Case study: Quartz, Texas Observer team up to take on climate change in Texas
By Phil Corso
The 2016 U.S. election was a wakeup call for journalists nationwide who looked in the mirror and asked themselves: How did we miss this story? It also inspired journalists like Quartz’s science and health editor Elijah Wolfson and the Texas Observer’s editor-in-chief Forrest Wilder to ask themselves what other stories might be going under the radar, and climate change floated to the surface.
Wolfson said his newsroom examined how they could report on local issues while also resonating with a greater audience, and collaborating with a local news organization like the Observer with boots already on the ground seemed like a natural next step.
Wolfson called on his expertise as a science journalist to seek a collaboration on the subject matter of climate change, which he referred to as “the biggest story of our time.” He started brainstorming with Zoë Schlanger, a staff writer at Quartz, looking for stories about places where environmental issues were affecting local communities and regions across the country right now, and not someday in the future. That’s when they landed on the story of drought and water issues in southern Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, and how the nine-part “Shallow Waters” series was born.
“It felt like the strongest story,” Wolfson said. “[It was] something that had not been told at a national level in a meaningful way. It had resonance in the political sphere as well, given [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s administration’s focus on immigration issues at the U.S.-Mexico border.”
The series was posted in tandem Aug. 16 on both websites along with an elaborate introduction powered by graphics that marry the investigative reporting and photography concisely. The reporting focused on the Texas-Mexico border — the Rio Grande — and how climate change was transforming its makeup. Reporters examined how it had been rapidly warming over recent years, faster than other parts of the country, and the Rio has grown more dry with each passing year despite serving as the main source of water to more than 6 million people and 2 acres of farmland on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The cracks are already beginning to show. Farmers and cities in the Valley are in a tug of war to control the river’s dwindling supplies. As those run out, some predict a run on groundwater — a diplomatic situation neither side is prepared to face. Meanwhile, the intended border wall could threaten both sides with floods.
But we found examples of cooperation, too. El Paso has worked with Ciudad Juarez to conserve water and the U.S. and Mexico are in talks to improve protections for the river. We’d love for you to read our stories and ask us your most burning questions about border water politics!
Assembling the right team
Putting together the right group of journalists was key for the Quartz staff, and that included finding the right partner to collaborate with and tell the story. Ultimately, Wolfson said, the goal was to to tell a story that was happening right now that could inspire reader feedback and greater focus on the problems at hand.
The Quartz team applied for and acquired a $7,000 collaborative reporting grant through the Center for Cooperative Media and initially agreed to work with The Monitor, a daily publication in McAllen, Texas, to investigate what happens when border and climate dynamics in the lower Rio Grande Valley.
But both outlets quickly learned that when it comes to finding the right partners for collaboration, timing is everything. Schlanger said the journalists at the Monitor, a daily publication, found themselves busy juggling several other projects at the time, and had to pull out of the story soon after acquiring the grant.
The Monitor staffers deemed they could not give “Shallow Waters” the time it deserved, and Quartz moved on. By June 2017, they teamed up with the Austin-based nonprofit Texas Observer, where staff writer Naveena Sadasivam worked after spending time reporting alongside Quartz’s Schlanger in other previous professional capacities. Wilder, editor at the Observer, said his small team of about 14 staffers was always looking for ways to write about climate change, referring to it as the “environmental story of our time,” making the collaboration an easy fit for his staff.
“In Texas, it doesn’t get the kind of coverage it deserves,” he said. “In some respects, Texas is feeling the effects here in an extreme way. We already have bad droughts, coast lines low lying. The media doesn’t cover it sufficiently. That was a big bonus for us from the get go.”
What Quartz brought to the table was its platform and global reach, Wilder said. But the question for the Observer staff, he added, was finding ways his smaller team could refine the reporting through the lens of a local newspaper with eyes and ears on the ground. And that didn’t come easy.
Wilder said his team had to do a lot of work up front to ensure it was worth putting “skin in the game.”
“Because of the global sensibility they brought to the table and their ability to marshal their in-house talents, we give it this really powerful visual treatment,” Wilder said. “It was something that I would love to do more of but it’s difficult for us to do that. We were able to marry the reporting, storytelling, text with visual elements in a way that was compelling.”
But Wolfson helped make that feeling out process a lot smoother for the Observer staff. It wasn’t long after Quartz established contact with the Observer that Wolfson helped facilitate a brainstorming discussion over the initial pitch ot the series investigating water issues affecting southern Texas and making it sensical for both organizations’ readerships.
“My desire was to partner with somebody who already has developed that community level trust,” Wolfson said. “People do rely on their local media publications and have a lot more faith in them. Developing more mutual trust and working relationships is really valuable.”
How they attacked a local story with a wider reach
Wolfson and his Quartz team knew they could call on the resources that come with facilitating an international news company with newsrooms across the globe. They also knew where they could use some help. And for Wolfson, that help was on the front lines of the crisis in Texas, not far from where the Observer staff was headquartered.
“I didn’t want to just parachute our people in without having any local experience,” he said.
He said the structure formed by starting big and then zooming in. They divided stories based on reporters’ skill sets, letting Sadasivam focus on the more visible aspects of water issues facing southern Texas, while Schlanger took the zoomed out perspective and reported on water issues you typically can’t see. They relied heavily on file-sharing apps like Google Drive to keep themselves organized and in constant communication. They also structured themselves in such a way that put Wolfson as the de facto ringleader, keeping watch on everyone’s progress and making sure everyone’s skills were being utilized appropriately. But what was most important, he said, was the sense of teamwork throughout that allowed Quartz staffers to lean on Observer staffers and vice versa.
“Once we each initially broke it up as groundwater versus surface water, we both went into our rabbit holes,” Schlanger said. “We attended a helpful border water conference magically scheduled in El Paso that focused on the area between the U.S. and Mexico right in the midst of our reporting process and learned a lot about the broader scope.”
When it came time to acquire visuals, Quartz sent video correspondent Erik Olsen to Texas to take drone videos and Sadasivam was essential in helping make sure he had the right contacts to help him get around and get what he needed once on the ground.
From the Observer’s side, Sadasivam said there were a lot of subject matters she and her team wanted to tackle, including the Zika virus affecting Texas over recent years to other diseases that climate change was making worse. But after analyzing documents like the Yale Climate Insight Opinion Survey with help from Schlanger and the Quartz team, she said she was able to narrow it down to issues concerning water.
Quartz called on staffers like David Yanofsky, who works as an editor for the Things team seeking non-traditional means to originate and execute their stories, to make sure the series had a visual treatment that reflected the effort they were putting into reporting. In particular, he and data journalist Daniel Wolfe worked closely on the introduction to the series, which allows the reader to scroll through the subject matter while consuming illustrated visuals to drive the points home.
Sadasivam said one key element that made the collaboration work was having a strong point-person in Wolfson, who spearheaded much of the organization and keeping everyone involved on track. She often called on him to reassure her of various deadlines and make sure reporters from each side of the project knew where to focus their skills. Both groups utilized digital sharing services like Google Drive to make folders upon folders of notes, interviews, audio files and notes that assured everyone was working off the same information.
Wolfson also worked closely with the data and graphics teams, which Sadasivam said made her job easy. The two teams would share in a group phone call every few weeks, and spoke more often the closer they were to publishing.
Did they pull it off?
Tackling an issue like climate change generally won’t produce the same kinds of immediate action-reaction consequences on a legislative level, but members of the series said they deemed the project a success based on other factors like reader engagement and source feedback. Schlanger said she received kudos from not only her fellow journalists in the business, but also from everyday readers who found the series visually compelling enough to help them wade through the more dense scientific aspects.
“On the local level, I’m pleased there were people who have been chiming it,” she said. “It got good attention from the media outlets, too. The New York Times climate team was tweeting about it, and a bunch of other heavy hitters in the industry were psyched, which felt really cool.”
Sadasivam and Schlanger divvied up the media attention, with Observer staff handling media hits in Texas and Quartz reps doing interviews in New York City to promote the series. The two also teamed up to host an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit.com, where they fielded reader questions from around the world.
Yanofsky said that while it was pleasing to receive such praise from others in the media industry, he felt the most success coming from people who deeply cared about the subject matter.
“Both publicly and privately, people are saying this is important,” he said. “People said things like, ‘I’m going to share this,’ and, ‘I’m going to use this in my class.’ So giving this tool of nine stories to say, ‘Hey, read these and you will understand the issues at stake and that they are important,’ is huge.”
The introduction that Yanofsky had helped build the presentation for ended up being one of the greatest performing aspects of the series, the journalists said. Its visual impact was strong and forceful and Sadasivam said it helped draw readers in and teach them about the subject matter without getting too heavy into jargon or technical terms.
We asked members of both the Quartz and Observer newsrooms to share some of the key lessons they gathered from the collaboration that made them ultimately more efficient and effective. Here’s what they said:
Elijah Wolfson, science and health editor at Quartz:
Making sure the project remained collaborative in nature throughout its execution was crucial, Wolfson said. And with that, also came the importance to the collaboration being the right fit for all the parties involved. Beyond that, he said being clear about setting expectations and dividing up the workload kept the teams organized and progressing smoothly.
He said he learned some of the most keen lessons, though, when the team had to figure something out on the fly and adjust.
“We came into it with the expectation of taking on a lot of the sort of data visualization and illustration and visual work, largely because that’s what we can offer as a larger news organization,” he said. “But when it came down to the wire, once all the copy was in and we felt good about it, there were technical issues that we had to figure out that were unexpected.”
Forrest Wilder, editor at the Texas Observer:
Staying organized was a key factor for Wilder and his team at the Observer. One of the first things he helped do, he said, was creating a grande summary of the project, including what it was going to be about and establishing general divisions of labor from the outset. That also included identifying the names and titles of players involved and strategizing about how to get all the information both teams needed.
One key challenge, though, came via terminology. The Observer is largely a print-based product, while Quartz specializes in digital-first storytelling. And as the project went on, Wilder said he encountered a few hiccups in meshing the language of the two different corners of the industry.
“Some of the terminology we were using may not have used the same definitions,” he said, referring to terms like “feature” and “sidebar” that sometimes god garbled in translation.
“It didn’t matter too much because it’s just print and Web jargon, but it was something that we had to work out as we went along.”
Wilder also said it helped to have the Quartz team being so receptive to feedback and input from his side of the series. As the more local perspective, Wilder said it is generally less common to be such a trusted ally.
In the current political and media climates, he said he felt it was more important than ever for media groups to try and find ways to work together and amplify voices like those of the Observer.
Naveena Sadasivam, staff writer at the Texas Observer:
The key lesson for Sadasivam was “communicate, communicate, communicate…and stay organized.”
Because the project was so broad in scope, she said it would have been much harder if they didn’t have editors like Wolfson at Quartz managing the helm. She referred to him as “the knot in the middle of the bow; the coordinator in charge and keeping track of all of it.”
She also said she learned a lot from watching how Wolfson and Schlanger worked.
“I really enjoyed just talking through story ideas with Zoë,” she said. “We got to help each other shape the story ideas. There are sometimes situations where partnerships start and after one side did most of the work, and a partner is added late in the game and might not have full ownership of the story. But when we started off, it was just right. The balance was key.”
Zoë Schlanger, staff writer at Quartz:
When asked about key lessons learned from working with the Observer on the “Shallow Waters” series, Schlanger spoke bluntly:
“God bless shared Google Drive.”
She said staying in touch via Google Drive helped make the collaboration seamless between the two groups. It helped them iron out key details that made the project stand out, like which stories would be standout features, and which aspects needed to be folded into other subject matters.
Timing was also key, she said. She and Sadasivam drafted a list of 15 potential sidebars or smaller stories they could tackle and worked through them by honoring their deadlines and not biting off more than they could chew. Their editors, Wolfson and Wilder, helped them establish which of those they could pursue in the timeframes they were allotted, and they narrowed it down to six sidebars, or three apiece.
This project was awarded a $7,000 grant by the Center for Cooperative Media as part of an open call to fund collaborative reporting projects, which was made possible with support from Rita Allen Foundation and Democracy Fund.
Phil Corso is an editor, educator and journalist from Brooklyn, NY. He has worked with outlets including the New York Post, New York Daily News, amNY, Westchester Magazine and more. He’s also worked as a professor of journalism at Queens College and advised journalism students at Purchase College, his alma mater.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with operational funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund and the Abrams Foundation. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.