“Bottom-Up” Collaboration Yields FEMA Story for AAN Papers

An article by award-winning freelance reporter Jon Elliston that examines how the Bush administration’s focus on counterterrorism has adversely affected the Federal Emergency Management Agency will begin running in Association of Alternative Newsweeklies member papers this week.

Efforts to undertake a collaborative story project were last made in April 2004 when AAN retained journalist Jason Vest to write an article on the situation in Iraq titled “Fables of the Reconstruction.” AAN gave Vest’s story to member papers free of charge. When the AAN Editorial Committee met in June 2004, its members discussed ways in which they could again provide alt-weekly editors with high-quality content at no cost to individual papers.

AAN Papers Running the FEMA Story:

Sept. 22-23:

Independent Weekly
Long Island Press
San Francisco Bay Guardian (Web only)
Boulder Weekly
Source Weekly
Creative Loafing Atlanta
Gambit Weekly
Folio Weekly
Tucson Weekly
Athens News

Sept. 30:

Illinois Times
Ventura County Reporter
Fairfield County Weekly
San Antonio Current

Sept. 30 or later:

Orlando Weekly
Weekly Planet
Baltimore City Paper
Pasadena Weekly
City Newspaper (pending)

Janet Reynolds, group publisher and senior editor of Hartford Advocate, suggested a bottom-up approach in which the committee would help an editor when he or she ran across a story with potential appeal to a number of papers.

Two months later, Richard Hart, editor of Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C., ran across a reliable source inside FEMA who provided the basis for just such a story — a critical look at how the government’s natural disaster programs are being shortchanged in favor of antiterrorism efforts.

The committee jumped at the opportunity to test a new collaborative model. Hart assigned Elliston, a former Independent Weekly staff writer, to write the main story. Editors at several papers – Orlando Weekly, Folio Weekly, Athens News, Source Weekly, Boulder Weekly and Willamette Week — asked their reporters to explore local angles. These reporters produced sidebars to run in their own papers and had a chance to contribute to the reporting of the main story as well. A listserv was set up to facilitate communication between contributors.

“The project went smoothly because Richard Hart started with a qualified tip that he gave to a good writer,” writes editorial chair Patty Calhoun via email. “If there were snags, they didn’t show — thanks to [his] smooth work and a technological assist [the listserv] from the AAN office.” After seeing the main story, several AAN papers that did not contribute sidebars chose to run it as well.

At the time this story was posted, AAN had heard from 21 papers that plan to run the story in some form or fashion (see sidebar).

Elliston thinks the listserv did more than simply establish open lines of communication between him and other writers and editors working on the project. “It widened my perspective and led to several fruitful leads,” he says.

The recent spate of hurricanes in the Southeast made things difficult for reporters who had to evacuate, or who could no longer reach suddenly busy FEMA emergency managers. But the storms also serve to underline the importance of efficient natural disaster programs, and to confirm the story’s national relevance.

“This was a natural choice for a collaborative effort, one utilizing reporters across the country,” says Elliston. “We’ve been able to compare experiences and draw conclusions about how changes at FEMA are trickling down to the states.”

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