How (and why) The News’ health care series came together

Earlier this year, The News launched its first enterprise — journo-speak for “deep dive” — series of my young editorship: “This Is Us,” a multi-part series looking at how tourism is becoming an ever-more-important economic driver in Northeast Michigan.

I was and remain very proud of that series. My four news reporters and two sports reporters did an awesome job pulling together sources and data to tell compelling, informative stories about the world around them.

There were some hiccups.

I came from the Lansing State Journal, where most everyone with whom I’d worked had years of journalism experience and had done multiple enterprise and investigative projects. I wasn’t as cognizant as I should have been that many of my reporters in Alpena are still relatively green to journalism in general and especially so to enterprise journalism.

So, there was some miscommunication between me and the reporters and them and their sources, and that caused a lot of scrambling just before deadline time and for a little bit after “This Is Us” was published.

This week, we launched our second in what will be many more enterprise packages to come: “Caring for Northeast Michigan,” a look at the challenges of providing timely and quality health care in our rural corner of the world, and how health care providers are using teamwork and technology to overcome those obstacles.

We learned a lot of lessons from the first series, and the execution on this one was a lot smoother. Here’s how it came together:

Weeks ago, not long after the end of the “This Is Us” series, I asked the reporters to brainstorm ideas for our next group project. Our brainstorming before “This Is Us” was pretty loose and informal. This time, I asked the reporters to provide a lot more information up front about what exactly they hoped to accomplish from their proposal, what kind of data or other information they thought would be available to support their story, and what kind of impact they thought our reporting might have in the community.

Publisher Bill Speer and I decided to dedicate our resources to looking at health care — a proposal from reporter Crystal Nelson — for a number of reasons.

One, the story was far-reaching, affecting each and every resident in our coverage area. And it was deeply personal to our readers: Little is as important to a person’s quality of life as the quality of services protecting that life.

Two, it was a timely topic, with MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena planning major renovations, Alpena Township recently buying two new ambulances with a new property tax, and the recently released national hospital scorecards from Leapfrog.

And, like the question of tourism changing Alpena, we knew a lot of people in town were talking about the quality of care at the Alpena hospital since it was bought by the Midland-based MidMichigan Health in 2016. As we had with tourism questions in “This Is Us,” we wanted with the health care series to provide some hard numbers and facts around which those discussions could be framed.

Once the story was chosen, we divided up the topics Nelson proposed to cover into four stories that made sense: a general overview, a focus on emergency response, a focus on mental health care, and a look at what might be coming in the future. The reporters were given clear assignments about the questions we wanted answered and specific deadlines for when things should come together.

That was all the direction reporters received. The answers to the reporters’ questions drove the stories we put together.

The reporters provided weekly progress reports, and there were deadlines weeks before words were ever typed onto a page for the reporters to develop outlines of their stories so we could see whether we had too much or too little information.

Inevitably, there were hold-ups. The biggest this time was that ambulance response times were not as readily available as we’d expected them to be. We were only able to get specific response times from the City of Alpena, which contracts out ambulance services countywide. Presque Isle, Montmorency and Alcona county data were unavailable.

Despite those hiccups, I believe your Alpena News reporters turned out a stellar package of stories that provides readers with a better understanding of the world around them. And, remember, your reporters cranked this out while still feeding my hunger for copy for daily paper and for special sections, such as the Brown Trout Festival preview tab that came out this week.

Such deep-dive reports are what newspapers do best.

Expect many more of them from this newspaper in the months and years to come.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.