partners that can host events related to these projects.
What Else You Should Know
- Heather says the types of projects they include depend on the people in the collaborative wanting to do them. The work the journalists contribute is not paid for by the collaborative but is included in their regular duty compensation by their employers.
- While the Collaborative does receive some money through crowdfunding, this is minimal and not a sustainable source of funding.