The power of the podcast
The Roanoke Times created an unusual piece of narrative journalism about a little boy who drowned in a septic tank
When 5-year-old Noah Thomas disappeared in rural Pulaski County, Va., in 2015, a massive search ensued, accompanied by intensive news coverage. Four days later the body of the child was found in a septic tank with an unsecured lid, 10 feet away from the basketball hoop outside his home.
The boy's mother, Ashley White, said she was taking a nap and Noah was gone when she woke up. The home situation was less than ideal, and instead of community sympathy for her loss, White was the object of a backlash of condemnation fueled by gossip, rumor and social media.
"She didn't grow up with a silver spoon in her mouth," said Lee Wolverton, managing editor of The Roanoke Times. "She struggled like a lot of people in that area have. People are pretty quick to judge people like her."
By the time she was convicted of child abuse leading to an injury as well as two lesser charges of neglect, White had been in jail for more than a year. Released on time served, she appealed the main conviction. It was overturned by an appeals court and the Virginia Supreme Court allowed that ruling to stand.
This spring The Roanoke Times released a multi-part podcast, simply called "Septic," that told the story with a focus on the mother. Much of it is audio based in large part on courtroom recordings that were released to the newspaper. It also includes recorded interviews, photos, documents and some video. The link is https://www.roanoke.com/news/topics/septic_podcast/.
The reaction went well beyond the newspaper's expectations, being picked up by Apple and ranking in the top 10 stories in the news and politics category. Wolverton said at one point Septic was being downloaded at the rate of 1,000 per hour. At the time of the recent SNPA Publisher-to-Publisher video conference on leveraging news stories, it had been downloaded more than 228,000 times.
"It certainly generated huge activity on our site and obviously that drives impressions. Impressions drive revenue, and I think this is something we'll be doing again and looking to sell into," Wolverton said.
Septic was the brainchild of two New River Valley reporters, Jacob Demmitt and Robby Korth, said Todd Jackson, metro editor for the New River Valley. It began with them wondering if they could obtain the trial audio from the court system. They worried about the wildly inaccurate information that had been spread in the community and about the impact on the mother who ultimately was cleared of the most serious charge in her son's death.
"They said, 'No one's really heard her,'" Jackson recalled. "No one's heard her voice. No one's heard what she had to say, really."
Until early 2017, the Times had done some short sports podcasts but had never attempted anything of the complexity of Septic. Jackson said his team decided the podcast format was the best way to make White's voice and her story widely available. It took several weeks to get the courtroom recordings and more than a year before the project was released on the paper's website.
Challenges included basic technical issues such as how to convert the courtroom audio into a format they could use and how to make sound levels and voice quality consistent across multiple interviews and court recordings. The two reporters even hung blankets to create a makeshift sound studio in an apartment bedroom.
The reporting challenge was one facing most newspapers: giving Demmitt and Korth enough time to do the project while covering other daily stories. Both Wolverton and Jackson said staff on such a project must be given the time to do the job right.
"Then it became, on a weekly basis, a question of what they had to do with the podcast vs. all the other needs in this office," Jackson said.
When they thought they were finished, they learned that they weren't. Eventually, the project involved the whole staff.
"They sent it out to the entire staff as a sort of a focus group to listen to it and critique it, and made a lot changes based on that. It was really a staff effort," Jackson said.
"We realized we were not close to being done. We went back to the drawing board. We really stood down for a month, just to get away from it and rethink some things."
Involving everyone in the critique resulted in a better final project that generated energy and excitement as its release drew near. "The biggest challenge was how to get to the end of it, because this was new for all of us," Jackson said.
The advertising department was informed that the project was in the works, but because of the time involved and continuing developments in the story, the ad staff couldn't plan as much as they will with future projects, Wolverton said.
"I would advise lots of conversations between editors and their staffs and then editors and advertising directors, just to look for opportunities," he said.
The next podcast project, whatever it is, should be easier and faster now that the trial and error period is over. The Roanoke Times has a tradition of in-house seminars. Although "Septic" was just released in May, Demmitt, Korth and Jackson have already conducted a seminar on how they put the project together and how others in both the New River Valley office and the Roanoke office can do the same.
"Talk about it a lot," Wolverton advises. "Talk about it among a wide group of people. I think that was one of the things that made this really successful."
For more information, contact Lee Wolverton at Lee.Wolverton@roanoke.com.
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Jane Nicholes is a veteran journalist based in coastal Alabama and is a regular contributor to SNPA. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.