Alabama prisons issue photo

For its first major project, the Alabama Investigative Journalism Lab turned its focus to the state’s troubled prisons.Cole Goins/CIR

“Journalism with people, not just to people.”

That’s how K.A. Turner, director of opinion and commentary for Alabama Media Group, succinctly framed the organization’s journalistic commitment at The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Dissection event on media impact in Macon, Georgia, earlier this year.

At the time, CIR was in the early stages of our partnership with the media group to consult on engagement strategies for its emerging enterprise and investigative reporting. Turner’s line exemplified what we’ve worked to build together: a truly open, participatory framework for public service journalism.

Since December, CIR has advised Alabama Media Group on a variety of approaches to accomplish just that. Under the media group’s leadership of Michelle Holmes, vice president of content; Scott Walker, director of enterprise and investigation; and a dedicated cast of its reporters, engagement specialists and designers, we’ve addressed a variety of challenges facing for-profit and nonprofit newsrooms alike.

How can reporters balance long-term investigating with the content demands of a daily news operation? How can newsrooms make the investigative process more iterative and fit for digital consumption? And what are creative ways to reach new audiences and deliver the information we uncover to the communities most affected – online and off?

Those questions were at the heart of the Alabama Investigative Journalism Lab, an initiative launched by Alabama Media Group in March with the help of CIR as a means to experiment with new ideas and maximize audience engagement around significant and complex stories.

For its first major project, the lab turned its focus to Alabama’s troubled prisons, prompted by revelations of systemic abuse at the state’s Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. CIR’s Chief Strategy and Operations Officer Joaquin Alvarado, Executive Director Robert J. Rosenthal and I consulted with Alabama Media Group staff on reporting strategies and how to incorporate the public, fostering effective collaborations and telling stories in new ways.

Tackling such a big, important story was no small undertaking. Collaboration at all levels (both internally, with other media and the public) is at the core of CIR’s model, and has been crucial to the lab’s success. Reporters from across Alabama Media Group pitched in on the series, writing scores of stories throughout the past three months that approached the issue on all fronts. From the horrific conditions reported at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, to dramatic overcrowding, to a lack of consequences for wardens who break the rules, became the source for everything prisons in Alabama, adding context and depth to an issue that isn’t confined to the state’s borders.

Following CIR’s multiplatform publishing model, the lab also enlisted the help of Birmingham public radio station WBHM, which became a full-fledged partner in the lab, along with Groundsource, a new platform for mobile engagement spearheaded by Andrew Haeg, entrepreneur in residence at the Center for Collaborative Journalism. News staff at WBHM joined weekly debriefs with Alabama Media Group and CIR, adding broadcast expertise to the mix and producing a stream of original stories. The media group’s reporters and engagement staff also experimented with using Groundsource to collect stories and feedback from Alabamians.

But the real challenge was figuring out how to make such a complicated issue resonate with Alabama residents at large. The lab made sure to include the public in every step in its investigative quest, hosting live chats with stakeholders, updating readers on the status of its records requests and soliciting questions to ask officials accountable for fixing the daunting problems at hand. WBHM even spearheaded a packed event last week, co-hosted with Alabama Media Group, to discuss the future of the state’s prison system. A callout for experiences with the state’s prison system also garnered more than a hundred responses – from former inmates, family members of the incarcerated, prison ministry and more – many of whom have appeared throughout the reporting.

And now, three months of digging have culminated in a 12-page special edition carried across Alabama Media Group’s three newspapers: The Birmingham News, Press-Register in Mobile and The Huntsville Times; a digital package showcasing the scope of the team’s work; and a series of broadcast stories on WBHM.

Here at CIR we’re incredibly proud to be a part of this powerful, important work. It’s living proof that media organizations of all stripes can work together – both with each other and the public – to help expose and solve some of society’s problems.

We’re committed to building new opportunities for collaboration and engagement across the media landscape that power the next generation of investigative reporting, and we want to help provide newsrooms with the tools and knowledge to better inform, empower and incorporate their communities. 

Interested in learning more about our consulting work and how to get involved? Email Meghann Farnsworth, CIR’s director of distribution and engagement, at or call her at 510-809-2213. 

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Cole Goins is the director of community engagement for Reveal, where he cultivates partnerships that blend in-depth journalism and creative public engagement. He has built and supported distribution networks, spearheaded arts-based initiatives such as the Off/Page Project, led social media and audience strategy, and facilitated statewide media collaborations. He was a senior fellow in the 2015 USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowships, mentoring five journalists on approaches to community engagement. Previously, Goins was the engagement editor at the Center for Public Integrity, where he led audience development initiatives and multimedia features for award-winning investigative projects. He earned a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he worked as music director for WXYC, the student-run radio station. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.