A now abandoned high school football field was built on a former plastics factory. The site sat contaminated for 28 years before the company, Celanese, agreed to clean up the toxics in Oct. 2015. Credit: Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC

When news organizations team up to collectively investigate an issue in the public interest, big things can happen. For proof, look no further than New Jersey, where The Center for Investigative Reporting is facilitating a collaboration to explore the impacts of contaminated sites across the Garden State.

Over the past six months, reporters and editors from newsrooms around New Jersey have been digging into the state’s toxic legacy. Dubbed Dirty Little Secrets, the collaborative series has included participation from a diverse group of media partners, including New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO, New Brunswick Today and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University helped CIR coordinate the project, made possible by a grant to CIR from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.


Earlier this month, the collaboration launched with an expansive series of stories through broadcast radio segments on WHYY and WNYC, text stories across partners’ websites, a three-part television series on NJTV, and interactive data maps.

WNYC reporter Sarah Gonzalez, with the help of the Data News Team, analyzed records on contaminated sites across the state, drawing special attention to those that remain without a cleanup plan in place. You can see the location and status of these toxic sites and contribute information about them through WNYC’s interactive map.

NJ Spotlight reporter Scott Gurian revealed how industrial sites along New Jersey’s coast remain vulnerable to disaster, three years after Hurricane Sandy caused massive spills of sewage and diesel fuel along the northern shore. He also chronicled how one community’s battle with contamination highlights the difficulties and shortcomings of regulatory authorities’ ability to track potential health impacts of contamination.

In a three-part television series, NJTV correspondent Brenda Flanagan investigated how leakage from underground oil and gas tanks is causing a nightmare for some homeowners and putting the environment at risk. 

And WHYY reporter Joe Hernandez examined the impacts of New Jersey’s contentious decision to largely privatize the cleanup of toxic sites across the state.

All these stories and more can be found at the Dirty Little Secrets collection on Medium. And that’s just the beginning of this grand collaboration.

With more original stories in the works, we’re embarking on creative new engagement efforts to get local communities involved in the story. Earlier this month, Gurian, Hernandez and I hosted a discussion about local contamination with participants at Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey event in Atlantic City, answering questions about the reporting and explaining our interactive maps.  

Some of the Dirty Little Secrets partners are also launching Hearken, a tech platform and framework that enables audience-powered reporting, to collect questions from residents about contamination in their area. You can send in your question here for reporters to consider as they continue digging.

In 2016, CIR will help facilitate broader collaborations throughout the state to incorporate the public, create new ways for New Jersey residents to explore the effects of contamination and identify ways to address them. We’ll team up with theater organizations, poetry groups and more in the new year to experiment with new storytelling methods, involve communities across the state, and empower New Jerseyans with the reporting.

If you’re an undergraduate student in New Jersey, you can also enter the reporting contest hosted by Rutgers and the Center for Cooperative Media. The deadline is April 1, 2016, and we’ll host a community forum to announce the winners and discuss the issues they raise with their journalism in April around Earth Day.

This is just a sampling of what’s in store next year, and we’re proud to be working with such a diverse group in New Jersey to shed light on a critical issue. Through this networked approach for investigative reporting, we hope to forge new models for collaboration not just among news organizations, but the communities they serve.

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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.