Public domain.

March 26, 2017; Hidden Poison (Allegheny Front, Keystone Crossroads, 90.5 WESA)

Hidden Poison” tells the story of how Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) hired a private company, Veolia, in an effort to reduce operating costs in PWSA’s water business. Veolia, in order to save money and earn a bonus, substituted caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) for the more expensive soda ash (sodium carbonate) additive in the water treatment process. While soda ash provides a protective coating that inhibits lead leaching, the less-expensive caustic soda has the opposite effect. One result of the change was that lead from old lead pipes was leached into the drinking water being sold to thousands of homes.

No one noticed the change until PWSA, in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, announced that it was changing back to soda ash and regulators at Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) took notice. “DEP regulators only learned of the switch to caustic soda because the authority announced it was switching back to soda ash in the wake of the lead crisis in Flint.” On April 25, 2016, DEP issued a violation notice because PWSA had never applied for a permit to make this change to caustic soda. PWSA was ordered to begin extensive testing to determine the lead levels in their water system. It was then that the story of the lead-poisoned water started to leak out in the mass media.

The backstory of the nonprofit collaboration begins at a routine bi-weekly meeting of reporters from 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR station. Here is the collaboration among four nonprofit journalism organizations and the “long form” online news organization, Public Source. According to Mila Sanina, executive director of Public Source, the collaboration was the brainchild of Patrick Doyle, news director at WESA. The mainstream coverage was failing to “connect the dots” in a major story. The two nonprofits then reached out to Allegheny Front, a nonprofit journalism organization that focuses on environmental issues, and to Keystone Crossroads, a statewide consortium of broadcast partners and associates. Each of the “hidden poison” collaborators had some experience covering aspects of lead poisoning in the past.

There were no formal agreements among the collaborators, but lots of experience working together on other projects. Story ideas were fleshed out and each organization took on a story based on its strengths. In support of the collaboration, WESA created a website, Hidden Poison, to be the hub for all the stories emerging from the collaboration.

There are clear parallels between the Pittsburgh and Flint stories. For starters, the Veolia company was also involved in Flint and has been sued by the Michigan attorney general for its role in the Flint crisis. The narrative of a profit motivated private contractor combined with the cost saving efforts of public officials is a clear match. In “A Lesson from Flint in the Limitations of Running Everything ‘Like a Business,’” Ruth McCambridge notes that a nonprofit sense of “mission” is a missing ingredient in too many “public services.” The collaboration in Pittsburgh could be seen as a response to some egregious underreporting by the “breaking news/sound-bite” business model of commercial media.

According to Public Source’s Sanina, journalistic collaboration flies in the face of the stereotype of news outlets fighting for “the scoop.” Behind the breaking news, there is a unique niche for nonprofit journalists. NPQ has written about collaborative nonprofit journalism in connection with the Panama Papers case.

This unusual journalistic advance is an excellent example of what nonprofits can create if they make full use of their own unique identities and capacities, and embrace their role of acting in the public’s benefit first rather than trying to act exactly like businesses, with all of the constraints that come with that.

Sanina echoes that insight: “Journalism is going through a lot of changes. Nonprofit journalists should keep experimenting with collaboration…and not just other nonprofits. Nonprofit media space offers a lot of ways to experiment with new partnerships.” There are also practical benefits. “Funders love collaboration,” said Sanina. She also noted that WESA broadcast reporters interviewed reporters from the other partners, hopefully expanding the reader base for the online sites.

Still, what works in Pittsburgh may not replicate easily elsewhere. According to Sanina, Pittsburgh has journalism in its civic DNA. Until the Tribune-Review went online-only late last year, Pittsburgh was one of the few mid-sized metropolitan areas in the U.S. to have two print dailies. Pittsburgh is also home to many private foundations willing to fund nonprofit journalism.

Using multiple channels strengthens the collaboration’s message. From the dedicated website where stories are archived, to the mix of broadcast, online, print, and social media, the story is reaching out to an increasingly fragmented audience of news seekers. Each nonprofit partner speaks to a different set of networks too. WESA feeds “citizen-oriented” stories to NPR listeners locally. Keystone Crossroads reaches broadcasters around the state. Public Source reaches civic leaders who are readers more than listeners, and Allegheny Front has a national audience of environmental activists, in part through its association with the nationally syndicated Living on Earth program. Perhaps NPR or Living on Earth will help break the Pittsburgh lead story nationally.

Where from here? Sanina suggests that the “Hidden Poison” story is going in two directions. Some of the journalistic partners are planning to expand their coverage of lead as an environmental pollutant that is endemic in the water, soil, and homes of older Rust Belt cities. By contract, Public Source plans to drill down on the options for the PWSA. Since January, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has been raising the issue of reorganizing PWSA to address unmet capital investment needs. This past week, three PWSA trustees unexpectedly resigned in a manner that suggests PWSA will be an issue in the May mayoral primary election. Lots of news for nonprofit journalists to examine in depth.—Spencer Wells