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A reporter analyzes where trees live in Rochester and learns some lessons along the way

Craft: Lessons From The Field

A reporter analyzes where trees live in Rochester and learns some lessons along the way

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(Photo by Shawn Dowd/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)
(Photo by Shawn Dowd/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

My reporting project sought an answer to a few deceptively simple questions. Why are there more trees in some parts of town than others? How did it come to be that way? Why does it matter? What can we do about it?

Deceptively simple, I say, because answering each of those questions meant marshalling a massive body of data, research, historical documents and interviews into a package accessible to the readers of the Democrat and Chronicle, the newspaper in Rochester, New York, where I work.

I’m proud of the stories I was able to produce for my USC Annenberg Health Journalism Data Fellowship project with the help of my senior fellows, MaryJo Webster and Eric Sagara. I distilled hundreds of thousands of rows of data down into an easy-to-use interactive map showing the distribution of trees, as well as temperature, health outcomes and demographic data across the city. I incorporated old photos and documents into an engaging study of local history. I highlighted a rare old-growth forest within city limits and how it illustrates the disparity in access to green space. I interviewed the mayor and pressed him on his plans. And there’s still much more to come, including a visual display of almost a hundred individual trees that people told me about.

Here are some general guidelines I’d offer to future data fellows, or any journalist with an ambitious project ahead of them.

Aim high. If I’d done everything I planned to do, I’d have a Pulitzer Prize. Maybe two.

At the outset of my research, I was expecting to get exceedingly detailed data sets in a variety of areas — health outcomes, air quality, demographics, tree cover — and to combine them all seamlessly in a dozen or more in-depth stories, each buoyed by breathtaking maps and charts. Inevitably, as my plan yielded to reality, I had to scale back. Some of the data sets weren’t as well suited for my stories as I’d hoped; my web development team gave me a reality check in terms of what could be accomplished. Some things were simply too much to fit into a few short months. All those setbacks were disappointing, but my senior fellow, the infinitely patient MaryJo Webster, told me she’d expected as much from the start. Luckily, my Plan A was ambitious enough that Plan B still yielded a very usable corpus of data.

Look for connections. My topic cut across several traditional areas of study: ecology, landscape design, public health, public safety and municipal finance, to name a few. I realized early on that I’d need to find some experienced local guides to help me understand each facet of my story and to connect them.

Before I’d done any data analysis at all, I set up a series of phone calls and coffee meetings with academics, nonprofit leaders and community activists who I suspected might be good to trade notes with. Some of those people provided me with actual data or documents. Some connected me with still other sources who proved valuable. Some didn’t contribute anything concrete prepublication, but shared my stories enthusiastically once they were published. That network I created is still pushing up fresh growth in terms of community connections and ways to keep trees, and my stories, in the public eye.

Define impact broadly. Here’s something that happened to me over and over again: I’d ask someone to tell me about their favorite tree. They’d give me a strange look, say they didn’t have a favorite tree, and go on their way. Then five minutes later they’d return and say they did in fact have a favorite tree; they just hadn’t thought of it that way. 

Those interactions, to me, represent a profound project impact. People who hadn’t thought much about the trees in their neighborhoods were suddenly looking around with fresh eyes. The same thing happened to me as I drove the same streets I’d driven hundreds of times before, noticing for the first time the stately oak, the littering honey locust, or the absence of trees all together. 

There are plenty of traditional ways to measure impacts — effects on public policy, speaking invitations, page views, subscriptions. But I’ve always felt that the best journalism should change the way people see their community, the world and themselves. More often than not, that happens one person at a time.

Meet people where they are. It would be wonderful if everyone in the greater Rochester area subscribed to the Democrat and Chronicle and eagerly awaited our new reporting each morning. Unfortunately, they don’t. That means we have a responsibility to share our public interest reporting with people where they are, rather than blithely waiting for them to come to us on their own.

For this project, I took “meeting people where they are” in a literal sense. I printed flyers and posters summarizing my main findings (and how a person could get a free tree) and walked up and down the main boulevards in the most impoverished, least tree-covered parts of town, handing them out in corner stores, barbershops, restaurants and community service centers. I set up a table at the libraries in those neighborhoods and talked with everyone who walked by. I emailed people I knew at the neighborhood schools and got myself invited to come talk with the students. It’s impossible to know how many people stopped to take a postcard or peruse a flyer, but surely it had some effect beyond our typical reach.

Stay organized. You’ve heard this advice before. I have, too. And yet.

I had: raw, modified, abortive and final versions of half a dozen data sets; dozens of interviews, typed out or in notebooks; a graduate seminar’s worth of academic studies; contemporary and historical photographs, each with permissions lying around somewhere or other; invoices, progress reports and other internal documents; hundreds of the aforementioned posters and flyers; and, for good measure, usually at least a few twigs and leaves I’d collected on my walks through the forest.

I knew in advance this all would require skillful organization. I failed. I don’t have any specific proven advice for how best to do it, so I’ll just tell you once again, perhaps in vain, what you already know: Keep your stuff organized.

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