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Podcast Episode: 4

Sharon McGowan | Resurrecting News: The Power of Collaboration

Believing that we achieve more when we work together, the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) – a national consortium of journalism organizations – uses its collective power to amplify trustworthy news. Milwaukee Media Hall of Famer Sharon McGowan, who leads collaborations for INN, explains how the innovative From Rust to Resilience series brought various newsrooms together – and uplifted stories about climate change’s effect on Great Lakes cities.

From Rust to Resilience collaboration and stories

[00:00:00] Sharon: The challenges that face the Great Lakes region, as far as journalism, are similar to what’s happening in the rest of the country. Not every community has a newspaper anymore. Not every community has a great nonprofit news organization. So there are vast news deserts and INN is hoping to fill those deserts, not just with news organizations, but news organizations that really center the communities that they cover

[00:00:37] Amy: From the Great Lakes Protection Fund, you’re listening to Great Lakes, Great Stories, a six-part daily series, celebrating the journalistic leaders of the Great Lakes region. I’m Amy Elledge.

[00:00:48] Steve: I’m Steve Cole. The outstanding storytellers featured on this podcast discuss their insight, influences, and inspirations for telling compelling and impactful stories about the Great Lakes—stories that earned each of them a Great Lakes Protection Fund 2020 Leadership Award for Communications Excellence.

[00:01:06] Amy: And we’ll hear about the challenges they see on the horizon for the Great Lakes region. Today on the show we have Sharon McGowan, collaborations leader for the Institute for Nonprofit News, also known as INN. INN is building a nonprofit, nonpartisan media network, that is dedicated to public service to ensure that all communities have access to trusted news.  Through its environmental programming, INN explores the many ways our communities are left vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because of heat waves, flooding, severe storms, and aging infrastructure. Sharon is joining us today to talk a little bit more about how they tell stories about the Great Lakes.

Hi Sharon. Thanks for joining us.

Sharon: Thank you so much for having me.

Steve: Sharon, we were really pleased to recognize your organization for communications excellence.

[00:01:53] Sharon:  Thank you. We were so excited to get the award. It was completely unexpected, and I have to point out that the award, of course, goes really to the newsrooms who participated in the project. INN convened this, made it happen. But it’s actually the newsrooms who did the hard work.

[00:02:11] Steve: And I’m looking forward to talking a lot more about that. Perhaps we should start then with a little bit of background on INN. Could you tell us about the organization and how it came together and a bit about the mission?

[00:02:21] Sharon: Sure. The organization was founded back in 2009. It changed in 2015, when Sue Cross became the executive director, to become much more deliberate about attracting nonprofit members and much more deliberate about having a newsroom in every community, which is the goal, that provides access to trusted news.

INN promotes investigative and public service journalism, and INN members cover all kinds of communities, from the very smallest neighborhood to regions, to national outlets. Some members cover specific sectors such as education or environment or healthcare, and others are more general. But all have a public service focus.

Steve: And can you tell us a little bit more about your role at INN?

[00:03:15] Sharon: My role is called amplify collaboration’s editor. I work on editorial collaborations, mostly in the Midwest region. Recently I’ve expanded to some other environmental issues in the western United States. Specifically, stories about access to water.

And my job is to be the project manager for a collaboration. My job is not to do the reporting or writing or editing, which is a change for me in my career. But it gives me great satisfaction to bring together newsrooms who work on a specific project together across geographies and sometimes across topics.

Steve: We have some unique challenges in the Great Lakes region, some of which of course is shared across the entire country and some globally. I’m curious if you have a point of view on how some of the challenges and opportunities that we’re facing intersect with the INN’s mission.

[00:04:14] Sharon: The Great Lakes region is blessed with a very robust set of nonprofit journalism organizations, many of whom, but not all of whom, are members of INN. And a number of our collaborations have focused on this region.

Most prominently, the one that was called [From] Rust to Resilience, What Climate Change Means for Rust Belt Cities. We also have a new collaboration that’s called AC, After COVID, that focuses on the Midwest and including some Great Lakes cities. The challenges that face the Great Lakes region, as far as journalism, are similar to what’s happening in the rest of the country.

Not every community has a newspaper anymore. Not every community has a great nonprofit news organization. So there are vast news deserts and INN is hoping to fill those news deserts and not just with news organizations, but news organizations that really center the communities that they cover.

Amy: That’s great. Sharon, how did you get into journalism and how has your path led you to where you are at INN?

[00:05:24] Sharon: I love telling the story. I was choosing between two completely different professions when I graduated college. One was social work, which my mother was a social worker, and the other was journalism. And a friend of mine said, you should do journalism. You would be great at that. And I said, okay. I, applied to the Medill School of Journalism and got my master’s degree there. And my first job out of college was with an investigative news organization, nonprofit news organization, which was one of the first nonprofits in the country called the Chicago Reporter.

I took that job because the founder and editor, John McDermott, invited the staff onto his sailboat. I wasn’t a member of the staff yet, but he wanted me to meet people. We went sailing on Lake Michigan, the first time I had ever done that. And I thought, I’m going to take this job. So that’s how I got started.

And it’s interesting because I was involved in nonprofit news from the beginning of my career. Then I worked at some for-profit CBS organizations for WBBM radio in Chicago, and for WBBM TV in Chicago. Then I taught at Medill, my alma mater, and then came back to nonprofit journalism where I was the founding editor of Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. Also a wonderful city on the Great Lakes. So that was my basic career. I was at NNS for 10 years, commuting from Chicago every week for 50 weeks a year for almost 10 years. Now I work for the Institute for Nonprofit News, where everybody works from their dining room.

Amy: So, did you have a mentor at an early age?

[00:07:07] Sharon: Yeah, I was so lucky to have a mentor. John McDermott, who was a leading civil rights leader in Chicago, and who had the vision to start a nonprofit news organization to cover race relations and urban affairs in Chicago. And he was a wonderful mentor. He passed away some years ago. I still have a picture of him on my bulletin board that I look at every day when I need some compass, some direction.

And I’ve also had the opportunity to mentor many people at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service over the years. I had 80 interns and I’m proud to say that that was one of the reasons why I was inducted into the Milwaukee Journalism Hall of Fame, because I work with so many young reporters.

Amy: And recognition of the next generation is so important. Where do you think the next generation of Great Lakes storytellers will come from and how can we continue to support and grow that generation?

[00:08:07] Sharon: INN collaborates with a number of incredible schools and programs around the country to provide internships and fellowships for young, diverse journalists.

So one example is our work with the Emma Bowen Foundation. The Emma Bowen Foundation has a fellowship program. Each summer more than 20 INN member organizations host EBF fellows, where they learn the trade, where they do reporting. And this is just one part of INNs work to cultivate a diverse talent pipeline. They also work with emerging leaders and established leaders in cohorts, to try to improve skills, no matter what level of your career you’re at.

[00:08:52] Steve: And that’s a remarkable role that you and your colleagues are playing in nurturing the pipeline of new reporters, new writers into this field. We have to thank you for doing that in addition to all the great work that INN is already doing. Your Great Lakes Leadership Award is for communications excellence, and it represents the recognition of the body of work on the part of you and your collaborators. And I’m just really curious how you choose the stories that you tell.

[00:09:20] Sharon: There’s more than one answer. The Rust to Resilience project though, is kind of the ideal way for stories to emerge. It was based on a conversation with the editor of a member newsroom about what they are interested in reporting on. This member’s based in Buffalo, New York and he brought up the idea about doing a project about the Great Lakes.

In September of 2019, we actually had an in-person meeting in Detroit. A half- dozen newsrooms who came together to talk about what specific aspects of environmental issues around the Great Lakes we should cover. And out of that day-long discussion, we settled on looking at rust belt cities. Particularly looking at, as freshwater becomes a much more valuable commodity, how that would affect the rust belt cities.

The initial idea was looking at this idea of a climate haven. The ultimate project turned out to be a little bit different, as it always does. We examined the effects of climate change on things like infrastructure and equity, water quality, economic development in the various cities that the newsrooms came from.

But what we like very much about this is that the idea came from a member. The specific stories came from a collaborative discussion. And the individual stories on their own were very strong. And as a group, educate people about climate change and the Great Lakes region. A lot of the coverage has to do with coastal cities as you know, and things like sea level rise and hurricanes. And we thought that this was an opportunity to do something a little different and still contribute to the reporting on climate change.

Steve: And who were you trying to reach and persuade with this work?

[00:11:16] Sharon: It’s a good question, Steve. I mean, in general, we’re trying to educate as broad a number of people about the issues we cover as possible. Which is why we do a collaboration, why we bring in multiple newsrooms and promote in multiple ways.

But the ultimate audience for a project like Rust to Resilience, is people in the communities who can do their small or large part to start addressing the problems that we raise and the issues that we raise in these stories. Unfortunately, our project launched at a very scary part of COVID. We had planned three or four in-person engagement events where the plan was to have people come together and talk about what can we do to address a particular problem that was raised in the series.

Unfortunately, those events did not occur. But we still, I think, were able to raise the issue with a lot of people who probably hadn’t thought about climate change in the Great Lakes or these cities at all.

[00:12:21] Steve: You play a very unique role in bringing a lot of organizations together to produce a program like Rust to Resilience. Could we talk a little bit about who was involved?

[00:12:32] Sharon: It was Belt Magazine, The Conversation, Ensia, Great Lakes Now, which was at Detroit Public Television, MinnPost, Side Effects Public Media and WUWM Milwaukee were the main partners. Indianapolis Public Radio also did some work on this project. So those organizations each thought about what aspect of the issue of climate change in rust belt cities they wanted to cover. And then we worked together to talk about the stories, to suggest sources, to suggest reporting paths, et cetera. And we published 12 stories in the series. The stories were republished 93 times across 13 states and in four national outlets.

Steve: The reach was quite significant.

[00:13:19] Sharon: Yeah. A number that was interesting to me is about 104,000 unique visitors, which felt like a lot.

And then, an additional 30,000 unique visitors through a distribution partner. There’s a news organization called Patch, which exists in many local communities that INN has an established relationship with. Patch distributed all these stories, so greatly increasing their reach.

Steve: I think from many perspectives, the Rust to Resilience project was a remarkable success. What do you think other storytellers could learn from your success on this project?

[00:13:58] Sharon: The main takeaway that I have is that collaboration can really help. And there’s all kinds of collaboration. In this case, in the case of Rust to Resilience, each newsroom worked on their own story, a story that they may have done with or without this collaboration.

But because of the collective power of the Institute for Nonprofit News, stories were able to get greater attention, greater reach and potentially greater impact. Also, INN brings resources to these projects. We seek grant funding for all of them. In this case, the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting was the main funder.

And the amounts vary. But in a small newsroom, for example, any amount that allows you to hire a photographer, bring in a freelance reporter, bring in an editor, helps to create a better project. I think other storytellers can learn that there are all kinds of collaborations. In a collaboration we have going now, for example, we required that two newsrooms pair up to do the reporting together, to do the work together.

Amplify, the project that I work for, is all about experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t work. And so we wanted to see what happens if we say you have to work with a partner. And the goal is not just to see whether we can make somebody work with a partner. The goal is to build relationships among the non-profit newsrooms, and between them, that will carry on long after an additional project.

[00:15:34] Steve: So let’s look to the future, particularly for you and for INN. What are you inspired to do next? And what’s coming up for the rest of the year the people listening to this should be aware of?

[00:15:43] Sharon: I’m excited about a project that we’re publishing now called AC, Life After COVID. And that project is focused in the Midwest, not specifically around the Great Lakes, but it’s an exciting project because we brought together the largest collaboration ever for INN.

15 different newsrooms who are looking at the policies and practices that changed as a result of COVID, and whether those will or should continue into the future. How they have changed the way people think about a variety of topics, including housing, homelessness, education, food security, criminal justice, mental health, and healthcare in general. The package together will, I think, provide a really good picture about what COVID has done and what should be kept and what should be changed going forward. So I’m excited about that.

We’re also planning to do a large project about rural issues, which we’re just beginning to work on. The goal there would be to do an ongoing project over a year or two covering a variety of rural issues. And we’re hoping to do a follow-up to the Tapped Out collaboration, the one about power, justice, and water in the west, because there’s so much more to tell. And that particular group of newsrooms was a small group and they really liked working together. They said on their own, can we do something else?

And we have a strong focus always, but particularly in the last year or two, on diversity, equity and inclusion. And that’s one of INN’s top priorities. We’ve done a baseline survey of newsrooms to gauge how diverse they are. There are pipelines for diverse leaders that we mentor. And that’s a strong focus for our organization going forward.

Steve: Fantastic. That’s great to hear.

[00:17:53] Amy: Sharon I’d like to switch gears a little bit and talk about your personal experiences with the Great Lakes. Do you have a favorite place on the Great Lakes?

[00:18:01] Sharon: I love the Chicago lakefront. I am from Chicago, grew up in Chicago, and have many, many great memories of biking on the lake front, going to the beach, playing tennis on the courts that are near the lakefront, just watching the boats, dreaming of being invited another time to go out on a sailboat.

In a similar way. I guess I’m kind of an urban person. I really love the Milwaukee lakefront. The art museum there provides a wonderful view of the lake and there’s a boardwalk that you can walk for a very long way. So my favorite places are just places where you can go and do nothing or go and do a lot of things like bike, play tennis, run, et cetera. Is that boring?

[00:18:44] Amy: No, it’s not it. And it’s nice to see people out on the lakefront again. It was a strange and eerie sight to see it so quiet and empty. It’s good to see it back again.

And we talked a little bit earlier that sometimes it’s hard to get people motivated to care or take action for something that they take for granted. And oftentimes I think people can take the Great Lakes for granted. What do you think people underappreciate about the Great Lakes?

[00:19:15] Sharon: Well, I think they underappreciate the vastness. I have never been to Lake Superior. I’ve never been to Lake Huron. And I think that, you know, a personal goal now that I’ve been involved in this work is to actually understand more viscerally the magnitude of the Great Lakes.

So I don’t know if I’m typical of people who live around the Great Lakes, but I suspect that I probably am. And it’s vast and it’s worth exploring.

[00:19:41] Amy: Yes, it is. Sharon. Thank you so much. This was great to talk to you today. And can you let people know where they can find out more about INN and how they can connect?

[00:19:53] Sharon: They can go to inn.org. And if you go to Collaborations, you’ll find my name and contact information. We’d be happy to hear from any of your listeners.

Steve: I’d like to also say congratulations once again on your Great Lakes Leadership Award. Sharon, thank you so much for joining us today.

Sharon: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

[00:20:14] Steve: Thanks for listening to Great Lakes, Great Stories. Tune in next time for another great conversation about Great Lakes storytelling. Please keep the conversation going with us. Our Twitter and Facebook handles are @ GLPFund while using the #GreatLakesGreatStories.

[00:20:29] Amy: If you enjoyed the episode, please spread the word and hit that subscribe button and be sure not to miss another conversation with an exceptional storyteller and Great Lakes Protection Fund 2020 Leadership Award recipient.

Visit our website GLPF.org to receive updates on the 2021 Leadership Awards. Click the Get Updates link to stay connected with us. See you tomorrow.

Great Lakes. Great Stories.

Great Lakes Great Stories celebrates the Great Lakes Protection Fund’s 2020 Leadership Award recipients. Visit our Leadership Awards page to learn more about the recipients.

Send us your comments and feedback on Twitter using #GreatLakesGreatStories.

Listen and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Help spread the word by sharing on TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook.

Great Lakes Great Stories is produced by the Great Lakes Protection Fund and SoundEazy with help from The Good Lemon. Theme music is by Roeland Ruijsch.

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