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Q&A with the Voice of OC's Tracy Wood: Finding a Hot Investigation in Local Park History

Q&A with the Voice of OC's Tracy Wood: Finding a Hot Investigation in Local Park History

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park, urban planning, community health, william heisel, reporting on health

Making parks interesting to editors and readers seems as big a challenge as writing about new library hours or the winner of the apple butter contest at the county fair.

Tracy Wood and her fellow writer David Washburn at the Voice of OC managed to overcome that challenge with gusto for a three-part series published in June about the serious park deficit in north Orange County.

I wrote some tips based on the series on Monday. Then I emailed Wood, a recent California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow, some questions about the series that she has kindly answered. (Given what has recently happened at the Seattle Weekly regarding disclosures, I should disclose that Wood was my first investigative editor.)

The first part of our interview appears below. The second part will run Friday. It has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: I would have thought parks would be to boring for you. You are a veteran war reporter, after all. What made you think there was an exciting story to be told here?

A: To me, there's no such thing as a boring story. And before you start thinking I'm some kind of excessively optimistic pain in the neck, yes, there have been stories I was less-than-enthusiastic about starting. One was a profile of an Orange County doctor who, at the time, was the state's largest individual political contributor. I wanted to do investigations, not personality profiles.

That story ended with the doctor going to prison for embezzling millions from Medicare that he then donated to politicians in California and nationally. Two other reporters and I worked on that story and what started as an ordinary profile wound up as a landmark political investigation. But when we began, we had no idea where it would take us. Not all stories, obviously, are like that, but I really mean it when I say there is no such thing as a boring story. You simply don't know where any story will go or what you are going to find. Each one is an adventure.

Q: How did the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship help you in your reporting?

A: That's easy. The idea for the story came from working on the fellowship. During conversations, a couple of references were made to what looked like a growing number of agreements between school districts and cities to share playground space. At the time I didn't know anything about the agreements, but I was curious about why they were doing them. There was a flurry of such agreements on city council agendas in north Orange County.

I didn't know there was an overall shortage of park space in those cities. I thought it had something to do with afterschool care for working parents or some other issue. I was curious but might not have gotten to it right away if it hadn't been for the California Endowment Fellowship. As part of the fellowship, we were supposed to write a story about a health issue and this seemed to be relevant.

 Q: How did you persuade your editors that this was worth a three-part series?

 A: Ah, yes. We have a small staff and a three-part series is a big deal for us. It means spending a lot of time on a single subject. Very honestly, this wasn't supposed to be a three-part series. It was going to be one story. It only took about three phone calls to school districts to learn that there were at least two stories. One was the original idea about the playground agreements between school districts and cities.

The second story seemed to center on why there wasn't enough park space in the cities. At that point, I did some quick general research to try to see if this was a universal problem or if we were dealing with something peculiar to a few cities. That's when I learned it was a north Orange County problem, but apparently not one in the southern part of the county. But I also was frustrated because it didn't seem like anything had been written by any news organization about why the park shortage existed. The decision to make it three parts instead of two came a bit later when we had more information.

Q: You know how we used to always talk at the Register about "putting a fence" around stories? How did you decide on the scope of this story?

 A: The managing editor at Voice of OC is David Washburn. He's an excellent editor and really got enthusiastic about this story. Note to anyone reading this: Do everything you can to get yourself assigned to an enthusiastic editor. Nothing kills good journalism more than an indifferent or cynical editor, except maybe an editor with no, um, guts.

We talked about what we knew we had and what we reasonably thought we would get. These discussions continued throughout and we made a number of adjustments as we went. But the basic decision was one story on the past, the history that got Orange County to the point where cities in the north had a shortage of parks while cities in the south didn't.

David jumped in to help and was really excited about doing the second part of the series, which was the direct impact on specific kids. Called Room to Run, the story focused on Santa Ana, one of the most "park poor" cities in Orange County and what kids there do when they try to play outdoors. A video that went with Part 2 was put together by our intern, Nick Gerda.

The third part was the future and what could be done to fix the problem. As it turned out, we never did a separate piece on the agreements between school districts and cities because that issue became part of the larger story. We did do separate dailies on the health issues created when kids don't have areas to run around and play and what is being done locally. The "fence" became what would go into the three-part series and what we expected to be writing afterward as dailies.

 We drew up what essentially were outlines for each of the three parts. The outlines were only a page or two but they listed the main points each story would cover and the photos and other elements that would go with it, with a very short description of each. The outlines also included deadlines for each item, like first drafts or photos.

Next: How did Wood document the sad story of OC's "park deserts"?

Related Posts:

Q&A with Tracy Wood, Part 2: Finding the Right Records to Tell Orange County's Park Story

Photo credit: Orange County Regional Parks



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I'd just like to say "Hi" to my cousin Tracy if in fact this is the same Tracy Wood from Fanwood Nj.


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