All five McClatchy Company newspapers in California have collaborated on an innovative project that illustrates how multiple newsrooms can work together on a story of importance to the entire state.

Led by the Sacramento Bee’s ace, data-driven reporter Phillip Reese, the article found that the state’s 80 largest cities and counties face a looming “unfunded liability” of $28 billion in their pension plans. It appeared Sunday in the Bees in Sacramento, Modesto, and Bakersfield, as well as in the Merced Sun Star and San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Typically, regional newspapers focus on how a problem affects them in their local communities.

However, the five-newsroom collaboration, coordinated by Amy Pyle, the Sac Bee’s projects and investigations editor, resulted in a compelling statewide story, along with local reporting detailing the problem in the circulation area of each paper. As Melanie Sill, the Sacramento Bee’s executive editor, wrote in a column that accompanied the story, “Our aim was to provide the bigger picture beyond a string of local audiences.”

The article in the Sacramento Bee ran under Reese’s byline and began with the news that the city of Roseville, outside of Sacramento, will spend as much on its pension plan this year as it does on its parks and recreation department.

“The initial logic of increasing retirement benefits to retain quality employees has been turned on its head: paying for these benefits is forcing local governments to lay off employees – and cut programs,” Reese wrote.

The Fresno Bee story appeared under a joint byline – that of Reese and Fresno Bee reporter Brad Branan – highlighting a similarly grim situation in Fresno County.

In the Modesto Bee, reporter Ken Carlson wrote a separate article on the pension problem in Stanislaus County to accompany Reese’s piece, while the San Luis Obispo Tribune ran the Reese article, but with Tribune reporter Bob Cuddy as the lead author.

And yesterday, Danielle Gaines at the Merced Sun-Star wrote her own story focusing on Merced County, using material from Reese’s Sunday story.

Graphically, the story was accompanied by several multimedia features, including a reader-friendly “pension meter” showing the pension liabilities in dozens of California cities and counties.

In general, the project demonstrated what can be done when shrinking newsrooms pool their resources to achieve a common purpose. What’s clear is that they can do much more than if they were to tackle an issue, especially a complicated one, on their own.

And the lessons learned should be relevant to newsrooms that are not part of the same newspaper chain or broadcast company.

The McClatchy project resonates with the approach we are taking at California Watch – to report on an issue with statewide significance, and to work with local news organizations that can report in greater depth on angles most relevant to their local communities.

If you missed the story, you can engage in a dialog with the lead reporter himself – in a “Cover It Live” Web chat  today (April 13) at 12 noon.

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and is now the largest investigative reporting team operating in the state. Visit the Web site at www.californiawatch.org for in-depth coverage of K-12 schools, higher education, money and politics, health and welfare, public safety and the environment.

Louis Freedberg

Louis Freedberg was formerly executive director of the California Media Collaborative, whose goal was to devise new strategies for coverage of key California issues. The Collaborative joined forces with CIR in May 2009. Until August 2007, Freedberg worked at the San Francisco Chronicle in a variety of roles: columnist and member of its editorial board; Washington correspondent during the presidency of Bill Clinton; and higher education reporter. He was a senior editor at Pacific News Service, now New America Media, where he established and directed Pacific Youth Press. He was the founder and director of Youth News in Oakland, which trained high school students as radio news reporters. He has written and reported for a wide range of publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Public Radio. He has reported from diverse regions of the world, including Southern Africa, the former Soviet Union and Central America.. He was the recipient of a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford and an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship. He has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley and a B.A. in psychology from Yale University.