How We Broke Our First Big Story at WeHeart West Virginia

If you’re not from West Virginia, you probably haven’t heard that our state is going through a massive budget crisis. The Republican-controlled legislature and the Democratic governor can’t agree on how to fix a massive $270 million shortfall in the state’s budget.

Republicans want across the board cuts and no tax increases, while Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a term-limited Democrat not up for re-election, favors a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases. The state’s only major newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, has done a great job at covering the daily back-and-forth.

But we didn’t think the reality of this debate, and what it might actually mean, was reaching everyday West Virginians. So we set out to write a story: “How West Virginia’s Budget Crisis Is About to Impact You”.

While working on this story, our Impact Journalism Editor, Jenni Vincent asked the Governor’s Communications Director, Chris Stadelman, about West Virginia’s Promise Scholarship. The scholarship, which is about 15 years old, pays for in-state students to go to college. It gives many—including a lot of my old friends from high school—a chance at higher education they couldn’t otherwise afford.

Sure enough, just like anything else the state pays for, the Promise Scholarship could be cut too. “This is nothing we want to do, and we don’t think this will happen, but if you are looking at all cut options that would be one of the things that could happen,” Stadelman told Jenni. He said eliminating the Promise would save the state nearly $50 million.

It was the first time we’d seen or heard that this very popular (and very important to many) scholarship might be cut. I asked Jenni to do some more digging.

Jenni is our first big hire at WeHeartWV. Jenni, an award-winning journalist, has worked for over 30 years in West Virginia as an investigative reporter writing for the Fairmont Times-West Virginian, the Morgantown Dominion Post, and most recently the Martinsburg Journal. I also find it weird to call her Jenni because after 6 p.m. or so she’s just my mother.

She called a local high school and found out the state’s higher education commission had just sent a letter to high school guidance counselors. Don’t promise Promise scholarships, the situation in Charleston right now is too uncertain. We took it and ran with it:

We broke the story. It was our first big scoop. This budget crisis, which you probably haven’t followed, is about to hit home real hard.

The story went viral: Since we first published it on May 9, the story has over 50k clicks and 8k Facebook interactions. That may not sound like a lot to a big news organization, but for a little up-start like WeHeart, this was huge.

I left ABC News after six years building their first social media team to work for Bernie Sanders last fall. But after a couple of months on the campaign trail I had conversation over coffee with one of my mentors and friends on the campaign.

We had a long conversation about politics and the media; I was the campaign’s communications and digital director in South Carolina. I probably had more conversations with reporters about the state’s lack of investigative journalism and the shitty state of newspapers than I did about office openings and endorsements.

As I passionately told my friend about an idea to start a buzzy, new model for regional news and impact journalism, it became clear where my heart was. It wasn’t in spin. It was in creating a new, sustainable model to fund impact and accountability journalism for the parts of America not served by big news organizations. I packed my bags and headed home to West Virginia.

Since we soft-launched at the beginning of this year, WeHeart West Virginia became third most visited statewide news site in the state in February and March according to Alexa. We’ve signed up our first advertisers. And we’ve even started experimenting with our model in other communities and regions like Buffalo and Maine.

And while we do a lot of fun, viral content (see recents hits like WVU Med Students Are Blowing Up The Internet With This Viral Video and What These West Virginian Celebrities Looked Like in High School) we’re also doing some really important impact journalism.

Some other impact stories we’ve covered include:

After we ran our story on the Promise, however, other news media across the state quickly followed suit. Everybody from the Charleston Gazette-Mail and West Virginia Public Broadcasting to the tiny Tyler Star News covered the story.

The barrage of media coverage has forced state lawmakers to come out and defend the Promise Scholarship. Not that we necessarily think the Promise should be defended, but the people have a right to know if it’s about to be cut. You can’t read a story now about the budget crisis without a lawmaker—Democrat or Republican—saying explicitly: We will not cut the Promise Scholarship.

An article from Fortune in February declared that BuzzFeed’s days of counting pageviews and unique visitors are over. I agree. We didn’t get a single mention from the other outlets that we had broke the story, we didn’t get a link back, so we didn’t get all the traffic on this story.

But I don’t care. We did what journalists are supposed to do. We informed the public. We made a difference. And that’s what out little up-start, in the end, is all about. Because WeHeart West Virginia.

Journalist and Producer 🏳️‍🌈✝️

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