Mike Tharp: Have we got a story for you

January 23, 2010 

Mike Tharp

Tell me a story.

A former McClatchy editor once said those are the four most powerful words in the English language.

Next Friday and Saturday, we're going to tell you some stories. Helping us tell them again are two fine journalists from the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting. You may remember these are the same folks who helped us produce our three-part series in late 2008, "Sowing Hope," about UC Merced's medical school.

I submitted that series for a Pulitzer Prize. I knew it wouldn't win -- not because it wasn't excellent work, but because it represented a new hybrid of journalism. I wanted to alert the Pulitzer judges that they were going to see more of this flashing on their radar.

As our industry faces its toughest financial times ever, more and more newspapers are partnering with outside outfits. These partnerships -- at least in our case with the center -- lead to what generals call a "force-multiplier." They bring added value to what we journalists at the Sun-Star are able to give you.

They make us better. Publisher Debbie Kuykendall understands this and backs our venture.

Some of you wondered whether doing this the first time around meant we'd have to compromise our integrity, to reflect a point of view of our partner.

Relax. First, I wouldn't let that happen. Second, we made no concessions to any ideology, nor will we. The California HealthCare Foundation is an Oakland-based nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation that funds research into health care issues and policies. It takes no position on those issues and policies. Check it out: www.chcf.org.

When it decided to reach a larger audience in 2008, it allied with USC's Annenberg School to form the center. Michael Parks, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times and now a USC professor, brought in a cadre of highly talented journalists to staff the center.

They've been deployed to newspapers across the state to be the force-multiplier and produce health care-related enterprise projects.

We were the first newspaper to sign up. After our "Sowing Hope" series appeared, several other newspapers saw it was good. They signed up. So far the center has worked with The Fresno Bee, Santa Cruz Sentinel, North County Times and the Redding Record Searchlight.

When the foundation saw the results, it decided last year to give more money -- almost $3.3 million -- to the center. The Sun-Star is one of the two newspapers that the center's journalists first came back to for another value-added round of stories.

The third reason you can rest easy that our collaboration isn't driven by any agenda is that we had to submit our proposed partnership to a five-editor McClatchy committee that vets all 30 McClatchy dailies' collaboration with any outside organizations. They and Vice President of Operations Frank Whittaker approved our second effort with the center.

Finally, the Sun-Star has now done this twice because I knew and trusted the main players. Pulitzer Prize-winner Parks was Beijing correspondent for The Baltimore Sun in the late '70s when we met in Tokyo. We later crossed paths several times in L.A.

Spencer Sherman, director of publishing and communications at the foundation, and his wife Janice Fuhrman were top-notch correspondents in Tokyo and Seoul when I was there, so we go back a few years.

An added bona fide is Richard Kipling. He came to the office with Parks before the first go-round. We discovered we both had grown up in Topeka. He went to Topeka West High School and remembered "The Teen Scene" column I'd authored for the Topeka Capital-Journal.

So say hello to Richard and Deborah Schoch, who've been to Merced so often by now that they know how to find Paul's Place and DeAngelo's.

Richard was born in California, raised in Kansas and was an editor and newsroom manager in the L.A. Times metro section for more than two decades. He's taught at USC, Occidental and Caltech. Deborah, who grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., spent 18 years as a staff writer at The Times and did a year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

Back to storytelling.

On Friday we're going to tell the stories of the hidden casualties of our foreclosure crisis. Our series will focus on the emotional and psychological toll taken on one out of 10 homeowners in Merced who've lost their houses.

We believe ours will be the first in-depth analysis of this crisis. We believe that losing your home hurts people as much as losing your job. The ripple effects from such a loss mirror PTSD that the military, law enforcement, first responders and others sometimes feel after a traumatic experience.

Our two-day series will tell you what happens to folks after their dream of owning a home turns into a nightmare of not being able to pay for it.

As in the "Sowing Hope" series, reporter Danielle Gaines has shouldered the heavy lifting for the Sun-Star in reporting and writing. You know how good she is from her excellent coverage of education and now the county. Bea Ahbeck, a highly talented photojournalist who joined us last year, will provide the "art" -- the images and sound that show you our troubled compatriots.

You'll meet a woman who was warned by her bank to "get in survival mode." She told Danielle, "I don't want to live at that tent city on Santa Fe."

You'll meet a family torn between trying to make the mortgage payment or bailing in order to save enough money and make a new start somewhere, somehow.

You'll meet a prominent Realtor whose day-to-day job has descended into tending to foreclosed homes. From once celebrating a toast with new homeowners, he now carries a crowbar when he enters empty houses.

You'll meet health care professionals whose case load, prescriptions of antidepressants and counseling have soared in the wake of the foreclosure tsunami.

You'll be there with us when houses are being auctioned on the courthouse steps.

Day Two of the series will offer solutions. That's part of the Sun-Star's mission: identify, explain and describe the problem. Then suggest ways out.

We take no joy in telling stories that show how some of us have fallen and failed. We take some satisfaction in also presenting possible solutions to the problems.

For weeks on our Web site, www.mercedsunstar.com, we've asked you to step forward and tell us your stories about losing your home. We still welcome you to the community campfire. There's still time for us to listen.

We hope what we will tell and show you helps you understand better both how we got into this mess and maybe some paths to take out of it.

Welcome to the journey.

We're all on the same side.

And we're your storyteller.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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