The Staten Island Advance has been through some big changes. Now, it’s pushing for them in the community.

Last January, the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council brought more than three dozen people to several places, including the New York newspaper, calling for attention to a growing issue in the community: Who will take care of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities when their parents no longer can?

The Advance listened.

In January, it launched “Dignity in Danger.” The series features the personal stories of families, how local representatives are responding, resources for readers and an editorial calling for action.

It combines advocacy, storytelling and a dig into the archives of a 131-year-old newspaper that’s finally started thinking digitally.

Advance

In 2009, Advance Publications started making big changes. The company, based in Staten Island, closed the Ann Arbor News. It reduced print publication to three days a week in New Orleans (it later resumed some daily editions). Across the company, there were years of layoffs.

The Staten Island Advance still puts out a newspaper every day. But it hasn’t ducked cuts or changes, either. In 2015, the paper joined other news organizations that outsourced editing and print production. The Advance wouldn’t provide a newsroom headcount, but Thomas Checchi, news manager for public interest and advocacy, figures it’s about half the size it once was.

When the pivot to digital came to Staten Island a few years ago, Checchi was assistant managing editor. He focused on big-impact journalism for the Thursday and Sunday papers. Now, he leads a three-person public interest and advocacy team online.

“It was important after the digital transition to maintain focus on critical issues in our community, so we created what is now Public Interest and Advocacy,” Checchi said.

It’s a huge shift from how things worked when Checchi started as an intern in 1978. In fact, it’s a huge shift from five years ago.

“When I look back at when we had all these reporters, and I had a city hall reporter who was writing, literally, like four stories a day, we just put it in the paper and figured everyone was reading it,” he said. “Nobody was reading that shit. They were buying the paper to read the obituaries and maybe a front-page story.”

Gail Lubin, Advance Digital’s senior content strategist, was brought in to lead the transition into digital in Staten Island in 2013. She found a newsroom ill-equipped to serve its audience.

Literally.

“When I started, no one in the newsroom except for a few photographers had a laptop,” said Lubin, who’s now content director. Few people had company smartphones. “We started from the ground-up to build something where we could report from anywhere and become digitally focused.”

There was little communication of metrics, so people didn’t know which stories were popular. Deadlines were print-oriented. No one was really thinking about getting the daily news out during the day.

One key element, Lubin said, was reorganizing newsroom leadership into two groups: print and web specialists. They changed deadlines. They reorganized teams.

One result of thinking about how to serve readers on all platforms: huge digital growth. The first year after launching the changes, pageviews were up 46 percent, Lubin said.

Last year, they were up another 21 percent.

Communication is still a big challenge for the newsroom. It used to be one team thinking about one platform – print. Now, it’s several teams, and they have to talk to each other.

With their latest series, they did, Lubin said. “Dignity in Danger,” exemplifies this evolving approach to local journalism.

‘I do really want to help them and to tell their stories.’

On a chilly, gray afternoon last January, reporter Kristin Dalton headed out to the parking lot to meet people from the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council. They climbed off the bus into the cold with signs that read “I don’t sleep at night, help my disabled child,” and “My child needs a home.”

More than 30 people rushed past Dalton and into the newsroom.

Most stayed in the entryway. Those who made it inside demanded to talk with Executive Editor Brian Laline. As he spoke with them about meeting with the editorial board, Dalton started reporting, getting names and numbers of people to follow up. She wrote a short piece about their visit, then started calling the people she met that day.

She realized there was a lot more to cover.

Dalton began attending parent and advocate meetings. She went to schools and nonprofits. And she kept going back.

“Gaining their trust was difficult, but I kept showing up, and I kept calling,” Dalton said. “They figured out after a while that I was genuine, and I do really want to help them and to tell their stories.”

Videographer Amanda Steen and photographer Bill Lyons did the same.

They report that in New York State, 11,000 people are on the housing wait list for the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities. Two thousand people are in need of emergency housing. The state would need to build 1,400 homes to fill those needs.

The project also includes a disturbing reminder of why getting this right matters.

Dalton, whose first job at the Advance was creating digital vintage galleries from the archives, knew they had access to images and coverage of the story of Staten Island’s own Willowbrook State School. That school, finally closed in 1987, serves as a specter in both Staten Island and the disability rights community thanks to decades of neglect, abuse and inhuman treatment.

Going into the past felt like a necessary part of the story, she said.

“In the minds of all these people, there is that fear of going backwards and that Willowbrook happen again,” Dalton said. “I felt it was really important to show how far we have come since Willowbrook closed.”

It is the most viewed-part of the project.

Read the full story here.

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