Special projects let paper dig deeper


Every year, most metropolitan newspapers will produce several multipart series.

It is certain that the first part of a series will receive a large, splashy treatment on the front page, that the package will contain at least two full inside pages and that readers will be asked to make a major investment in time.

Critics see many of these big projects as exercises in journalistic vanity, saying they are disconnected from community concerns or interests and designed more to be read by journalism contest judges than readers.

Others believe that special projects help carry out the newspaper's public service mission by challenging readers with important material that may be removed from their normal lives.

When a series connects with readers, it is a legitimate source of pride for the newspaper.

Last December, The Sun ran a four-part series by reporter Diana K. Sugg and photographer Monica Lopassy about the care of dying children as seen through the struggles of a 12-year-boy. Although some readers initially resisted the stories because of the traumatic subject matter, the series eventually received almost universal acclaim for its precise reporting, moving photos and emotional power.

This past week, The Sun published another four-part series, titled "On Their Own." Written by reporter Liz Bowie and photographed by AndrM-i F. Chung, the project focused on Iven Bailey and Gary Sells, two seniors at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School who are among the more than 2,000 homeless Baltimore City students without parents or guardians caring for them, surviving by themselves amid privation and high-risk daily circumstances.

The subject matter was demanding, but this story of two young men's efforts to graduate and improve their lives resonated with a great many readers.

"I don't usually make it through massive series that go on for pages," said Ben Evans, "but I've read every word of yours. Great job."

Natalie T. Collins said: "I am an African-American female attorney who lives in Baltimore City and works mostly in the Juvenile and Family law courts. As such, I get to see young people like the two young men in this article on a daily basis. Reading this each morning brings tears to my eyes, but also hope that when other people read them that perhaps they will be moved to sponsor more meaningful change in our city."

From Brandy Stewart: "You see these guys everyday and you never know what the next person is going through. I'm happy that someone took the time and care and research on my friend Big Geezy (Gary) and his friend Iven. There really is light at the end of the tunnel."

In my view, great investigative reporting is what made this series so successful. Not investigative in the sense of laborious document searches, hours of phone calls and numerous interviews. Investigative because the intense on-site reporting over time brought the reality of Iven and Gary's lives into such clear focus.

Reader Yvonne Townsend said: "You have truly given your readers an up close and true picture of what these two boys had experienced. It breaks my heart to know that so many children are living like this."

Bowie, who has covered Baltimore city schools for years, said: "In a sense, I have been looking for this story for years. I had heard so many principals, teachers and social workers talk about what their students endure."

Still, finding the right students, gaining their trust and then setting the proper guidelines was not easy. Bowie and Chung made it clear that they were documenting Iven and Gary's lives, which meant they would not intervene by giving them rides, food, clothing or advice.

"We would stand aside and watch the story unfold," Bowie said.

That is an understatement. Chung's photo of Iven curled on a couch with his 5-year-old cousin to the description of Gary's despair over losing his own room, are only two of the many details that made this series so gripping.

A series of this magnitude represented a major commitment of time and energy from Bowie, Chung, and the editors who worked on it. It required patience and diligence.

"As the months passed, I began to wonder whether it was all worth it," said Bowie. "I thought of how many stories I might have written in the time it was taking me to keep going back to Gary and Iven's school and neighborhoods. But after I began to write, I realized that all the strongest images and scenes were in the last half of the year, after the point when Gary and Iven began to ignore the fact that we were always with them."

Given the continuing responses since the series ended, there is no doubt that "On Their Own" was worth it.

"Your series is incredible. I have been so touched - so moved by your insight and your words," said Melody McEntee, who works for U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

From Justin Price: "I am a 19-year-old male in school and was very shocked to hear there were so many homeless teens in Baltimore. Reading this story on Iven and Gary not only made me feel for them but also made me look at life different."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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