Sacramento Bee Editor: Fresh look sees flaws in kids’ dental plans

This story was originally published on February 19 in the Sacramento Bee.

Last Sunday’s lead story in The Bee carried a byline familiar to longtime readers, that of Jocelyn Wiener. That familiar name, though, came to you through a new form of collaborative journalism.

Jocelyn left almost four years ago to travel and live in other parts of the world. When she came home to California she began freelancing. She wrote Sunday’s investigation into Sacramento County’s managed care system that delivers dental care to poor children, reporting that it “has consistently produced one of California’s worst records for care.”

The story had immediate impact. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg on Monday called for a state review of the program. He asked the administration to step up its monitoring of dental plans under contract with the program and to withhold payments or cancel contracts as needed. Given Jocelyn’s findings, such action is necessary.

Jocelyn did her reporting through the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting, which operates out of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. We’ve carried a few stories written in collaboration with the center, including stories published last May detailing the peril faced by hospital patients due to infections.

The center is one of journalism’s new models of reporting. While funded by the foundation, it is run independently by veteran journalists. Michael Parks, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner, founded and directs the center. David Westphal, former bureau chief for the McClatchy Washington Bureau (and thus known to all of us at The Bee, a McClatchy newspaper), is the center’s editor-in-chief.

The dental investigation was handled by Richard Kipling, managing editor for the center and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union. Kipling worked with Deb Anderluh, The Bee’s senior editor in charge of Page A1, who edited the story before we published it. We also provided the photography, by The Bee’s Lezlie Sterling.

Kipling told me last week that the center has partnered with newspapers on “well over” 30 projects since it started introducing its work to editors in late 2008.

Initially, “editors were quite reluctant to work with us. … They wanted to know what our agenda was. They weren’t used to dealing with anyone outside their newsroom,” Kipling said.

I certainly fell within that camp of skeptics. I suspect other editors had the same question I did – why is the California HealthCare Foundation funding the center and how will that affect the reporting and writing? What tipped the balance for me early on and as we’ve worked with the center is the caliber of journalists who have signed on. They’re legit.

Which brings me back to Jocelyn, who worked for The Bee from 2003 to 2008 and covered poverty. Her work for us included a 2007 three-day narrative serial called “Tackling Life,” in which she tracked down 31 of 35 members of the 1992 Raiders Junior Midgets football squad. The idea started with an old photograph – the picture included LaMarr Alexander, who had been killed by police in a confrontation after a car chase — but was broadened as Jocelyn began wondering what had happened to all the boys in the picture. All 12- and 13-year-olds at the time, many came from rough neighborhoods dealing with poverty, drugs and violence. Her findings reflected that background.

I’m glad to have Jocelyn’s work back in The Bee, and I suspect you’ll see additional work this year that involves collaborations with the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting. Stories like this one bring value to our community.

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