1998 Batten Award Winner
The Idaho Statesman, the Idaho Spokesman-Review, the Lewiston Morning Tribune, the Idaho Falls Post Register, Idaho Public Television and KTVB-TV
These news organizations set out to convene a statewide discussion on conflicting budget priorities, namely greatly increased spending on prisons vs. declining support for higher education. By analyzing that spending in Idaho, the initiative allowed people to understand the consequences of the choices in spending that were being made in their name by the politicians of the state. But rather than just telling people about it, the coverage positioned citizens as part of the conversation. All across the state, hundreds of people were involved in the conversation of "What shall we do?" -- which, finally, is what civic journalism is all about.
The "Collision Course" coverage was the result of a unique partnership of four newspapers and two television stations that -- while they don't compete for circulation or viewership -- do compete for news.
Yet they decided to combine resources on the topic of runaway prison spending, a topic each news organization had reported on separately. They joined forces for a statewide poll, conducted focus groups, held town hall meetings and created databases to provide a statistical profile of the state's prison inmates that showed a huge jump in the number of non-violent offenders incarcerated.
Why do it together? "I think we were able to accomplish a lot more than any one of us could have done on our own," said Dennis Joyce, project leader and assistant managing editor of The Idaho Statesman. "I think it was our goal to have people talking from Coeur d'Alene to Idaho Falls, from one end of Idaho to the other, about what we saw as an issue of importance in Idaho.
"As to the deeper question of why we did it at all, I think it's for the same reason any one who works at newspapers might do this: Prisons are eating up a growing portion of state resources all across the country," Joyce told Batten Symposium participants.
"There are a few things that made this problem unique to Idaho that emboldened us to take this on as a statewide project. One of those is Idaho has a reputation as a fairly fiscally conservative state, and yet we're spending gobs of money, with no end in sight, on prisons. I think we all were asking ourselves: Why is this? We would never do this with education. We would never do this with any other branch of government."
Indeed, the issue was viewed as such a key concern in the state that some of the media partners ran stories on the subject in the midst of collaborating on the cooperative series.
The coalition started with a basic civic journalism technique of examining the costs that come from a particular course of action in the public arena.
"If we're spending all this money here, what are we not spending it on?" said Joyce. Higher education quickly emerged as a good area to focus on because its spending was shrinking almost as fast as prisons' was rising. They were the two most volatile portions of the Idaho state budget.
"It was controversial because we did make a decision: We were going to compare A with B. Many of our partners . . . said, well, you should be comparing A with B, C, D, E, F, and G. In other words, the entire state budget," Joyce said. "So we had to come to some kind of agreement very quickly. It didn't satisfy everyone, but I think it worked in the end."
Once the issue of cost was presented to Idahoans in focus groups, "people who might have walked in as rock-ribbed, law-and-order types, walked out thinking: This issue isn't quite as simple as I thought it was," Joyce said.
The media partners shared research, stories, graphics and photos. Each paper focused on one part of the overall story and contributed regional vignettes. The Idaho Spokesman-Review coordinated statewide polling, poll graphics and took the lead in writing the kick-off segment. The Idaho Statesman conducted the database research on prison population trends, developed the info-graphics, gathered photos and took the lead role in writing prisoner profiles and articles on higher education. The Lewiston Morning Tribune compiled prison and college photos and explored potential solutions to the funding disparity. The Post Register administered the funding, collected additional photos and produced a summary of the televised discussion that accompanied the series. KTVB produced a four-part series; public television aired a town hall meeting.
"I think what brought it together was a sense of putting aside our traditional turfs," said KTVB News Director Rod Gramer. "The newspapers obviously had the depth, the reporting staffs, some of the ability to dig deep. We, as commercial television, had the traditional strength of pictures and sound. Idaho public television had the strength of the statewide reach that we needed to culminate the town hall meeting so that all the citizens of the state could have a chance to see it."
The reports have moderated Idaho's rush to build more prison, produced a more reasoned discussion about the public policy choices being made, and helped Idahoans realize they had a voice in looking for alternatives and the media could help amplify those voices, the journalists said.
The benefits of the partnership have paid off with its continuation in a cooperative election project. The partners have commissioned the largest independent poll in state history on the issues people think are the most important facing the state. They are planning to use the poll as a benchmark to plot 1998 election coverage and to follow up with a fall poll, continuing to track attitudes towards the key issues.
"A Collision Course: Prisons vs. Higher Education in Idaho"
P.O. Box 1800
Idaho Falls, ID 83403
Phone: (208) 528-2232
Fax: (208) 529-9683
(formerly Executive News Director at KTVB-TV in Boise, ID)
1501 SW Jefferson St.
Portland, OR 97201
Phone: (503) 226-5000
Fax: (503) 226-5059
(formerly Managing Editor at the Idaho Statesman)
Assistant Managing Editor
The Arizona Star
4850 South Park Ave.
Tucson, AZ 85726
Phone: (520) 573-4220
Fax: (520) 573-4200
[ Back ] 1998 Batten Awards [ Forward ]