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The Gulf States Newsroom Builds Connections for Better Journalism

Members of the Gulf States Newsroom team on a Zoom call.
Priska Neely
Members of the Gulf States Newsroom team on a Zoom call.

Priska Neely made some of the biggest decisions of her career in her sister's Maryland sunroom, 700-some miles away from her new life. She had just taken the helm of a new initiative that relocated her to Birmingham, Alabama.

Neely started her role as the first managing editor of the Gulf States Newsroom in September 2020. It's a regional effort to connect local Member stations in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana to one another and with NPR. It's one of several growing hubs in the NPR/Member station Collaborative Journalism Network.

Neely – an award-winning public radio journalist who worked with Reveal, Member station KPCC in Pasadena, California, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation – was tasked with hiring staff and fostering collaborations with participating stations. She was starting from scratch to unite the new network, as she had spent most of her career in Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

Parts of the Gulf states region are considered news deserts, as many existing local news outlets have gradually disappeared and journalists have been laid off by the masses. The Gulf States Newsroom aims to help fill that news void by uniting public radio reporters to cover health care, criminal justice, the economy, and more.

The newsroom overcame an uphill battle in its first two years, as the Covid-19 pandemic slowed development. Neely started to build the newsroom in a mostly-empty Birmingham apartment before her boxes arrived and on those visits to family in Maryland.

"I was working from my apartment and was trying to build this collaboration with a bunch of people that I never met," she says. "Public radio collaboratives are not a new concept. This is a new model that we're doing in this region, but people see these things come and go. So they're like, 'Who is this lady? What is this?' It can be just another thing on their plate, from their perspective."

Building trusting relationships with stations was her first agenda item. She spent time assessing the needs of stations and the Gulf States Newsroom's unique potential to fill those needs. The opportunity was huge, as the small staff sizes at each station would essentially double with the addition of newly hired Gulf States reporters. That's not the case for other NPR hubs in places like California and Texas, which primarily unite already-large newsroom staffs.

Another particular challenge for this hub, Neely says, is the audience.

"In California, people are like, 'Oh, I love KPCC.'" she says. "It's very different here. There's a very different relationship to media and to public radio. People may not know what public radio is, and they may not like it."

Neely needed a team that could meet the local audience eye-to-eye.

Assembling a Team Equipped to Adapt

Neely learned about the power of asking for help during the early days of the newsroom. She had zero staff working below her and no one above her after her manager got a new job. She looked for support from mentors and former colleagues at NPR's headquarters.

When it came time to hire reporters, Neely said the number-one quality she looked for – above radio skills, reporting chops, or public media experience – was the ability to ask for help.

"It became more important than the journalism, because that's what I was going through at the time," she says. "I wouldn't have been able to stay in this job, I wouldn't have been able to get through anything in the beginning, when I had no boss, no people, if I hadn't found people to ask for help. So I needed people who could ask for help. That became really important to me."

Neely worked with local stations and NPR — with a focus on networking and direct outreach to candidates — to find staff who fit that bill. The Gulf States Newsroom includes Shalina Chatlani, a health care reporter based at WWNO in New Orleans; Stephan Bisaha, a wealth and poverty reporter at WBHM in Birmingham; Orlando Flores Jr., a digital editor at WWNO; Bobbi-Jeanne Misick, a justice, race and equity reporter at WWNO; business manager Andrea Blackert Owens, who works across the participating stations; and the team's newest member: Brittany Brown, a criminal justice reporter based at Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.

Priska Neely, Brittany Brown, and Stephan Bisaha outside WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama.
/ Priska Neely
/
Priska Neely
Priska Neely, Brittany Brown, and Stephan Bisaha outside WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama.

Covering the Gulf from One Reporter's Perspective

As a lifelong resident of Mississippi, Brown brings a local perspective to criminal justice reporting. Like her Gulf States Newsroom colleagues, Brown pivots between daily, local news reporting for her home base Member station, and more in-depth, feature reporting that's shared across the region on the other Gulf States Newsroom stations' airwaves and websites.

In her first five months with the newsroom, Brown's reporting was heard across the country in a segment on the daily WBUR/NPR show Here & Now about a string of bomb threats at HBCUs. Six colleges in Mississippi alone faced bomb threats, and Brown jumped in to cover the story.

Brown also reported on prison visitation opening back up in Alabama for the first time in 20 months. She was able to compare it to the visitation policies in Louisiana and Mississippi from her vantage point as a Gulf States reporter.

"After almost two years of families not being able to see their incarcerated loved ones in person and vice versa, it was really taking a hard toll on people," Brown says. "After that story aired, I got messages from people saying thank you for telling that story, for being that voice."

Brown has the capacity to cover news like this because her job encourages her to step back from breaking news reporting and think critically.

Gulf States Newsroom criminal justice reporter Brittany Brown interviewing Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain at the state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi.
/ Mississippi Public Broadcasting reporter Kobee Vance
/
Mississippi Public Broadcasting reporter Kobee Vance
Gulf States Newsroom criminal justice reporter Brittany Brown interviewing Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain at the state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi.

"I'm constantly trying to connect the dots," Brown says. "It's really fulfilling to do that in my reporting with the Gulf States Newsroom. You get to really think deeper and with a little bit more complexity."

Powering the Newsroom with Connection and Collaboration

Brown says she collaborates with her colleagues often by borrowing audio, sharing sources, and asking questions. They also join monthly training sessions with industry experts on topics such as investigative reporting and narrative storytelling that are open to all partner newsrooms. Staying connected from several states apart feels natural for the Gulf States reporters in part thanks to something Neely calls "forced bonding."

The team frequently gathers on Zoom for trivia sessions, icebreakers, reading groups, and games. They start weekly team meetings by sharing something about their week that's unrelated to work — in the style of the best things segment on It's Been a Minute. While some were reluctant to open up at first, they are now excited to share highlights. After building relationships in the digital environment and with shifts in the pandemic, they're now also connecting in person.

The collaborative nature of the Gulf States Newsroom allowed for quick work under pressure in Summer 2021 when Hurricane Ida devastated the region. The newsroom was key in keeping listeners informed in the face of power outages, dwindling fuel supplies, and station staff members scrambling to find safe places to stay.

The regional reporters have been able to provide sustained coverage of issues as well. Chatlani worked with NPR to follow up with residents months after Hurricane Ida. Misick reported on the impacts of the Jackson water crisis one year after a storm that left residents without running water for weeks.

Teresa Collier, the news director at Mississippi Public Broadcasting, says that without the hub's additional support, "We just wouldn't have been able to take a closer look, go into people's homes and talk to them about how this water situation is really impacting their lives, and talk to state and local officials about what's being done to help this community that clearly is suffering from a lack of water. They gave us additional reporting power to allow us to cover stories that we wouldn't be able to."

More recently, Bisaha collaborated with NPR's Business Desk to help the network cover a story it may have otherwise missed. After more than 400 Family Dollar stores across the South and Midwest shut down due to a warehouse rat infestation, Bisaha was able to quickly get a story out about the impact this had in small towns that rely on the store as a food source. Bisaha also did segments on local station shows, WWNO's Louisiana Considered and MPB's Mississippi Edition, to talk more about the issue of food deserts. In a Twitter thread, Neely highlighted this as a prime example of a story that featured the voices of people directly affected. And they heard from multiple listeners in the region who took notice.

Whether during breaking news or slow days, Neely's team acts as a connective tissue between the participating stations.

"Priska Neely has done an amazing job standing up the Gulf States Newsroom as a model for collaboration between NPR and a group of Member stations," says Kenya Young, Managing Editor for Collaborative Journalism at NPR. "Both NPR and the partnering stations are airing and publishing rich, deeply reported stories from that region in ways we haven't been able to do so before. The newsroom is successfully tackling the news desert problem in the region."

The success of the Gulf States Newsroom is clear: If you go to one of the participating station's websites on any given day, a good handful of the stories will be sourced from the Gulf States Newsroom. Those are stories that wouldn't otherwise be told.

Interested in keeping up with the Gulf States Newsroom team? Follow their social channels here:

  • Priska Neely, managing editor based at WBHM in Birmingham
  • Orlando Flores Jr.., digital editor based at WWNO in New Orleans
  • Stephan Bisaha, wealth and poverty reporter based at WBHM in Birmingham
  • Brittany Brown, criminal justice reporter based at Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson
  • Shalina Chatlani, health care reporter based at WWNO in New Orleans
  • Bobbi-Jeanne Misick, justice, race and equity reporter based at WWNO in New Orleans
  • Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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