San Francisco homeless project: Community engagement experiment turned national media inspiration

San Francisco city scene. (Photo by Franck Michel via Creative Commons)

By Katelyn Kondrath

When the idea for a day of collaborative reporting emerged earlier this year, San Francisco Chronicle Editor in Chief Audrey Cooper never imagined it would receive national traction. What was meant to be one day of reporting on homelessness in San Francisco turned into approximately 80 local media organizations providing over 350 pieces of content that launched into the official SF Homeless Project.

AudreyCooperHeadshot

San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Audrey Cooper runs a meeting on Tuesday Aug. 8, 2013, in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo by Mike Kepka, San Francisco Chronicle)

The success of the project has influenced other cities—Dallas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and more—to launch similar days of reporting. Cooper told the PIN Bureau about the effects of the project in her community and how other newsrooms can emulate similar conversation in their communities through their reporting.

What is it that sparked the conversation that lead to this experimental project?

(I was) talking to two editors, who eventually got involved, about city politics and they said they wanted to collaborate on something, but we didn’t really have an idea on what, so we kind of left things at that. And then a month later, I was giving a tour to some of our subscribers of our newsroom and a street person outside was yelling. It was so loud that it caused me to lose my train of thought. While I was trying to remember what I was saying to the tour group, one of the subscribers told us that we should do a story about the causes and solutions to homelessness. I was taken aback because, of course, we do stories like that all of the time. But then I thought about, how could we do a better job of engaging people on very important policy issues? I have a lot of friends who are editors at other publications and wondered, what if we all did the same things on the same day? We could make a huge difference. And that was the beginning of the homeless project.

What challenges did you face in producing this project?

Anytime you have 80 media organizations trying to do something on the same day, there are a lot of people you have to get on board. We had a lot of meetings on what we were going to call ourselves, what we were going to focus on, how we were going to share links and operate social media. So there are a lot of details in a project like that that are considerable.

What was the effect of this project on homelessness in your community?

The director of the city’s new department on homelessness told me that the conversation in City Hall has completely changed since the project and its a major policy focus on the city. There are several ballot measures to deal with tent encampments and affordable housing and other things. The mayor, the week of our coverage, sped up the opening of a new navigation center, which is a sort of new homeless shelter. He sped that up to make it happen the day before this coverage. So, I would say the reaction has been pretty amazing.

What advice do you give other newsrooms embarking on a similar project?

Every region has a different type of media. I mean who knew we had 80 different media organizations (in San Francisco)? We have a lot of online-only media, probably more than in other areas. Our city is also a pretty small one; only 850,000 people live in this city, so it’s kind of a small-big town. A lot of us top editors know each other pretty well and have good relationships with each other, so I think that helps. I also think the fact that the Chronicle, as sort of the “big guy” on campus, that we were willing to offer our reporting and resources also showed a good-faith effort to really embark on this experiment.

How has this project changed the way your newsroom interacts with your community?

Our job at the Chronicle, as the largest media organization on the west coast, is to promote civil civic discourse. I think this is an example of something that we did that was a bit extraordinary in terms of how we went about it from doing this collaboration with other media, but it’s not a deviation from our mission. Our job everyday is to spur civil civic discourse.

Is there anything about this project that you want others to know?

I think because this is such a passionate topic, people have very strong views and if they don’t like what somebody has to say, they tend to be bullies about it. I think the beauty of this project was on one day we had more than 350 stories, TV spots, radio spots, documentaries, interactives — more than 350 separate pieces of content were produced and they were all really high quality, too. This region is smarter now about the issues than they were before we did that, and I think that is what people should expect from their media. And the media should expect the residents to sit back, absorb it and then do something about it.

(Photo by Franck Michel via Creative Commons)

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