Mike Tharp: A three-part event for the Sun-Star

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

Next week the Sun-Star will give you what we think is a good new deal.

Starting Thursday, and continuing the next two days, we'll publish in our newspaper and on our Web site a three-part series about UC Merced's proposed medical school.

Close readers of these pages and our online presence will recall our two previous series: "The War Comes to Merced," a 12-part look at how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have affected our communities. That ran late last year.

In August, we published our second series, "Poor People," five installments examining how poverty has influenced so much and so many in our county.

But this latest series will mark a special event for us.

We've done this series in collaboration with a new venture at USC's famed Annenberg School.

It's called the Center for California Health Care Journalism. Sponsored by the California HealthCare Foundation, the center is run by Michael Parks, a USC professor and the former editor of the Los Angeles Times.

The center's point people for us have been Richard Kipling, a former longtime editor at the Times, and Deborah Schoch, a former Times reporter for many years.

Anacleto Rapping, a prize-winning former Times photographer, came up to shoot and tape the art for the project.

Danielle Gaines, our education reporter, has worked closely with all of them in reporting and writing the series.

Our joint adventure marks a new experiment for American journalism. An educational institution, funded by a foundation, is partnering with a newspaper in a groundbreaking pilot project.

It's the center's maiden voyage with a media company. If all sides like the results, we'll do a second series together.

Other McClatchy newspapers are interested in taking part in future center projects.

I'm proud that the Sun-Star is the first one to do so. We also hope to publish it in our sister newspaper, Vida En El Valle, which reaches about 160,000 Spanish-language readers each week.

Michael and Richard drove up late last month.

We sat in the office while they pitched their project. Michael and I had met in the late '70s in Tokyo, where I was a correspondent and he was visiting from Beijing.

Richard, it turns out, is from Topeka and went to Shawnee Heights High School at the same time I was going to Hayden High there.

He remembered that I wrote the highly regarded "Teen Scene" Sunday column in the Capital-Journal about happenings at Topeka's six high schools.

(I told him I wished he'd rather have remembered that I grabbed 19 rebounds against his Thunderbirds our senior year. And, OK, I stuck in "highly regarded" because I'm the editor.)

With all that karma, kismet and coincidence sparking, we agreed to do the UC Merced med school series together.

It has gone well.

Danielle and Deborah have done the heavy lifting.

They've interviewed dozens of people, read stacks of documents, written many drafts, taken numerous photographs themselves, recorded several audio interviews and worked late into the nights to meet Richard's rigid deadlines.

Richard has dervishly whirled from editing copy to selecting pictures to reviewing audio -- all the while showing me why he was highly regarded at the Times and teaching this old dog some new tricks.

Anacleto produced memorable images that will literally put a human face on the often numbing statistics.

As I write, the series remains a work-in-progress. All five of us are poring over the stories and art, trying to fix any glitches, fill any holes, inform, educate, engage and get it all right.

Doing this is important because UC Merced's med school is important. We all know how dire the health-care crisis is in the Valley and our county.

The med school, while no panacea, could go a long way toward addressing some of the serious medical problems facing tens of thousands of residents.

As with any story, especially those in a multimedia format, we have leaned on both experts and those who need the help.

You'll meet some of the visionaries whose idea the med school was. You'll hear from its present organizers and supporters.

You'll follow folks who could gain from it, such as little Adrian, a little boy just over a year old who's already undergone four major surgeries.

His mom has trouble getting him to the right places for treatment because they're all so far away.

You'll visit a dermatology clinic where doctors have to diagnose eight patients an hour on the one day a week they're able to treat people.

One poor man wandered in with a mummified cancerous growth sticking out of his head. You'll listen to Maria Pallavicini, the UC professor now in charge of shepherding the med school from blueprint to reality.

The first story will describe in detail the origins, structure and ambitions of the med school. The second will focus on the human beings it could help.

The last story will try to bring a synthesis or summary of the forces and factors working for and against its success.

Deborah has visited Merced twice. She and Richard will drive up once more before we publish.

Richard has found a red wine he likes a lot and will bring a bottle. I look forward to toasting the series with him, Danielle and Deborah. (Anacleto will be there in spirit.)

Mainly, though, I look forward to hearing what you think of our partnership project.

If we get it right, we'll be doing just what newspapers and media companies are made to do: provide you, our audience, with the best and most accurate information so you can form your judgments and take whatever action you feel you want to do.

Because we have one more partner in this besides the Center for California Health Care Journalism:

All of you.

Reach Sun-Star Executive Editor Mike Tharp at (209) 385--2427 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.