This week, dozens of Association of Alternative Newsweeklies member papers will publish “Soldier’s Heart,” an article by freelance reporter Dan Frosch that casts a critical eye on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ ability to properly treat Iraq War veterans with serious psychological problems. Other AAN papers will publish the piece in upcoming issues, some as late as mid-January.
The article is AAN’s latest collaborative story project to provide alt-weekly editors with high-quality content at no cost to individual papers. Many of the participating weeklies will supplement Frosch’s findings with additional reporting to reflect the issue’s regional and local impact.
The last such collaborative story, an examination of how the Bush administration’s focus on counterterrorism has adversely affected the Federal Emergency Management Agency, appeared in more than 20 member papers earlier this year beginning on Sept. 22. It was the first to utilize the “bottom-up” approach, in which the AAN Editorial Committee authorizes a project proposed by an editor who comes across a story with potential appeal to a number of papers.
Frosch’s article came to fruition using the same approach. “Dan and I had worked together well and closely when he was at Santa Fe Reporter, and he’s done a few pieces for me as a freelancer,” says Santa Fe Reporter editor Julia Goldberg. “I had told him to keep AAN in mind if a story came to him that seemed to have both national and alt-weekly appeal.”
Frosch had reported on veterans’ issues before, and established what he calls “a strong network of sources.” His freelance work has been published in journals like The Nation and In These Times, and he considered approaching national magazines with his idea for “Soldier’s Heart.”
Instead, says Goldberg, “He pitched it to me and I pitched it to AAN.”
The AAN office set up a listserv to facilitate communication between contributing reporters. Most of the early communication on the list, says Frosch, concerned “how to work on a local angle.”
He wrote his story to accommodate additional in-depth reporting, taking a broad view of the mental health care problem while introducing local-level solutions such as storefront vet centers. “There were little parts in there that a local reporter could concentrate on,” Frosch says.
The process was not without its difficulties. After the “final” copy was emailed to participating papers on Thursday, Dec. 9, several rounds of minor corrections followed. “The breakdown, so to speak, came at the end, when the story went out,” says Goldberg. “I needed to either ask for more time to copyedit the story before sending it out, or more lag time between sending it out and publication — so that other papers could vet and ask their questions.”
Frosch explains the flurry of last-minute exchanges: “You have different editors, copyeditors and fact-checkers, each with different questions.”
“Next time, we need to make at least two adjustments in the process,” says AAN executive director Richard Karpel. “The copyediting issue must be resolved, and we need a single point of contact with participating editors to avoid logistical confusion.”
“Live and learn,” Goldberg says.
Despite these snags, the process resulted in an article that will run in at least 43 AAN member papers.
“It’s a compelling piece,” says Illinois Times editor Roland Klose. “Speaking for one of the smaller AAN papers, I’m grateful for the collaborative projects — and hope they continue.”
Pasadena Weekly editor Kevin Uhrich sees a “news vacuum” that such projects can fill. “Exploit the breach,” he says.
Uhrich’s paper is among at least 30 that will report on the issues raised in “Soldier’s Heart” from a local perspective, a fact that Karpel finds illustrative of the unique benefits offered by AAN-commissioned collaborations.
“I am really intrigued by the potential of these collaborative projects,” he says. “When you have 30 different papers all reporting locally on the same issue, it will provide a really interesting mosaic. I have to think that, collectively, the stories will present a kind of ‘truth’ that a single article on the same subject can’t approach. And it’s the kind of thing that only AAN can do.”
To promote the story, AAN will run advertisements on the highly trafficked blogs Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo. The ads will link to a special section on AltWeeklies.com, the association’s story-sharing site. The section will feature Frosch’s article and a compilation of related reporting from member papers across the country.
AAN will also issue a press release on the collaborative effort.