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Creating a culture around engagement and reporting: 9 good questions with Michelle Holmes of the Alabama Media Group

This is part one of a two-part series on a partnership between the Alabama Media Group and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Part one focuses on the Alabama Media Group’s innovation in investigative journalism lab and part two will be about CIR experimenting with new revenue streams as a nonprofit news organization. Read part two here

Many publishers are currently working on the next iteration of investigative reporting.

Holmes

That’s something Michelle Holmes is trying to figure out with the Alabama Investigative Journalism Lab at the Alabama Media Group. Holmes, a former Knight Fellow at Stanford, is the vice president of content at the Alabama Media Group.

The Alabama Media Group is the parent of four newspapers — The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and Mobile’s Press-Register and The Mississippi Press  — and two news sites, AL.com and gulflive.com.

The Lab is a place to figure out what investigative journalism looks like when the newsroom’s culture is involving the audience and doing journalism alongside the audience.

“There is really no one nationally that has nailed this. My goal is to bring some smart people together and try and test this,” Holmes said.

“Alabama is a great place to test. We have the ability to try new things and cultivate a culture that really pushes beyond the obvious into the hardest kinds of nuts to crack.”

The goal is to bring in fellows to work on projects and experiment around what investigative reporting will look like. Robert Rosenthal, the executive director of CIR, is the Lab’s first collaborator.

“Beyond just doing investigative reporting, we’re creating a culture around engagement and reporting. It’s really the wave of the future by thinking what we can do together,” Holmes said.

Rick Edmonds cited you as one of the few top U.S. newsroom editors who has a strong digital background. Can you tell me a bit about your background?

MICHELLE HOLMES: My first newsroom job was working on an iMac with (dialup) internet, so while I was involved for many years in leading “traditional” journalism, an online sensibility always was a part of it – breaking the story on the web was never much of a hurdle.

When I left the two Chicago area newspapers I led in mid-2011 for a Knight fellowship, I left all thoughts of print behind, and focused solely on digital journalism, delving into designing new forms of interactive smartphone storytelling, and working with people thinking about citizen-media all over the world. I then joined the San Francisco-based video startup, Ustream, where I traveled the US and Canada working with major media companies who were jumping into live journalism. The interactive part was what was most exciting to me, and remains so.

I was recruited to come here to Alabama Media Group, where on AL.com we now have 5.7 million unique monthly visitors and 90+ million monthly page views in a state with 4.8 million people. We put out newspapers in four cities, three days a week. Our investigative journalism is critical for print, but this change really allows us to focus on the digital present, and move toward the future.

Can you tell me a bit about the Lab and its goals?

HOLMES: We created the lab out of a desire to create more impact for our investigative work, with a stated goal of experimentation. We’re calling it a lab on purpose. We want to test things. Our first collaborator is The Center for Investigative Reporting. We’ve been working with WBHM, Alabama Public Radio, the startup Groundsource, the Public Insight Network, and are having conversation with other commercial media as well.

It’s not enough anymore just to publish work. We want to join with our audiences in shaping and informing it.

Beyond breaking big stories, this lab aims to support journalists in the effort to grow audiences for work that matters, and discover better ways to connect with those audiences as we seek impact from the work we do. It’s not enough anymore just to publish work. We want to join with our audiences in shaping and informing it. What will this turn into? How long will it last? We’re excited to find out.

How did the partnership with CIR come about?

HOLMES: I was lucky enough to meet Cole Goins, distribution and engagement manager at CIR,  while at the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University in Macon, GA, another place with which we’ve worked. We met again at ONA in Atlanta in 2013, and began some work together around engagement in our reporting on the Affordable Care Act.

It was at another Mercer event early this year, CIR’s Dissection: B, that I met Joaquin Alvarado, CIR’s chief strategy officer. I told him I’d secured funding in my budget for an experimental approach, and we began brainstorming. That resulted in the great fortune of bringing Robert Rosenthal aboard.

We’re combining some great journalism experience and legacy with our digital approaches, and we’re going to make a difference here.

Has the Alabama Media Group done something like this before? Do you plan to do more?

HOLMES: We have been experimenting internally, but this is our first try at anything so public facing or open. We set up the lab to allow us to bring in innovators who also want to attack an important story.

And yes, we plan to do more such things.  It’s a new world for journalism and we need to embrace it head-on.

What kinds of stories could local media be missing if they don’t have the training that CIR enables?   

HOLMES: I think it’s not so much about “training.” To me, that’s too often a poor substitute for “doing.” Our relationship with CIR is really about having some of the industry’s best thinkers and most experienced diggers poking around with us and pushing with us to do this kind of deep investigative work in a for-profit, digital and non-specialized environment.  We are glad they are as committed as we are to engagement with their audience(s), and of measuring impact for the work that’s being done.

What are some of the lab’s 2-3 goals with this specific initiative?

HOLMES: Let me use the example of our first project, based around prison justice. We set out the premise here:

What went wrong with Tutwiler and who’s being held accountable for Alabama’s prison problems? AL.com investigates

1. As we say in this piece, we pledge to more fully interact with our audience, and allow them to shape and inform our work as it happens. This is all about transparency. Where are we going, and revealing steps along the way.

2.Engage more deeply with other media in pursuit of important stories, grow broader and more diverse audiences for it, and offer conversation about solutions.

3. Experiment with story forms, especially as technology continues to change how audiences choose to consume journalism. What are different ways to capture interest in a serious and weighty subject?

What are some of the challenges you expect to encounter?

HOLMES: We have incredible growth goals for our online traffic. Our reporters working in this lab can’t just disappear in pursuit of big stories. That demand is certainly one challenge we are facing head-on.

We are working on prison justice stories in one of the most conservative states in the union. We don’t believe this is a left or right issue, but we need to convince our audiences that we don’t have an underlying political motive here. No conservatives or liberals I know of are in favor of paying guards with taxpayer money to brutalize American citizens, sexually and otherwise. This is a basic issue of accountability as well as one of human rights.

What’s the long-term goal here for Alabama Media Group — and maybe for other local news sites? In an ideal world, what will this lead to?

HOLMES: It will lead to immersion in the big stories. It will lead to cooperative reporting. It will lead to digital journalism that figures out how to balance big hits with ongoing coverage. It will lead to more.

We’ll soon be putting out a call for proposals for a fellow to work on a significant story that matters in Alabama, and to do it in ways that establishes a deep and transparent connection with our audience. We also expect to bring in a Lab fellow to dive into data-driven investigative work here, and to work with CIR on training that will be open to other media organizations.

You’re a former Knight fellow at Stanford and have worked at a Silicon Valley startup, can you tell me about that experience? How does that background play into what you’re doing and trying to do at the Alabama Media Group? What are some lessons from both experiences?

HOLMES: The two together helped form in me truly unbridled enthusiasm and optimism about what can be done. My upbringing in traditional newsrooms taught me to be cynical, which I’m glad to have at my editor core, but when it’s the pervasive atmosphere or culture It can be destructive.

Certainly the Knight fellowship opened a new world of deep collaboration and, after spending a year with journalists from China, Ecuador, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, an intense appreciation for the liberties we have as American journalists. I had great experiences at the Stanford d.school (that’s d for design thinking, a new way of looking at things, not design in the layout sense.) It helped me understand the value of bringing disparate people together to construct new solutions.

Ustream offered great lessons in branding and positioning – and the value of the pivot. If there’s one thing you learn in the startup world it’s how to sell yourself and what you have to offer the world — and how and when to change. We celebrated the 200th birthday of the Press-Register in Mobile last year. We’re proud of that. We’re moving forward, doing big work.  I’m glad to bring some of that Silicon Valley drive to keep reinventing ourselves still.

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