Shrinking Space, Tight Budgets — And a Story Needing to Be Told
‘Despite the necessity to trim back on our ambition, we held tight to our vision of sharing the emotion of these women's stories with our readers.’
Steve Franklin's idea enchanted me instantly. Instead of proposing encyclopedic treatises about women and global migration, he was committed to shorter, sharply focused pieces on particular moments in these women's journeys as a way of illuminating some of the key issues. As he talked about his vision for this project, in my mind's eye I saw a lot of sidebars, helpful eye-grabbing graphics, and photo cut-lines that we could use to relieve these mini-narratives of their statistical or service-information burdens.
How could I say no? All we needed was money and space; I figured the former would be the problem, but it turned out the latter was nearly a deal-breaker. But none of this was known in the first bloom of our love for this project.
At the Tribune, when an appealing and expensive idea comes our way, we check in with folks who hold the purse strings. (Steve had already persuaded deputy managing editor Jim Warren, who is my boss in features, and managing editor Jim O'Shea of the merit of his idea.) To them, we pledged to keep costs down in every way possible; one way of doing this was for Steve to produce stories for the national desk while he did reporting on this project.
Our initial plan — in early May of 2005 — was to run three large packages of stories, either monthly or biweekly, in the WomanNews section. But circumstances of space in the newspaper, resources in the newsroom, and reporting time devoted to this project gradually chipped away at our vision. As discouraging as this was, our team soldiered on and held out hope we'd be able to do a separate, special section and insert it into WomanNews.
Editing time at the Tribune was at a premium and so we'd experience lags between the burst of editing. Direct communication with team members wasn't easy to accomplish because each of the team members was an important cog in the newspaper and, on a given day, each might be assigned to a different story. But there's nothing like a deadline to get journalists moving, and we faced a big one. The WomanNews section — where we felt the project belonged — needed to have a finished product by the end of 2005. And the TV and online engines were working on parallel tracks. Once they were ready to go, the project would need to be published in the newspaper.
However, as the year was rushing to a close, our newsprint budget had been gobbled up by extensive coverage of two hurricanes and a baseball championship in Chicago. We now had to confront an ugly reality: 30 pounds of goodies had to fit into one 10-pound bag, not the three 10-pound bags we were counting on. Quickly we revised our thinking about the number of stories, their lengths and, most important, their order. Our plan had been to follow the journeys' arc chronologically — women leaving home, making the journey to a new land, and touching down far away, suffering or prospering.
Despite the necessity to trim back on our ambition, we held tight to our vision of sharing the emotion of these women's stories with our readers. And WomanNews cleared out its entire 10-page section so we could tell this story from its powerful opening scene to its thrilling conclusion. To do this, we used all manner of visual and prose storytelling. Even with the reduced length — as we whittled 30 pounds down to 10 — our hope never faded that once readers came to know these women's stories they would cry, mourn and exult with them.
Losing so much of our valuable reporting in the newspaper's coverage was for all of us a disappointment, if an understandable one given the economic realities of print publishing today. But we never gave up our fight to introduce these incredible survivors and also tell the story of one young woman who died along the way.
Our effort offers a valuable lesson for others who want to do important projects like this one in an era of declining newsroom resources. We always considered this a local story, regardless of how far away our writers traveled. Our plan from the start was to connect our reporting travels to the numerous immigrant communities in the Chicago area. Perhaps the primary difference between what our reporters did and what newsrooms with smaller budgets might accomplish was the luxury of foreign datelines. In fact, had we been told we couldn't travel, Plan B was for us to report this project at home. That's why I was never as worried as Steve was that this project might never happen. I knew — and the reporting on this project proved me right — that remarkable stories about global migration could be reported in Chicago and its suburbs.
More than anything, the success of this project can be traced to the team's execution of the core mission: doing the research they needed to do to find women whose lives told this story; focusing on key dramatic moments, and presenting them through poignant and crisp writing, stunning photography, strong graphic display, and careful editing.
Whether executed around the globe or in a newspaper's backyard, projects like this one require the one thing money can't provide: passion.
Geoff Brown is associate managing editor for features with the Chicago Tribune.