Swing state stories: Freelancer gives voice to the ‘backbone of our democracy’


These days, journalists looking to sink their teeth into a juicy assignment don’t wait for publishers to fund their pet projects. Instead, they’re turning to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, where users fund creative projects that spark their interest.

One such project is Swing State Stories, a website where freelance journalist Chris Killian plans to document the political perspectives of Americans in swing states leading up the presidential election. The project surpassed its $2,500 funding goal on Kickstarter earlier this month.

Chris KillianIn anticipation of a heated campaign season, Ebyline recently chatted with Killian, whose work has appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette, The Michigan Messenger and on the WMUK Radio website, among other places. Below is an excerpt of that conversation, edited for clarity.

Why did you start Swing States Stories?

A lot of political coverage does a disservice to the country [by] not focusing on what the elections are really about, and that’s people. The more we can listen to each other, and consume stories about each other’s lives, the more connected we can be as a nation.

I didn’t see any media outlets really wanting to do a comprehensive look at where people are in the country, what their lives are like, what their ambitions are, and where they want the county to go. I decided to focus on the swing states. Those are the states in where the election will be decided.

What do you hope to accomplish with this project?

I hope to provide a platform for everyday Americans and freelance writers alike whose stories—about their lives, what they view as the appropriate role of government, and where they want to see the nation head—are routinely lost in the gaffe-driven haze that descends on the U.S. during the last few months of an election year. Everyone has a story to tell, a belief that they want to communicate. I view this project as trying to give those voices a place to be heard.

What states will you be visiting?

Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

What equipment will you use on your reporting trip?

I will be using a smartphone as a hotspot to get online in my van, doing work on my MacBook. With help from the Kickstarter drive, I have purchased a Canon flip HD camcorder. I also have a Tascam stereo recording device. Video clips will be edited with iMovie. Power will come from a deep cycle battery (which also runs a high efficiency fridge). Additional power comes from an 85 Watt solar panel mounted on Harry’s roof [ed. note: Harry is Killian’s 1984 VW Vanagon].

What’s your distribution strategy?

I will distribute content through my website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. I am also going to be dropping press releases to local media outlets in towns and cities along the way, hoping to get exposure to the aforementioned content platforms.

What advice would you give to other journalists on starting a successful Kickstarter campaign?

Be open, honest, and transparent with your backers about exactly what the project is and how their help will yield tangible results. But do not sacrifice your editorial autonomy for the sake of financial backing. In other words, do not let a potential backer try to push a certain reporting angle with their money. Above all else, a reporter is tasked with being fair and unbiased. Do not make any promises to report this way or that way. If your idea is good enough and you explain it clearly enough, people will recognize its worth and will more than likely help you out.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Some say that one of the casualties during a heated presidential election season is the truth. But another casualty exists that is hardly talked about: the stories of average Americans and their struggles, ideas and hopes for the future. Elections are, at their core, about people. And as the ever-increasingly gaffe-driven political environment we live in saturates the airwaves with the day’s sexiest mistake or biggest flub, these important, grassroots stories are sure to go under-reported, if they are reported at all. But they need to be told. These folks – the backbone of our democracy – need to be given a voice and a platform. I will give them that platform.

How the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Uses DocumentCloud

Every day, new journalism technologies emerge that give journalists better tools to engage readers. One such tool is DocumentCloud, a new tool sponsored by IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors.) In recent news, reporters at Mother Jones used Document Cloud in their article on the Obamacare decision, and reporters at ProPublica used DocumentCloud in the GlaxoSmithKline scandal that was released on DocumentCloud on June 2, and published June 3.

Ebyline spoke with one editor who’s been using DocumentCloud in the newsroom.

“Here at the Journal Sentinel, we’ve used it for a variety of projects. Most recently, I used DocumentCloud to annotate police incident reports to pinpoint examples of misreporting of FBI crime and weapon codes,” said Ben Poston, a Data Editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Poston says that he hasn’t used DocumentCloud to do a lot of textual analysis of documents, but that the ability to annotate, share and build a document gallery has taken stories to the next level.

“I think it helps us be more transparent with readers and also guide them through technical documents,” said Poston. “Before DocumentCloud, we might just link to a PDF of a document, but it could be 100 or more pages, and very few readers are going to take the time to sift through that many pages.”

Poston recommended that journalists can use DocumentCloud to store and organize all of their documents.

“I’m really bad at keeping paper files organized…so uploading docs electronically to the cloud makes more sense and allows easy sharing among reporters here,” he added.

Here’s a video of DocumentCloud lead developer Ted Han explaining the website’s functionality:

Ted Han, DocumentCloud – 2011 Knight News Challenge Winner from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Has your newsroom used DocumentCloud? Why or why not? Leave a comment and let us know!

International Reporting in the Age of Cutbacks: IRE Recap

Over a thousand journalists gathered on June 14-17 at the Boston Marriot Copley Place for the 2012 IRE Conference in Boston.

At the Going international: Digging up information from other countries panel, panelists stressed that using basic reporting techniques are important when reporting on international topics. Panelist Gary Marx from The Chicago Tribune said that for his reporting, a combination of different investigative techniques led to a fugitive’s capture. Marx even found one fugitive on Facebook.

Other panelists on the Going international panel included Kathie Klarreich, of the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Haiti, and Azmat Khan, digital producer for Frontline PBS.

Takeaway tips from the conference included:

  • “Language not a barrier for me, but for Haitian journalists because documents are often in English.”  -Kathie Klarreich
  • “To work on an international story, tie it to a local angle.” Azmat Khan, Frontline

Economic costs
A May article from Edward Girardet on Nicholas Kristof’s On the Ground blog lamented in “Lessons from Afghanistan: Let’s Get Back to Real Foreign Reporting”:

“Most news organizations have closed down or severely reduced their overseas operations. Freelance journalists, many young and determined, are struggling to survive. No one is willing to pay for good reporting.”

So what can reporters do? While the panel did not address how editors could cut down on costs for international reporting, Marx mentioned that his investigation was implemented on a smaller budget. One cost-cutting strategy is to start initial reporting in the states before venturing overseas.

While foreign reporting may be difficult to implement, reporters willing to find creative methods to cut down on costs may have the best chance at publishing an international story.