We’ve been scheming and planning and plotting and hoping on the Flatwater Free Press for so long that I didn’t think anything could surprise me when we kicked off in early September.
Our plan called for a relatively quiet proof-of-concept period. We’d do low-stakes feature stories, experiment with our distribution model, and figure out how things work.
The plan sounded great. I loved the plan.
The plan could not have been more wrong.
Our first few stories have been anything but low stakes. We’ve dug into the problems with Nebraska’s rental assistance program, highlighted the surprising most-vaccinated and most-quickly-vaccinating areas in the state, explored Nebraska’s second hemp harvest and explained the broader story behind a shocking haircutting in Kilgore.
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Our distribution model — which calls for giving our work away to incredible media partners across the state — has been a success by any measure. Every daily newspaper, most weeklies, local radio and TV stations as well as statewide broadcast organizations are using our work. Some has gone national, getting picked up by USA Today, Indian Country Today and Apple News.
Not to brag or anything, but Matthew and I even figured out how to use Mailchimp.
Things are going about as well as we could hope. But here’s the deal: we haven’t even started.
On Nov. 1, we welcome our first two reporters, going from a reporting staff of zero to a staff of two. For all you data nerds out there, that’s a literally incalculable rate of change. Here’s who we’ll bring aboard:
Natalia Alamdari has worked at newspapers throughout the country. Her reporting has taken her to small town shooting ranges in Missouri, contentious school board meetings in Delaware, and aquariums in Texas. Her past work has exposed state senators using racial slurs in emails, gender pay inequities in state departments, and the increasing presence of dark money in school board elections. Working at the Flatwater Free Press will be a return to Nebraska — in college, she spent a summer interning at the Omaha World-Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia and native Texan. When she’s not reporting, you can probably find her baking, petting her cat, or trying out a new crafty hobby. Follow Natalia on Twitter.
Yanqi Xu (pronounced yen-chee shu) most recently covered courts and law for NC Policy Watch in North Carolina, focusing on criminal justice reform, housing justice and redistricting. Prior to that, she was part of a team at the Investigative Reporting Workshop that developed the Public Accountability Project, a newsroom search tool that hosts more than 1 billion public records in one place. Her work has put a face to North Carolina’s failed rental assistance efforts, called out the lawmaker fighting to keep children eligible for marriage, and led to nursing home reforms across the country. Also a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, Yanqi received a Telly Award for producing the online video show Global Journalist. She hails from South China, where she first developed an interest in telling stories that resonate with people, no matter where they are. Follow Yanqi on Twitter.
These seriously impressive reporters are going to help us deliver on a promise to do more of the kind of work I love. Call it whatever you want: investigative, watchdog, accountability. The idea is that we should do work that makes powerful people and institutions uncomfortable. That means politicians and government, sure. It also means businesses and plutocrats and lobbyists and nonprofits and anyone taking advantage of anyone else. It means being a voice for the voiceless. It means punching up.
For months, we’ve been amassing a list of story ideas. It’s constantly growing, as new tips flood our email or social media or come our way when we’re buying coffee. We’ve filed tons of records requests already, and I have every confidence Natalia and Yanqi will be able to hit the ground running.
From there, it’s a matter of time until they’re pursuing their own leads, growing their own networks, and putting their own stamp on this crazy endeavor. They’re going to make us better. You’re going to benefit from having more cooks in this kitchen.
Freelance is always going to be part of the mix here. It’s a great way to ensure reliable dispatches from across this gigantic state, and it lets us work with anyone who has a story to tell. It lets us bring in subject experts or perspectives that we don’t normally get to hear. If you have an idea, please don’t be shy about getting in touch. We love to hear your stories. We’ll work with you to tell them and pay for your time.
Adding staff is going to let us do a slightly different caliber of reporting. Freelancers deserve the reliability of a story. They need to know that something is worth reporting before they start so they’re not wasting their precious time.
Staff members, meanwhile, chase leads. They poke at issues that may turn out to be nothing. If the lead has legs, they report it. If not, they move on to the next.
Freeing our staff to explore might-be stories is one of the major reasons we exist. Starting Nov. 1, we’ll be able to start that process with a team I’m honored to introduce to the Good Life.
I can’t wait to show you what we can do.
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.