The Stolen Ones

A Herald-Tribune Special Report


Sean Ireland

Just as newspapers have evolved in their usage of digital technology to deliver products to readers, so too have newsrooms evolved in the ways they tell the stories that go in those products.

After years of being advised to write in quick hits – USA Today-style nuggets and short stories in snappy formats for readers thought to be too pressed for time to invest in anything requiring more than a few fleeting moments, journalists are getting more freedom to try new formats. In a world where tweeting and blogging are important parts of the content mix, there is proof that the investigative and in-depth work that go into longer-form stories that newspapers have long mastered are equally as important.

Long-form stories are back, both in print, where newspapers and magazines are increasingly using them to recapture readers wanting more than just a snippet on an aggregator's website or a sound bite, and online, where they are enhanced with special photos and graphics packages.

The Herald-Tribune of Sarasota, Fla., recently produced one such special report detailing the sex-trafficking industry in the Gulf Coast beach town of 50,000 people. The report, called The Stolen Ones, detailed the criminal justice system's struggles to provide justice to sexually exploited children. It also described how those children struggle to break free of the trades in which they are forced to work.

In print, The Stolen Ones was a 44-page special tabloid-sized section. Online, at, it is a dramatic compilation of reporter J. David McSwane's stories combined with black-and-white photos and video by Herald Tribune photojournalist Dan Wagner.

It was published in October and had an immediate and far-reaching impact. Today, the Poynter Institute is using The Stolen Ones as a training tool and has tabbed McSwane to lead one of its News University sessions on the issue of sex trafficking.

The News-Herald of Sarasota, Fla., and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County formed a partnership to produce The Stolen Ones. According to News Herald Executive Editor Bill Church, here's why it worked:

1. It created a call to action and provided a list of resources for people needing help and wanting to help others.

2. It gave the project instant credibility among community leaders.

3. The Community Foundation of Sarasota County covered publication costs, including mailings of The Stolen Ones section nationally to advocacy groups, law-enforcement agencies and elected officials.

4. The foundation established an endowment fund, which allowed interested readers to contribute money to anti-trafficking efforts. The fund finances recovery efforts for the region's victims of sex trafficking.

The Herald Tribune has partnered with the University of Florida's journalism program, leveraging the report into a public forum on the issue. Faculty members and student journalists turned the program into a multimedia presentation on the campus TV station and their regional public broadcasting radio outlet. And in January, McSwane was honored with an award for excellence in criminal justice reporting from John Jay College in New York.

The report is evidence of the potential that newspapers have when they combine the best of their traditional strengths with multimedia formats in creative business partnerships. "Newspapers don't devote 44 open pages to one topic. But we did. And our publisher and advertising director were ecstatic," Executive Editor Bill Church said. "We drew from the business model of nonprofits and public broadcasting. Instead of selling advertising space, we sought a branded sponsorship with a community organization that shared values in improving the lives of local families.

"Marketing Manager Carrie Rasmussen and I then made the pitch to executives of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, a prominent supporter of family issues with a national network of supporters. The Community Foundation played no role in the content development, editing or production. But they were invaluable as a resource and partner."

The newspaper shined light on an issue that receives little attention relative to its scope. "The trafficking of American children for sex is an underground economy that doesn't discriminate geographically. It thrives in major cities. It exists in beach towns like Sarasota, Fla. Somewhere between 100,000 to 300,000 children are trafficked each year, but even the agencies that publish these numbers say the problem is too endemic and hidden to calculate," Church said.

McSwane began reporting on the topic in 2012 and began the push for producing the special report. It was boosted by City Editor Scott Carroll, who helped put together the editorial team behind it.

Approved in April, the project was produced differently from virtually anything else the Herald-Tribune has done. Because of its size and scale, it needed a different approach, Church said. "What evolved was a project management approach similar to the agile methodology process used by software developers. [It] creates a framework of deadlines and roles for complicated projects, and then prompts collaboration – and results – by tackling problems in smaller, informal groups."

Most newsrooms operate in a vertical hierarchy, i.e. top-down, Church noted. "The Stolen Ones, despite its high stakes, went the other direction," he said.

The different approach – different from the standpoint of a newsroom – led to the project's striking high-contrast visual approach, which was championed by Wagner, the photographer.

"One of the benefits of the bottom-up approach is that it empowered everyone to participate in a way that helped shaped the project," said Carroll, the city editor. "Dan had always wanted to do something in black and white and realized this would be perfect for that and that decision helped shape our approach to the story."

Though produced with a new management style and published online in way the newspaper had never before used, The Stolen Ones is a direct link back to what the Herald-Tribune, and newspapers in general, do better than other form of media. It's an example of what sets newspapers apart and of what will keep them vital in the future.

"The Herald-Tribune has had a track record and culture of commitment to top-level watchdog journalism. It's essential to set priorities and recognize that quality journalism is an ongoing investment," Church said. "Our readers are educated and engaged. They expect quality and hold us to that high standard."

Sarasota, The Stolen Ones, Church, McSwane, Rasmussen
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