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Media partners pool resources to fund bullet train trip

When Fresno Bee business reporter Tim Sheehan boarded a plane for Spain in November, his trip signaled a new chapter of collaboration for a growing group of California news organizations.

Sheehan spent eight days abroad, gathering string for a package of stories about Spain's 20-year-old bullet trains. Of all the high-speed rail lines in the world, experts say the Spanish system has the most in common with the one California officials envision. Sheehan wanted to find out what lessons we can learn from Spain's experience.

The reporting trip cost about $4,000. At a mid-sized regional newspaper like The Fresno Bee, that type of price tag might have put an international trip out of reach – especially in this economy. But The Bee wasn’t going it alone.

Twelve news outlets across the state pooled resources to fund the trip – most pitching in about $400. (The smallest organizations with less than 40,000 circulation chipped in half that amount.) Joining The Fresno Bee and California Watch were The Bakersfield Californian, The Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, U-T San Diego (formerly The San Diego Union-Tribune), The Orange County Register, The Modesto Bee, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, KQED Public RadioThe Tribune of San Luis Obispo and the Merced Sun-Star

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All of these partners will publish or broadcast Sheehan’s stories starting Jan. 15. California Watch, which is part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, produced a video with footage taken by Sheehan. We also created graphics for the group.

The trip was a major step forward in a growing collaborative effort by California news organizations to cover high-speed rail in a way that makes good business sense.

Three or four years ago, a collaboration such as this probably wouldn’t have happened – in large part because newsrooms had enough resources to do what they wanted. Those days are a thing of the past.

In the new media ecosystem, more pragmatic news leaders increasingly are looking for ways to maximize the talents of smaller staffs. And that means forming partnerships to accomplish objectives that might otherwise be out of reach.

No single news outlet from our group likely would have sent a reporter to Spain if we hadn’t joined forces. But when you divide by 12, it doesn’t look so daunting.

What makes the Spain collaboration even more unique is that the news organizations got involved in the early planning process and then trusted a small team from two newsrooms to execute. The Bee produced the text stories, photos and video. California Watch produced the multimedia and graphics and split the editing duties with Fresno. There was no meddling or micromanaging from other partners.

How did we get to this point?

The seeds for the high-speed rail collaboration were planted a year ago, when we launched the new California Watch Media Network. Members of the network subscribe to a set number of stories produced by the state’s largest investigative reporting team. Members also get our story lists so they know what we have in the works. The first members of the network included The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee, The Orange County Register, The Bakersfield Californian and the San Francisco Chronicle.

But when we created the network, we hoped it would be much more than just a way to get our stories into news outlets across the state. We envisioned it as a way to bring newsrooms together to collaborate.

Fresno Bee Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye

Fresno Bee Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye wondered if high-speed rail would be a project best tackled by the larger network. The Central Valley is ground zero for the nearly $100 billion rail project, which would connect the Bay Area to Los Angeles in 2.5 hours on trains traveling up to 200 mph. Construction is supposed to start later this year on the first leg between Fresno and Bakersfield. Such an endeavor, if it actually occurs, would be the biggest undertaking here since construction started on the California Aqueduct nearly 50 years ago.

With an idea to rally behind, editors and reporters from about a half-dozen news outlets began jumping on conference calls and finding ways to share tips, ideas and finished stories about the planned rail system. It was a little bumpy at first. But we’ve doubled the number of participating newsrooms.

The news organizations in our rail group still work independently, unleashing their own reporters to find scoops and break news about the nation’s largest public works project. But we’re sharing those scoops and trying to limit duplication of routine daily news stories. We’ve also teamed up some reporters with complementary skills to tackle stories together. And we’ve found opportunities, such as the trip to Spain, to coordinate and plan story packages in a way that makes sense for all of us.

The result has been broader coverage than any one of us could probably produce on the topic. Our group has shared 38 stories since late May – written by 12 different reporters.

"I look back at the state of high-speed rail coverage in California a year ago, and I'm amazed and proud of what we as a network have accomplished since then,” Lumbye said. “The issue has gotten the scrutiny it deserves, thanks to all our efforts. None of our organizations could have done so much to raise the public awareness of this so quickly and so effectively on our own."

The idea of an international trip was first raised last summer. The group had been covering rail developments from every angle in California. But we hadn’t really done much to compare the planned California system with existing services abroad. If California is going to learn about high-speed rail’s challenges and possibilities, Spain's system might offer the most relevant lessons. Like California’s planned system, it connects major urban centers and cuts through verdant farmland. The system has completely transformed the travel patterns in Spain, as Sheehan’s stories will highlight.

Fresno Bee business reporter TIm Sheehan

The first paper to commit to helping fund the trip was The Bakersfield Californian.

Within 10 days, we had 12 partners agreeing to write a check.

"We thought this would be a worthwhile expense because the project was designed from the start to get behind the headlines and provide a real-world look at a bullet train system that operates in an environment that has many similarities to California," said Bakersfield Californian Executive Editor John Arthur.

It made sense that Sheehan would be the reporter to represent our group. He has covered high-speed rail since 2010 for The Fresno Bee. He also has photography and multimedia experience, which would help bring more depth to his reporting and allow the group to keep costs down by sending just one reporter instead of a reporter and a photographer.

Knowing that Sheehan had to produce work that satisfied a dozen newsrooms added a fair bit of pressure. But he was up to the task.

“I wasn’t so much in fear of screwing this up, but it was always at the back of my mind that these stories would be for a much bigger audience than just Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley,” Sheehan said. “Writing so much over the last year and a half on California’s plans helped me approach this from a broader perspective, both in my advance research and my interviews on the ground.

“One big thing I wanted to accomplish is giving readers a sense of what it’s like aboard the trains, to let people know what all the fuss is about,” Sheehan added.

Sheehan’s stories are free to the participating members, of course. But news organizations that are not part of the collaborative can buy the package. Proceeds will be split among our network members. Meghann Farnsworth, our distribution manager, is handling the content sales.

"The idea of other news organizations helping pay for our reporter's trip to Spain would have been unfathomable before California Watch put this together,” Fresno editor Lumbye said. “A lot of walls have come down. But it's about more than the overseas trip, although that's a very big deal. It's also the way we editors have made a routine of talking about what our newsrooms are working on, offering our work to each other and letting one take the point on one story while another works on something else. It's a terrific mix of generosity and practicality, and the people of California are the winners." 

Later this month, the top editors from all our network news organizations will gather at the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Berkeley offices to discuss more ways we can help each other and serve our audiences. We hope our rail collaboration will endure. If the system goes forward, it will generate an endless supply of stories. But sharing rail stories may be just the first step of larger collaborative efforts to better serve readers, viewers and listeners across the state.

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