New faces, new partners, new formats. Flatwater’s growing

When we launched the Flatwater Free Press way back in September, we had two things working in our favor: A vision and a plan.

The vision was to bring Nebraska the kind of journalism I love. Pieces with insight. Pieces that take time to find complicated truths. Work that lifts up the overlooked. A collaborative ethos that allows us to simply… not. To skip that press conference, to ignore that press release. To zig when others zag.

Audacious, to say the least. 

But we’ve delivered. We’ve told stories from our small towns and big metros. We’ve highlighted inequities, solved problems and spun some yarns along the way. It’s exactly what we set out to do, and I couldn’t be more proud.

Thanks to Universal Information Services, an Omaha-based media monitoring group, we now know that our vision is working. The average Flatwater piece reaches some 400,000 Nebraskans. Our stories appear on radio and TV, in newspapers large and small, and on the websites of fellow media startups. Magazines and weeklies, trade press, Spanish language outlets — the breadth of outlets that see fit to use our work is astonishing.

I was especially flattered to see a piece from Andy Raun, the esteemed editor of the Hastings Tribune, explaining to his readers who we are and how we work. Andy’s seal of approval is the best evidence that our vision is paying off, that we’re finally, finally, finally pushing back the years of cuts that have decimated Nebraska’s reporting corps.

As Andy explains, our partnerships can go beyond merely sharing stories. The Hastings Tribune has graciously let us borrow their talented staff’s skills. Andy has helped us build our freelance network.

This week, we’re kicking off a new level of partnership. I hope you’ve read some of the World-Herald’s deep dives into Nebraska’s prison woes. It’s a topic that needs attention — sustained attention. It’s part of why we hired Natalia Alamdari, to ensure our Corrections department has someone shining the spotlight for the long haul.

With the World-Herald dedicating its precious resources to the same topic, we thought it was a natural place to partner. As editor Randy Essex put it, teaming up is a way to make 1+1=2.5, if not more. 

This is going to pay off in all sorts of ways. And it will be fun. 

Our vision is working. Now we’re kicking it up a notch.

One of our wildest ideas is that journalism is at its best when it’s a conversation. It’s why we’re on social media. It’s why we allow comments on our stories. 

It’s why — starting next month — we’re branching out into live events.

For as much elbow grease as we pour into our work, at the end of the day journalism is simple. It’s being curious and shameless in asking questions. It’s soaking up all the available information, talking to experts and people with real experiences and turning it all into a thing

A video. A written piece. An explainer. A visualization.

But what if that thing was an event?

What if we did journalism… on stage?

Imagine, for example, Yanqi Xu’s library piece as a live event. Yanqi would have a role, explaining her detailed analysis of the city’s budget. Then we’d invite the “experts” from the story — folks like Heritage Services’ Rachel Jacobson, Wendy Townley from the Library Foundation, Mayor Jean Stothert and more. We’d invite stakeholders like library advocates and someone from Mutual. Then, we’d give the audience the same opportunity to ask questions as we do in our reporter role. A moderated discussion. 

Journalism. On stage.

Maria Corpuz

I like that idea a lot. It’s why we’ve created Flatwater Forums. And, I’m pleased to announce, it’s why we’ve begun working with Maria Corpuz, the Flatwater Free Press’ first events coordinator.

I first met Maria through Nite Caps, her brainchild. I was amazed at the professionalism with which she approached her work, which fostered conversation and built community on a variety of issues. 

It’s my hope that she brings that same energy and attention to detail to Flatwater. I can’t wait to see what she does in this new role.

Karen Borchert

Speaking of new roles, it is my absolute pleasure to share that Karen Borchert, one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, has agreed to help Flatwater in a role that’s just as important, if far less visible.

Karen hardly needs an introduction. She was part of the powerhouse that built Flywheel. She helped lead Roka. She’s been an invaluable resource for fellow nonprofits such as the Union for Contemporary Art and the Immigrant Legal Center. 

Now, she’s going to help us build a business. 

Till now, the Flatwater Free Press has been entirely funded by donations from foundations and individuals. 500 of you gave last year, helping us raise over $100,000 — money that helps pay our reporters, file records requests and keep the lights on. (I believe the IRS would get involved if I didn’t take this opportunity to include a link to our donation page).

That is extraordinary. And humbling. 

As a child of a small business family, I know that the best way to make money is all the ways. We need to start exploring all the ways available to Flatwater and our audience.

Enter Karen. As our business development advisor, we’ve given her the reins to add earned revenue to our income mix. That could take any number of forms: display advertising, event or newsletter sponsorships, branding opportunities, classes… who knows. 

We’re going to approach this with the same level of care as we do our content. The point is to add new revenue to Nebraska journalism — to grow the tent — not merely take existing revenue that’s already going to other outlets.

No one is better suited to figure it out than Karen. We’re honored to have her on the team.

Every bit of this is in line with our crazy, moonshot of a vision for ensuring Nebraska journalism is here for the long haul. It’s all working.

That’s in large part because we had a great plan.

Shane Pekny

And that plan, in large part, is thanks to Shane Pekny.

Shane is a grant writer for Flatwater, who we work with through a relationship with Vic Gutman and Associates. From the beginning, Shane and the team at VGA have been the man behind the curtain to the Wizard of Oz that is Flatwater.

I’ve known Vic since I was a kid — indeed, he was a close friend of my grandmother. So in September 2019, it made sense to meet up and chat about this vision for a next phase in Nebraska news.

Little did I know that Vic was in the process of hiring Shane for his team. Shane won’t ever credit himself as such, but he’s a heck of a journalist in his own right. He was trained at the Harvard of the Plains, The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He interned under board member Kent Warneke at the Norfolk Daily News, then became the first editorial intern at the Miami Herald.

Shane and VGA helped us put together a plan that was ambitious but doable, pioneering but practical. For the past few months, we’ve simply put that plan into action. 

We would not be here today, having the success we are, without their help. 

A huge audience. A partnership. Three hires. And that’s just a fraction of the cool stuff we’ve got in the hopper.

Make no mistake: We’re going to keep producing the work you’ve come to look forward to. 

But we’re also going to keep growing, deliberately, to build the best dang news landscape in America.

By Matt Wynn

Matt Wynn is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which launched and funds the Flatwater Free Press. He has spent 13 years at news organizations across the country, most recently on the investigative team at USA Today. He lives in his hometown of Omaha with his wife, Sarah, and three children.