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One unseasonably warm weekend this past February, I found myself chatting about transportation spending deep in the bowels of a dark, loud motorcycle club headquarters in a warehouse on Birmingham, Alabama’s gritty west side.

We were eagerly waiting for the latest Vikings recruits to be doused in water and beer as an initiation into the crew, but in the meantime I was gathering story ideas I might not otherwise encounter.

Potholes and insufficient signage are common nuisances in any community — the types of things one might write about to their city council. But for a biker, they are a matter of life and death, as I learned that raucous night.

Though it was far from a typical night in my reporting career, that experience exposed me to a vital slice of Alabama life that helped me to form a broader vision and understanding of the communities on which I report for AL.com.

It’s these unexpected experiences, these fleeting conversations with people we wouldn’t normally have occasion to meet, that sometimes lead to the journalism that best captures the unique experiences of members of our communities.

As a 2016-2017 RJI Fellow, my goal this year is to generate more stories and discover new ways to tell stories from the broad diversity of Alabama’s communities. From immigrants and suburban stay-at-home parents to transgender folks and the disabled, every segment of life in this state harbors a wealth of knowledge and lived experience, and I hope to find a way to bring a wider range of stories to AL.com readers.

My plan is to build a dedicated story pipeline between the AL.com newsroom and select community stakeholders – members of Alabama’s many separate but interconnected populations – who will take on a participatory role in the selection and creation of the journalism we offer our readers and viewers.

I believe I can accomplish this goal in several phases. First, I will identify dedicated and involved members of communities across Alabama to serve as news “deputies.”

I will then train these deputies to recognize the germ of a story, gather the necessary information for a reporter to follow up on the lead, and ultimately communicate that information to the AL.com team.

Meanwhile, with the help of tech partners, I will create a web portal and-or app via which the deputies can transmit and receive information to and from AL.com.

Once a lead makes its way to our newsroom, editors will determine whether or not to assign a reporter to investigate further, and if it has merit, to create a piece of journalism based on it.

After the infrastructure is in place and the deputies are up to speed on their roles in this process, I will conduct a trial period, during which any kinks will be worked out. The results of the initiative will be tracked and analyzed.

The report I produce at the end of the fellowship period will encapsulate the lessons I learn over the year and detail the successes and stumbling blocks along the way. In the end, my hope is that my fellowship project will help blaze a path toward more robust coverage of communities across Alabama. And if it proves successful, my hope is that it will provide a roadmap to such development for newsrooms across the country.

Connor Sheets  
   
Nonresidential fellow



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