The Swarm Comes To Joplin: What We Learned.

A week ago, the entire team went to Joplin to document interesting stories about what’s happening now in that city, 59 weeks after the tornado. Here’s how we went about our reporting efforts — and what we learned in the process.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published July 13, 2012

Wooden butterflies just like this can be seen all across Joplin.

Back in May, we attempted our first reporting “swarm,” in which we sent the entire team out in the field to document Memorial Day in Springfield. It went so well that we vowed to attempt it again, this time in Joplin, Mo.

Here’s how it went:

About two weeks before we went to Joplin, Jordan put together a list of potential story topics. With the help of a reporter friend based near Joplin, we were able to identify several promising stories.

We decided that we would need at least full two days in Joplin to cover the city. We would go on a Thursday and a Friday. (Some of us ended up coming back Monday, as well.)

Thursday morning, we began to put together a document of potential sources for stories. Several sources had already been contacted. Many more were called en route to Joplin.

We went to Joplin with a list of about seven stories that we wanted to report. Four of those turned into stories for the site. Three more didn’t work out, for a variety of reasons we’ll detail below. We ended up reporting one more story that we didn’t have on our initial list.

All in all, the team spent a combined 11 days in Joplin doing reporting, which we turned into five stories. The team interviewed a few dozen sources both in and around Joplin. My goal was to be able to go beyond “parachute journalism” — in which a reporter shows up in a place, writes the story and then parachutes into a new city to do it all again — and I do think we achieved that. I think our stories from Joplin reflect a solid understanding of the city, and I’m awfully proud of the results.

We’ve also come up with a few big takeaways for reporters who want to attempt a “swarm” of their own:

  • Start as soon as possible — Make calls, set up interviews and get as much prep work done as is possible in advance. With our schedules — and with the 4th of July falling the day before we went to Joplin — we didn’t get as much done in advance as we could’ve.
  • Flexibility matters —’ Zach Crizer went to the Joplin Museum Complex searching for one story. He came out with a very different one. The key was that he was willing to listen to his sources and change stories on the fly. The result was an incredible story — and scoop — for
  • Be persistent — For our FEMA trailer story, reporters Sarah Elms and Roman Stubbs visited the site of the park about a half-dozen times, and those reporters made many more phone calls to both FEMA and residents of the park to lock down interviews. We knew we had a story there, but it took many hours of on-the-ground reporting to actually get in with the families. Persistence paid off for the team with that story.

I wish we could’ve spent more time in Joplin. Give us a month there and we’d turn out three months worth of stories. The city is that full of stories that need to be told.

But in our small way, we got to tell part of Joplin’s story. I’m glad we did.