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News Site Water Deeply Will Tackle The California Drought Crisis

Hyperlocal reporters and a new distribution strategy will raise awareness about the area’s chronic water problems.

California’s record-breaking drought crisis is now in its fourth year. And while it may seem from past coverage that the severe temperatures and water scarcity are tied to the current drought specifically, California and the western U.S. have actually been in and out of states of drought for centuries.

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Governor Jerry Brown’s inter-agency Drought Task Force, which was convened in 2013 to investigate the current drought, has been done before. Task forces have been implemented by different California governors throughout the past four decades, all in response to crises arising from the state’s systemic water issues.

Now, Lara Setrakian is pulling together her own task force of veteran California reporters and editors deeply embedded in the history of the state’s water issues and giving them a platform to tell those stories—all of them.

Lara Setrakian

Today she’s launching a new website, Water Deeply, which will focus on the deep-seated problems contributing to the California drought as well as how they relate to the rest of the world’s water scarcity issues.

The site is the third of its kind to originate inside the news platform Setrakian founded in 2012 called News Deeply. The platform plays host to pop-up websites that act as “news dashboards” and are dedicated to covering a single, pressing issue instead of the traditional online media model, which covers a variety of topics. Water Deeply will operate on a one-year trial run. Past News Deeply sites include Syria Deeply (which remains live), and Ebola Deeply, which is set to wrap in October of this year, assuming the disease is no longer active.

“The California drought just did not have a coherent narrative—and not just for people in California, but in terms of understanding the drivers of drought, but also the implications and the policy decisions that are going to be made in California that will echo nationwide,” Setrakian tells Fast Company. “You’re talking about a state that is really a global player in many ways.”

As with her previous Deeply projects, Setrakian knew her strength was in hyperlocal reporters, academics, and policy people. So her first hire at Water Deeply was Matt Weiser, an environmental reporter and author who’s spent 30 years covering California’s water systems (including the last 10 at the Sacramento Bee). He’ll serve as the new site’s managing editor, or as Setrakian calls his position, a “super-beat reporter.”

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“I know the politics of water pretty well. I know the mechanics of water pretty well, in terms of how it moves through the state and who turns the valves and what the consequences of that are for the environment and for the supply of water. Who gets it, who goes without, and why all that happens,” says Weiser.

Weiser has already set to work creating a network of contributors and partners for Water Deeply’s hyper-focused content. At the Bee, Weiser was afforded the uncommon luxury of having a beat entirely dedicated to California’s water, shielded from the economic turmoil and attrition plaguing most print newspaper media. “They really, really ought to be commended for hanging onto that beat,” he says.

Matt Weiser

But the structure of media currently isn’t equipped to give important issues like water scarcity their full attention all the time. “A lot of the news coverage as it is for many subjects is kind of crisis driven. They’re covering the fire instead of writing about how the fire started or the mechanics of firefighting,” Weiser says. “What we hope to do is to give people that background to help them understand how we got here with the drought because it’s a long process. The drought didn’t just happen due to the weather, although that was certainly a big factor. It also occurred because of the way we manage water in California and decisions that were made historically that set us up for where we are now.”

The Deeply platform allows journalists to highlight both bits of information and longer pieces through its highly customized interface (Ushahidi built the wireframe template for Syria Deeply, and Water Deeply employs many of the same functions).


The “Switzerland of News”

To deliver its highly specialized reports on California’s drought and big-picture water scarcity stories, Water Deeply has inked distribution deals with other outlets. It will republish stories from the Bee and the Financial Times tied to the water crisis, and has signed partnerships with the Associated Press and McClatchy in a distribution deal that will help Water Deeply reach millions, according to the company.

“In the stretch since the launch of Ebola Deeply back in October, we have become sort of an integrator of different streams of information. We refer to ourselves as the Switzerland of news. We kind of work with everybody and partner with everybody. And so we’ve really leaned into that with Water Deeply,” Setrakian says.

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The terms of the deals include rights to republish articles from all five of McClatchy’s California newspapers and the creation of “content modules” for the Associated Press to be distributed to AP clients worldwide.

“Basically, AP clients would have a way of tapping into in-depth reporting from Water Deeply to enhance their own coverage of the California drought,'” Setrakian says. “If we find a really smart distribution partner, suddenly we have a destination news site that serves the hard-core readers of topics, and then distribution that helps us reach millions and millions of other people.”

The site has also named a board of advisers from the academic and policy worlds in California to get a fuller picture of California’s complicated backstory.

Lake Oroville, CaliforniaPhoto: Rich Pedroncelli, AP, courtesy of Water Deeply

Up Next: Arctic Deeply

Before Water Deeply even comes close to its one-year mark, Setrakian says the Deeply platform will already be launching another pop-up site: Arctic Deeply will roll out in October of this year.

Whereas Syria Deeply works with ABC News and Christian Science Monitor, and Ebola Deeply partners with The One Campaign and Shine On Sierra Leone for its distribution, Setrakian says Arctic Deeply will have its own partners, too.

“There will always be a unique array of partners around a topic based on what we want to in-take and integrate,” Setrakian says. “We’ve done this definitely in a tailored way by topic, but it’s becoming a formula. What we landed on with every new topic was elements of a formula. So it’s becoming faster and faster to launch new topics.”

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