Case study: How two student-powered journalism collaborations tackled temperature and inequality in Baltimore
From the coldest nights to the hottest days, low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore seemed disproportionately at risk from extreme temperatures. So, student and youth journalists of different ages and backgrounds partnered together with regional and national news outlets to investigate precisely how much.
“Our goals were, obviously, to tell a compelling story, but also to help our students learn how to tell a compelling story,” said Kathy Best, director of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland’s (UMD) Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “That includes the student photographers and the students who did the data analysis and the students who created the graphics and built the website. The model here is really kind of a teaching newsroom model.”
Best, who previously led the staff of the Seattle Times to multiple Pulitzer Prize wins, said working with student journalists poses unique challenges compared to traditional newsrooms. However, it also provides great opportunities for innovation.
Over the course of nearly two years, university faculty and staff worked with students to build temperature sensors and place them in residents’ homes. A local youth media group, which included young people who had grown up in the same neighborhoods, provided photography and invaluable firsthand knowledge of the area. Editors worked to set up partnerships with print, television and radio outlets to share data and coverage, and expand reporting outside the city.
These innovative collaborations culminated in two in-depth reporting packages, Bitter Cold and Code Red. Bitter Cold took a close look at how cold snaps and extended periods of cold affect public health in certain Baltimore neighborhoods. Code Red did the same for heat waves, building off the relationships, technology and trust from the first project and taking it even further.
“(With) the number of students we were able to dedicate to this and having a professional core of editors, we were able to really provide a lot of rich detail about what was happening in Baltimore in a way that informed reporting across the rest of the country,” said Sean Mussenden, a data editor at UMD’s Howard Center.
Mussenden worked on both collaborations. He was part of the initial project conception, alongside Krishnan Vasudevan, an assistant professor in visual communication at UMD. The pair secured grant funding for portions of the groundwork. He then helped the students construct the initial sensors for Bitter Cold and eventually became the project manager for Code Red.
For him and other leads, structure and communication were key to a successful project, along with community connections.
“With a number of reporters and editors working, it’s not as simple as just saying, OK, this person does one story and this person’s editing it and you’re done,” said Martin Kaiser, managing director of Capital News Service at UMD. “It becomes a lot more complicated.”
Partners and structure
Both Bitter Cold and Code Red relied on partnerships, designs and information shared among newsrooms to come to fruition. As the first project, Bitter Cold saw the construction of the first set of temperature sensors that were placed into people’s homes. The student-run Capital News Service (CNS), which is housed at the University of Maryland, was the lead news organization for Bitter Cold.
Early on, CNS partnered with Wide Angle Youth Media for sensor construction, photography and editing.
“They’re this really super cool organization in Baltimore city,” said Mussenden. “They’re a nonprofit. Basically, their main thing is they teach media production, including photography and videography and design skills, to middle school, high school, and early college students in Baltimore city, mostly from underserved neighborhoods.”
Wide Angle focuses on young people between the ages of 10 and 24. Mussenden said working with Capital News on Bitter Cold gave Wide Angle youth a chance to spend more time practicing journalism skills, to flesh out what they’d already learned doing public relations work for nonprofits.
“Part of what (Wide Angle does) is they try and get the kids they’re working with excited about where they can take their skills, what colleges they might go to to help develop those skills,” he said.
Through the collaboration, they got to report from the field, do hands-on sensor construction and spend time with University of Maryland students, staff and faculty. In return, Mussenden said, the Wide Angle youth helped UMD journalists — many of whom were not from the region — understand Baltimore city, its neighborhoods and their nuances.
The partnership with Wide Angle continued through Code Red. Their photographers contributed many of the images that accompanied the UMD students’ stories.
“They, in addition to really understanding a lot of these neighborhoods on a deeper level than our students did, were able to get richer photography,” Mussenden said. “They had a rapport with a lot of the residents that we were reporting on that was just really easy. Our partnership with them, I think, opened a lot of doors for us in the places we were reporting.”
CNS also partnered with the Baltimore Sun for photography in Bitter Cold. They had planned to continue the collaboration for Code Red, but it didn’t work out. However, the newspaper published the Code Red content, Kaiser explained. There’s always the possibility that some partnerships won’t continue past the scope of the initial project — or even through the end — but that should be taken in stride, Best said.
UMD’s Howard Center launched in 2019 through a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation with the intention of better supporting Merrill College journalism students’ collaborations with national and state media outlets on important coverage.
For Code Red, CNS and the Howard Center partnered with the commercial television station WMAR and National Public Radio (through investigative editor and reporter Robert Little and Meg Anderson) to share information and data and expand the scope of the reporting.
“The cool thing was, we told a very specific story about how this issue was affecting people in one city,” said Mussenden. “Then, what (NPR) did is they took that effort and nationalized it — showed how this was a bigger issue than just Baltimore and this was happening in cities across the country through some original data analysis.”
While NPR broadened the scope, the Wide Angle students once again brought it home with their intimate knowledge of the neighborhoods in question.
“When we were brainstorming ideas for how climate change affects people in cities, they had a ton of ideas about that or firsthand experience with some of these things the way our students didn’t that made the project richer,” said Mussenden. “It was layered.”
Building community connections
Mussenden credits the Wide Angle participants with helping Code Red gain community support and at times, setting the stage for reporters to build trust with the residents they’d end up speaking with many times throughout the summer.
Because the sensors were placed inside people’s homes, the reporters had to get permission to both set them up in the first place and then return to gather readings and data for several weeks. It wasn’t something they could rush into quickly, Mussenden said. It was important for the reporters to take the time they needed to establish relationships first.
“We had a longer time period to work on this, so it wasn’t like we were going up to people and the first thing we were saying was, ‘Can we put sensors in your house?’ It was, ‘Let’s talk about the experience of what it’s like to live inside a house when it’s hot. Do you have air conditioning?’ Maybe the first or second time we wouldn’t even talk to them about the sensors and then the third time we went back, we’d show (the sensors) to them and talk to them about it.”
Additionally, Kaiser said it helped that Code Red followed on the heels of Bitter Cold. The earlier project was a testing ground, of sorts, that helped CNS better understand what would be needed for the more expansive hot-weather project.
“We knew the best stories would be in the summer,” said Kaiser. “By doing work in the winter and the spring on these cold snaps, it put us in that same neighborhoods, so it got the students and the faculty that were involved in it to really get to know people in the neighborhoods and gain some trust as we talked to them, used the information and developed the graphics.”
Challenges, adaptations, tools
Having such a community-integrated project brought with it some unforeseen challenges, Mussenden said. For example, some of the residents who had sensors in their homes for Code Red seemed burdened by the constant interactions with the reporters.
“The idea was always to put them in a house and then collect data over a long period of time,” he said. “Once we had people on board, I think all of us sort of assumed this will be fine, we’ll just go back every two weeks and we’ll check in. By the end of the summer, we started to hit source fatigue where they were like, ‘Oh, you need to come back to check this card, but I’m busy and I have a lot of things going on.’ In some cases, some people just stopped responding. Some people moved. So, it became a challenge over time to keep up with people and not test people’s patience.”
It could have been possible to build the technology in a way that would have allowed for automatic uploads of the readings, he said. Instead, the information was logged on SD cards, so it had to be collected and read by reporters through a home visit.
In the future, it could be beneficial to design projects or technology that require less regular commitment from local residents, so as not to overburden their schedules to accommodate the project’s needs.
Internally, communication was the biggest hurdle for the editors and reporters. They used Slack within their different work groups and shared information via Google Docs. Every week, they had a 10 a.m. call with all of the project editors from each outlet, followed by an 11 a.m. call with all of the editors and reporters together.
“We talked a lot about what people had worked on in the last week, what they’d be working on in the week coming up,” said Kaiser. “With so many people, it’s lots of moving parts. During the summer, some of the faculty were available two days and students were available three days and at different times, which can make it much more complicated than a regular newsroom.”
That’s why it was critical to have an experienced project manager, Best said. She credits Mussenden with keeping all the arms of the octopus working in tandem.
“He put together the backout schedule and then every week, he put out an agenda for here’s where we are, so everyone knew exactly what had been done, what still needed to be done and we had a chance to talk about problems that had been encountered and any other issues that had come up,” she said.
For Best, having a schedule based around the project’s anticipated launch time was crucial, as it helped them set appropriate timetables for each component. They worked their way back, through construction of the website to editing to initial reporting and realized, with surprise, they had to have the first part done within five weeks.
“So, knowing that and sharing that information with NPR was really helpful,” she said, so each participating outlet could publish its related stories the same week.
In line with the Merrill School’s standards, they had to do a thorough fact-checking process. That took much longer than expected, she said.
“This was the first project I’d done working with students and we built in two weeks for fact-checking,” she said. “Two weeks, I learned, wasn’t enough.”
They assigned students to fact-check each other’s work and the guidelines were rigorous.
“Everything (is) footnoted and then double-checked, back to even talking to people about, ‘Is this what you said to so-and-so at such time?’, ‘Show me the proof that this person is a certain age’, making sure that by the date that we run it, the age hasn’t changed,” Kaiser explained. “When we said this family didn’t have an air conditioner, let’s go back again and make sure they didn’t get an air conditioner a couple weeks before the project published.”
One single story had more than 300 facts that needed to be confirmed before it went to print, Best said, making for an arduous process.
“But, think about that,” Best said. “If we’re working with national news organizations, the minute we have an error, our credibility is shot and nobody’s going to want to work with us again.”
The UMD students who worked on Code Red were paid as interns, rather than receiving class credit for the work. That made the schedule more complicated because the project couldn’t bleed into the start of the new school year. Because they couldn’t push the end date and certain portions, like fact-checking, took quite a bit longer than expected, they had to add extra hours for some students, which made them go over budget, Best said.
“The summer ends and if you don’t meet the deadlines, you can’t just extend,” said Kaiser. “So, that’s a little bit different than what you might have with a (traditional) newsroom.”
Despite the hurdles along the way, Best, Mussenden and Kaiser all said the partnership went well because everyone tried their best to work together and adapt when they had to.
Although Bitter Cold and Code Red are finished, related work is continuing at UMD. After the project was published, UMD journalists got calls from Congress, Best said. One particular committee hopes to have hearings on the issue of heat and inequality, she said, so their Washington bureau will be covering those as they happen.
She’ll also be helping with a recent grant from the Online News Association (ONA). ONA’s Challenge Fund gave the university an initial $35,000 in 2018 for Code Red. At the time, they’d pitched testing a community data journalism model. All of the initial winners could apply for the $50,000 grand prize. ONA announced the university’s win on Sept. 11.
“Our pitch to ONA was we want to take the technology, the sensors that we built, the data analysis, the methodology for gathering information and presenting it and make that available to any newsroom or any community group anywhere in the country that wants to collect this kind of data to use to make the case about what’s happening in their own community,” she explained.
The university plans to hire a graduate assistant at the start of next year to focus on the grant.
All in all, both of the projects were complex, but well worth it, Mussenden, Kaiser and Best said. They all said they’d encourage anyone who wants to try a collaboration to give it a shot.
“I think that you can do more, that you can do bigger things, “ Kaiser said. “I think the days of competition — we can’t work with them, we can’t use their story — are long past. We’ve got to use our strengths and expertise in different areas.”
Through Bitter Cold and Code Red, students and faculty worked through the kinks of reporting out complex issues with broad networks and found a streamlined process that kept everyone in the loop. These are the tips they’d give newsrooms hoping to start collaborations of their own:
Kathy Best, director of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill School of Journalism
Best’s first piece of advice for anyone looking to enter into a reporting partnership is to be open and honest with each other from the very start.
“You have to communicate — and I would say over-communicate — with whoever you’re collaborating with,” she said.
She’s working on setting up a new cooperative project and said this time, she’s drafting a memorandum of understanding to make sure all partners start on the same page. It’s important to write down your agreements, so people can refer back to them throughout the project and there’s no accidental misunderstanding. Also, be flexible.
“Not every collaboration is going to work and you have to be willing to walk away with no hard feelings,” she said. “If you go into it with one set of expectations and whoever you’re working with has a different set of expectations and you can’t resolve them, that’s OK.”
And finally, be intentional about priorities and workflow.
“You just have to be really, really disciplined and rigorous in setting a schedule and assigning responsibilities so it’s really clear who’s doing what and what the roles are,” Best said.
Have dedicated people in charge of running meetings, making sure agendas up to date, keeping tabs on reporters and deadlines and ensuring everyone on the project has access to current information and drafts.
Martin Kaiser, managing director of the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service
The importance of communication was also a key takeaway from Code Red for Kaiser. He said it’s critical that everyone know which people have which responsibilities.
“One of the most important things, I think, is communication with folks, knowing who’s doing what and who’s not doing what,” Kaiser said.
That way, nobody wastes time duplicating work and nobody falls through the cracks without support from the right people.
His next tip is to put the right people in the right places.
“We used the expertise of folks that we had to do different parts of it,” he said.
Tap into each partner’s strength and use it to the whole group’s advantage.
Sean Mussenden, data editor at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill School of Journalism
For Mussenden, two important pieces of working with students were setting reasonable expectations and understanding the baseline.
“When you’re working with a student-driven project, everything kind of takes longer,” he said. “Initially, students may not know a lot of the basics we were working with, so just having to get them up to speed was also a challenge.”
It’s important that students have the right tools when they’re starting out, so they don’t have to spend time playing catch-up during the project.
“I think in these kind of collaborations it’s pretty important, from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen firsthand, to have somebody who’s building agendas for meetings and making sure things are getting done at the time that everybody agreed they get done by.”
Please note: An earlier version of this story indicated the Baltimore Sun published the Bitter Cold content. It actually published the Code Red content.
👋 Want to learn more about collaborative journalism?
You can subscribe to our collaborative journalism newsletter for more updates and information. And of course, we invite you to visit collaborativejournalism.org to learn more about the topic of collaborative journalism — including our growing database of database of collaborative journalism projects, which is currently being updated.
Note: This case study was made possible thanks to generous support from Rita Allen Foundation, which funds part of the Center for Cooperative Media’s collaborative journalism program.
Shady Grove Oliver is a freelance writer, photographer, and audio producer. She is currently based at the only local newspaper in the U.S. Arctic. Outside the realm of reporting, she also writes long-form fiction and non-fiction stories for a sleep app and podcast. Follow her work on Twitter at @ShadyGroveO.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.