Strategies to ensure your big story lands with maximum impact (Part 2)

Published on
December 30, 2014

(The first part of this two-part series can be read here.)

In November, I published a three-part series through the Center for Public Integrity that focused on aspects of nursing home care that had received little to no journalistic attention. The major stories exposed national discrepancies in the self-reported data that nursing homes provide through Nursing Home Compare and the average daily level we calculated through the cost reports as well as racial disparities in the amount of registered nurse care. We also revealed the nearly $2 billion in low-cost, HUD-backed mortgages that had been granted since 2009 to nursing homes that had received the lowest possible overall quality ratings.

The project took close to a year to carry out and generated a strong response among other media, advocates, lawyers, academics, family members, government agencies and federal and state elected officials. In this second of two posts, I’ll share the second five of 10 strategies I used to find and engage as many audiences as I could.

1. Draw on academic sources; be conservative in your analysis.

Our team relied heavily on a 2007 academic paper by Bita Kash, Catherine Hawes and Charles Phillips of Texas A&M University, and incorporated a suggestion on how many facilities to eliminate from the analysis by Charlene Harrington, a national authority of nursing home staffing for decades. Talking with Kash and Harrington allowed us to model our analysis on their work and provided backing when the industry questioned our findings.

The gentleman I spoke with from the American Health Care Association, the nursing home industry's largest professional organization, criticized our methodology during an interview but said that he had not read the paper on which it was based. I shared the critique with the study’s authors, confirmed that the article had been published in a well-respected, peer-reviewed outlet, and sent the article to the industry source. His final comment was far more muted. Our analysis was conservative in that it used hours paid, rather than hours worked to calculate daily staffing levels, so that gave us additional confidence that we were safe in what we were saying.

2. Think creatively about publication outlets and finding support.

We published this work in English on the Center for Public Integrity's website, in Spanish in Hoy Chicago's online and print edition, on's website, and through my brother Jon Lowenstein's Instagram feed. Each of these outlets had different requirements for story length and format. insisted on a 1,000-word limit, the Center for Public Integrity published the entire story, Hoy Chicago was open to having a photo gallery, and we embedded investigative content, data and findings in the captions on my brother's Instagram feed (he’s a documentary photographer and has nearly 67,000 followers). Using these different outlets gave the work the opportunity to reach and interact with a diverse set of audiences.

I also applied for and received support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. This allowed me to fund my brother's trip to Arkansas, where he shot photographs and video as we interviewed family members, lawyers, elected officials and advocates. It also let me hire a videographer, fact checker and researcher. Each of these people played a critical role in the project, and allowed the work to have greater reach than it would have without the fund's support.

3. If possible, keep reporting while you're waiting for a publishing commitment.

My initial goal was to do a single story based on the staffing discrepancies. However, it took close to six months to secure a publishing commitment from the Center for Public Integrity's executive editor. I kept talking with sources, eventually locating the data and doing the analysis for the two other parts that the series covered. I also kept in communication with the data editor, who became an advocate for the project when I met with the center’s executive editor. I understand that not everyone is in the position to proceed this way, but for me, doing this gave the project more depth.

4. Publication is the beginning, not the end, of the next phase of engagement.

The publication of the series in a number of different outlets generated a round of reader response and engagement, and I took a number of steps to let as many folks as possible know about the work. I wrote emails to anyone who had helped me with the project to accompany each day of the series. In the email I not only included the link but also let folks know the response the work had generated up to that point. This helped generate a sense of momentum for the project and acknowledged the contributions many people had made to it.

I also contacted health departments and attorneys general throughout the country to let them know about the situation in their state and to explain that I was available to talk about any questions they might have about the work. This led to data sharing and continued dialogue with people in about 10 states throughout the country. In addition, I followed up on a pro bono basis with individuals or organizations who had expressed interest in the work during the reporting process to see if I could provide any more information once it was published. This led to more information about how people used the work and a series of potent tips for future stories. It is critical during these contacts to be as clear as possible that you are available to talk about the work, not to advocate for any side or specific policy position.

5. Think of the knowledge you have developed as an asset and a source of public service.

I developed a thorough understanding of the nursing homes industry and the players in it during the course of the reporting. This meant that I was aware of who is doing certain types of work across the country. I came to believe that sharing that information in ethical and respectful ways can be a form of public service. This could take the form of letting folks know exactly where they could get the data I had used for the analysis, or informing people about others doing similar work. Again, it’s very important to keep this activity within the context of sharing information, rather than advocating for a specific policy position, organization or individual, and I believe it's worthwhile to take such a reporting approach. Doing so can open doors, give the stories legs they wouldn’t otherwise have and help establish you and your organization as an authority on the issue without compromising the strength of the questions you are asking and the findings you reveal.