This week, my staff and I published a major project for the Connection Newspapers: “10-Year Mission: Ending Homelessness.” The project presented an overview of Fairfax County, Va.’s plan to end and prevent homelessness by 2018.
The plan was implemented in 2008 by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. At a conference on homelessness last May, the county released new information showing that the plan was beginning to achieve some success.
The timing couldn’t have been better.
Connection Reporter Victoria Ross and I had been kicking around the idea of doing a special project for our four papers. The positive news from the county gave us an opportunity to examine what was working in the plan, and also, what still needed to be done.
I was eager to incorporate some of the multi-platform skills that I had been learning in the Interactive Journalism Program at American University. Wherever possible, I wanted to use video, audio and graphics to tell the story on the web.
I knew that because of the scope of the project, it could have a very long life on the web, so features needed to be in place that kept people’s interest and provided ready information for readers to use.
In addition, Fairfax County and many of the homelessness advocacy organizations had websites with information that we could link to. Our project could serve as a conduit to those websites, raising awareness of the problem to a larger audience, offering people options on how to help and then pointing them to the organizations that dealt with the homeless.
On one level, we were reporting about the problem, but on the other we were helping the advocacy groups get their message out, recruit volunteers and raise funds if necessary. In this capacity, we were fulfilling the press role of public service.
The first “theme” for the project was “A Day in the Life of the Homeless.” I came up with that theme as a way to highlight the many services that were being provided in an average day by county employees, volunteers and advocates.
I was inspired by a project that Connection photographer Deb Cobb did for the Centre View papers in 2010: “A Day in the Life of Chantilly.” Starting at 6 a.m., Cobb photographed things happening in and around Chantilly, Va., as a sort of visual diary of the day. Each photo, whether at a fire station, gas station or school, had a caption and the time the photo was taken. The only thing linking the photos was that they were shot in Chantilly on a single day. It was a very effective way of showing how many different things were going on in one place.
For me, this seemed like an ideal strategy for the project. It would show varying services being offered and provide strong visuals to illustrate the stories we were going to write. I could imagine photo galleries on the website that readers could flip through, transporting them to various sites around Fairfax County. We would use Cobb and fellow freelancer Robbie Hammer to travel from site to site on single day.
The further that we got into the project, though, the more we realized that the logistics of pulling this off would be problematic. We worked closely Dean Klein, the director of the Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, and other county agencies to try to figure out a way to arrange a “Day in the Life” shoot. While opportunities existed, it was clear that we would be forcing these volunteers and advocates, though willing, into an artificial construct that we had created.
Was one story or photo shoot less valid than another because it took place on a different day? It didn’t seem so. Also, trying to pull it off would be stretching our thin resources. It would be better to concentrate on telling the story at hand and not over-orchestrate the situation.
A New Direction
At about the same time that we came to this conclusion, we were developing a second theme: “The Changing Face of Homelessness.”
Ross and Cobb attended the Fairfax County conference on homelessness in May. They conducted sit-down video interviews with some of the speakers at the conference. As we were reporting that and doing our initial research on the project, we discovered that the definition of a homeless person was changing. Younger people were living on the streets. Middle class people who lost their homes in the mortgage crisis were being classified as homeless, as well as people who lost their jobs in the economic downturn. It was clear that our project needed to reflect these new realities.
In the final project, this theme is addressed in three stories.
1. The Face of Homelessness by Bonnie Hobbs
2. Teens Find Safe Haven by Victoria Ross
3. Hiding in Plain Sight by Victoria Ross
Each story is built around a single homeless person and the support system that they encountered within Fairfax County. The first concerns a woman and her children finding help at the Katherine K. Hanley Family Shelter. The second tells the story of a teenage girl who found herself without a home and receiving help from Alternative House. The last story is about a laborer living in a tent in Reston. Reston Interfaith comes to his aid. The stories provide powerful one-on-one encounters with people facing homelessness.
In the planning stages, we considered having Publisher Mary Kimm or I write an editorial about homelessness to anchor our editorial page. Due to the scope of the subject we were covering, it seemed more appropriate to let some of our sources to speak for themselves. We had already decided to use all sections of the paper for the project, including the editorial page.
Rather than take the words away from the subjects, it seemed more appropriate to invite members of some of the advocacy groups to write guest editorials, explaining their personal experiences with serving the homeless.
1. Giving Back to a Community Benefits All by Kathy Albarado of Helios HR
2. Road to Advocacy by Greg White of Reston Interfaith
3. Helping the Homeless by Amanda Andere of FACETS
4. An Alternative to Homelessness by Judith Dittman of The Alternative House
5. Partners in Ending Homelessness by U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-11)
This turned out to be a boon for the project. Several of the subjects not only wrote about their work, but their own experiences of being homeless. It was a powerful contrast to the stories about those receiving services and the news stories that made up the rest of the project.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Photographers Deb Cobb and Robbie Hammer provided photos. Centre View reporter Bonnie Hobbs and freelancer Amber Healy each wrote a story. Interns Meredith Zettlemoyer and Noah Yoo contributed stories and some research for the project as well.
Aside from planning and laying out the papers, I handled the web strategy (more on that below), wrote the introduction and “drove the bus” of the project. I also edited together the video from the interviews that Cobb and Ross had conducted, illustrating it with photos from Cobb, Ross and Hammer.
The lion’s share of the credit for the success of the project goes to reporter Victoria Ross, who set up meetings with sources, reported stories, generated most of the story ideas and followed up with the guest editorialists. She also wrote, wrote, wrote and wrote. The long main story (“Can Fairfax County End Homelessness?”) anchors the entire project and provides a history of Fairfax County’s strategy to end homelessness.
On the Web and Beyond
From our earliest planning, I always envisioned a strong web package to go with the project. I am very pleased with the end result, but recognize that we could have done more.
The project’s webpage has a video component, a photo gallery, an introductory story and links to the component stories.
The last set of links on the page, “Community Service Groups Guide” and “10+ Ways To Help the Homeless,” provide ways for readers to secure services or help those in need. Hopefully, our project will inspire some people to do just that.
After I finished laying out the paper, I adapted the pages that I had designed for the print edition and created a “10-Year Mission” insert with all of the material that we wrote. Our production department loaded it onto the web as a pdf for people to download.
A would have liked to have included more photos, video and interactive features. The Office to Prevent and End Homelessness also provided us with graphs that didn’t make it into the print or pdf editions, but will be added to the website later on.
As an example of an interactive feature that would shine on the website would be a quiz, testing people on their knowledge of homelessness in Fairfax County built off the reporting that we did. I hope to build that in the next week and add it to the website.
One area that I’m very pleased with has been the social media aspect of the project. As the stories were edited, they were loaded onto the website. I teased stories heavily on the five Twitter accounts that I oversee. This generated a tremendous response. Many people in the advocacy community retweeted my tweets, passing along links to the stories and the entire project. We also received wonderful compliments and thanks for taking on the project.
Every time I updated the 10-Year Mission webpage, I sent out a new round of tweets. I also posted links, photos and the video to our Facebook page. I did my Digital First/Social Media duty on this project.
All in all, it was a wonderful experience and one of the most rewarding of my professional career. We’re already planning a follow up and trying to think of other subjects to tackle.
Stay tuned …
— Michael O’Connell, Managing Editor, Aug. 21, 2011