Alison Graham has written stories about abused children, babies born with drugs in their system, overburdened social workers and a statewide social services system under strain.
She has shed light on departments that often lack accountability and have frequently failed some of the state’s most vulnerable people.
Now, thanks to an innovative journalistic fellowship program, she will be able to continue telling those stories in the pages of The Roanoke Times and on roanoke.com. Graham will be the first-ever Secular Society Investigative Fellow at the newspaper, thanks to a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Blacksburg-based Secular Society.
The fellowship allows Graham, 25, to spend a year doing investigative reporting on state and regional social services programs and to continue her award-winning series, “Social Services Under Strain,” which started late last year.
“It feels like such a privilege to be able to delve into this project and put all of my time into it,” Graham said. “I appreciate that the editors trust me to be able to do this on my own. I have already talked to so many people who care about this issue, and to be able to share their stories and what happened to them, whether it’s good or bad, is an opportunity that I am grateful for.”
The fellowship program is made possible by The Secular Society, a nonprofit group that strives to advance arts and professional interests of women and “funds girls and women so that they can develop their skills in the service of their community,” according to a description of the fellowship grant.
The fellowship will fund one year of Graham’s salary and benefits, with an additional $10,000 as she focuses on her project, and will cover travel and other related reporting expenses.
The rest of the grant will help pay for expenses and a bonus for other enterprising work by women journalists at the paper through the year. A reporter will be hired to fill in on Graham’s beat during her fellowship year.
After Graham’s fellowship ends, The Secular Society will fund two additional grants of $100,000 each over the following two years.
In a statement released by The Secular Society, the organization said that such grants are necessary to maintain high-quality reporting in Southwest Virginia and to possibly provide a model for how nonprofits can help sustain local journalism during a time of newsroom cuts and smaller newspaper budgets.
“The economic model, which has sustained print media in their essential civic watchdog activity, is now failing with newspapers increasingly being closed, merged or plundered by hedge funds,” the group said in its statement. “To help newspapers remain afloat and independent we propose a Fellowship Model, a nonprofit-corporate partnership, which, if proven successful, others could adopt and tailor to their own circumstances.”
At the nonprofit’s request, the fellowship was available only to female reporters at The Roanoke Times. Reporters submitted proposals that were reviewed by editor Caroline Glickman, metro editor Megan Schnabel and reporter Luanne Rife. That group interviewed applicants and will supervise Graham’s work during the fellowship period.
The Roanoke Times will have editorial control over the journalism generated using funds from the grant.
Glickman called the fellowship “the first of its kind at The Roanoke Times.”
“This is wonderful news for the newspaper and for the community,” Glickman said. “It’s the work of the newspaper that made this happen. We have such a strong tradition of journalism, and this is recognition of that. I’m very excited for Alison and for the newspaper and for the possibilities that this fellowship can bring.”
A native of Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University, Graham started with The Roanoke Times in 2018, first covering Botetourt and Rockbridge counties and the Alleghany Highlands.
While on that beat, she covered the sad saga of a 4-month-old child who died while under the watch of the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services.
That coverage led to deeper reporting into the cracks that exist in Virginia’s decentralized social services system, which, as she once wrote, “can lead to devastating consequences for Virginia’s children and families.”
The first part of the series “Social Services Under Strain” appeared last year and earned a first-place award from the Virginia Press Association in the data journalism category for Graham, photographer Heather Rousseau and online editors Brandon Ross and Stephanie Sheehan.
Graham, who now covers Roanoke County government, will spend the next year focusing on the foster care system, social services across the state and potential legislative fixes.
She said her reporting has already revealed that some of the department’s problems go back decades.
“I found reports from 1981 that show the same things that were still happening in 2018,” Graham said. “This is a chance to educate people about the system, to really introduce the community to people who have been involved with these struggles for so long.
“These are longstanding problems and they are complicated, and I am grateful that I have the time to work on this project.”