Education journalists are trying all sorts of new ways of coming up with story ideas, presenting information, and getting it out in front of readers. But there’s still room for lots more.
There’s no shortage of innovation in journalism these days, whether it’s related to story selection, information-gathering, presentation, or distribution. Last summer’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Phoenix was full of ideas for new and different approaches. Some seem worth exploring.
But how much of this experimenting is going on in education news – and what’s particularly promising? A quick spin around the education journalism ecosystem (including interviews with the Teacher Project’s Sarah Carr, Chalkbeat’s Philissa Cramer, NPR’s Steve Drummond, the 74’s Steve Snyder, EdWeek’s Kathleen Manzo, and the Seattle Times’ Linda Shaw) shows quite a lot of experimentation, and without too much of the desperate lunging toward half-baked technologies that we see in other parts of the journalism world. Nobody’s laying off half the staff and pivoting to video (as far as I know), or betting the ranch on virtual reality.
One recent example of innovation in education journalism that’s worth mentioning right from the start: Last weekend, NPR’s education team won the “excellence in innovation” award given out by the Radio Television Digital News Association in New York City: “In 2016, NPR Ed took its unique storytelling approach to places the network had never gone before. We turned over the microphone to a bunch of 5th graders. We produced NPR’s first-ever piece of comic journalism. We jumped into the podcast format and our months-long investigative project explored how America pays for its schools.”
Of course, innovation is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s shiny new thing is another person’s old hat. Some of the ideas described below are iterative rather than transformative. But a few of the things that education editors and reporters are trying out represent quite dramatic changes in the way journalism traditionally has been done.
US News education reporters Lauren Camera and Lindsey Rogers Cook doing a Reddit AMA.
Everybody wants to reach some of Facebook’s 2 billion active users, but it’s not as easy as it looks to get and keep readers’ attention on social media, much less their engagement.
One noteworthy local education success is WPRI-TV’s Dan McGowan’s 5,260-member Facebook group, focused on Providence (RI) politics and education. “The school stories always generate a lot of comments,” says McGowan, who launched the group (not page) three years ago.
Basically, McGowan posts stories and events in the group, and the comments start coming in. According to McGowan, a proposed removal of Providence’s foreign language requirement was withdrawn and eventually killed in response to parent objections on his group page.
Of course, there are all sorts of Facebook plays to try out, whether it’s Facebook Live (livestreaming video), or Facebook-only pages and groups (such as this new “school myths” product from the Atlantic).
And it’s not just Facebook and Twitter anymore, either. The Texas Tribune won a Murrow award last weekend for a Snapchat story about the 1966 University of Texas sniper attack. US News put a couple of its education reporters on Reddit, the old-school social news site, for an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) session on federal education funding. The Seattle Times has also done the same for some of its education series.
Vox cartoon explainer on “soft” segregation.
In today’s highly visual, quick-scan media world, many outlets are experimenting with more visual ways of telling stories that reporters would traditionally have described using words and numbers. Some radio stations are hiring photographers and (as with NPR’s education team) illustrators to help tell their stories in ways that work for different kinds of readers and platforms. Other outlets are experimenting with video, animation, and data visualization.
The Hechinger Report is one of many outlets trying to be creative about its presentation of stories, according to Sarah Garland. This includes not only maps but also graphic comics (accompanying Sierra Mannie’s outdated textbooks story), and an interactive video game (about Chinese “parachute” kids who are sent to the U.S. to get a leg up). The nonprofit has also produced mini-documentaries on video about topics such as segregation in the Mississippi Delta. More ambitious versions of these kinds of things are in the works, Garland says.
NPR’s education team has also produced a couple of graphical stories to go along with its education stories. Cartoon explainers like Alvin Chang’s big school segregation piece for Vox are a great way to tell complicated stories in ways that everyday readers can follow.
Many of these image-based stories rely at least partly on data. Organizations like Measure of America, EdBuild, and Education SuperHighway are “basically offering reporters free research,” notes Education Writers Association head Caroline Hendrie. Journalists then turn the data into image-based stories.
Sometimes, the process involves specialized roles. EdWeek has recently hired Francisco Vara-Orta as a data reporter to help bridge the gap between data sets and reporters. “He’s helping us be much more data savvy,” says EdWeek honcho Kathleen Manzo.
Video explainers (á la Vox) are one of many approaches the 74 is trying out. Now in its third year, the 74 has also launched a data visualization/Upshot-style effort, called the Big Picture.
COLLABORATING WITH OTHERS
Raising Kings, A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep, a new collaboration among EdWeek, NPR’s ed team, and the Codeswitch podcast.
Newcomers might take it for granted, but there’s lots more collaboration among different news outlets than there used to be, the Teacher Project’s Sarah Carr and others point out.
“I feel like 10 or 15 years ago when I started, news outlets were operating in silos,” she says. “Now you just see a lot of those walls breaking down… It’s been really rewarding to see that. It allows news organizations to pull on diverse strengths.”
Editorial Projects in Education (a.k.a. EdWeek) might have the most varied kinds of collaborations right now, including ongoing work with the PBS NewsHour, a new collaboration tracking hate crimes in schools with ProPublica, and Raising Kings, A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep, a three-part series with NPR that’s been airing this week.
Click to play this snippet from EdWeek video that accompanies Raising Kings, A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep.
The national NPR Ed team has long worked with independent member stations on topics including graduation rates, school funding, and school choice. For this latest effort, which tells the story of a first-year school for young black men in Washington, D.C., it’s partnered up with both EdWeek and with Codeswitch, the NPR podcast about race and identity.
“The story is very much of interest to Codeswitch’s audience,” says editor Steve Drummond. “And it helps us reach populations we’d really like to hear our stories.” Getting feedback during the editing process from the show’s hosts (Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji) was also tremendously helpful. “We got the hosts involved,” says Drummond. “We didn’t just ask them to put our piece on their show.”
Partnerships among print, broadcast, and online outlets have obvious advantages, in areas where each kind of outlet has a different expertise or capacity. Partnerships between commercial and nonprofit outlets are another common thread. Nonprofits need more readers than they would get on their own, while commercial outlets need high-quality, low-cost content.
There are different kinds of collaborations. And the Hechinger Report has always had a number of publishing partners – it’s part of the core model. Depending on the story, the site partners with national or local/regional outlets, or sometimes both. (The recent cover story for the Nation about school segregation is a recent example, according to Garland. It was also published at AL.com, which serves Birmingham.) The nonprofit is soon launching a new “Future of Schools” initiative to partner with local outlets and reporters.
The 74 has also done a three-part collaboration with the Guardian (yes, the Guardian) about immigrant students and their families.
Newsletters – yes, souped-up versions of old-timey email blasts of the past – are having a moment. They’re super-scannable. They’re a direct link between core readers and an outlet. They don’t require any new apps or Internet savvy. People actually seem to read them.
Local Matters, the weekly newsletter focused on in-depth local news coverage, has turned into a great source of education coverage (and a good way for education outlets to get their stories out there). During the past few months, its newsletter has featured Sierra Mannie’s Hechinger Report story about outdated textbooks and Diane Rado’s Chicago Tribune story about Illinois’ efforts to increase the supply and diversity of teachers by allowing educators to bypass some exams and courses for teacher licensing. For more about Local Matters, read Poynter here.
Long focused on local news, Chalkbeat has recently come up with a national staff and a new national newsletter. “We’re local first,” says Chalkbeat’s Philissa Cramer about the network’s model. “But as we learned more and more about where are readers are and what they’re interested in, we decided to create a product for them.” The Chalkbeat national newsletters aren’t archived yet, but you can see an example here. Not content just to launch a new newsletter, Chalkbeat even found a sponsor (ETS).
‘STAY PUT’ FELLOWSHIPS
Fellowships are everything. Sierra Mannie, Yoohyun Jung, and Emmanuel Felton.
Fellowships have been around since forever, but the current trend is to award them to journalists who are in newsrooms and stay there, doing extra work as part of the fellowship. Some of these are education-specific (such as EWA’s) and others overlap with education issues (the Ida B. Wells Fellows, the Reveal Investigative Fellows, the Renaissance Journalism Equity Reporting Project, etc.).
The 2016-2017 Reveal Investigative Fellows include reporters like Sierra Mannie, of the Hechinger Report, whose recent piece Why students are ignorant about the civil rights movement you may remember. The Arizona Daily Star’s Yoohyun Jung, also an RIF, wrote about how a small Tucson charter school became one of the biggest, most renowned school networks in the U.S.: Public School Inc.: When public education turns into big business.
For reporters, there’s glory and camaraderie and the chance to go deep on a topic. For funders, there’s a relatively easy way to get a bunch of hungry working journalists to produce strong work for pennies. For editors, fellowships are a great way to get big projects out of staff reporters without having to coordinate with part-time or freelance writers.
In fact, another education news effort that won a national Murrow award this year (for a news series) comes from Indiana Public Broadcasting (English Language Learner Services Navigate Indiana’s New School Funding Formula). Reporter Claire McInerny (now at KUT News) produced the piece thanks, in part, to a $600 IJJ Fellowship.
ADDING SOLUTIONS TO THE MIX
Another approach that’s gained some steam these past few years is the solutions approach to journalism. The education teams at the Seattle Times, the Boston Globe, and roughly a dozen other outlets have given it a try. Some are still at it.
The Seattle Times has been doing solutions journalism since roughly 2013, making its Education Lab one of the first newsrooms to adopt the approach. The experience of rethinking its approach to covering education has been “very powerful,” says the Seattle Times’ Linda Shaw, a longtime education journalist. And it’s not so different from regular old watchdog reporting, she says. “We’re taking a hard look at problems we all take for granted and asking the question, ‘Does it really have to be that way?’ Maybe it doesn’t.” Often, there are other schools, districts, or states that have faced similar problems but have had more success.
CREATING A TWO-WAY CONVERSATION
Under editor Linda Shaw, the Seattle Times’ education coverage has changed its approach dramatically.
Few news outlets have devoted themselves to community engagement as aggressively as the Seattle Times, where there’s a full-time engagement editor dedicated to the education desk and a long list of activities that have been or will soon be implemented (thanks, in large part, to a grant from the Gates Foundation, which also helps support the Grade).
Engagement is just as important if not more so than the solutions approach, according to Shaw. “Readers seem to be hungry for a little bit of hope in their stories along with the problems, but also craving more of a two-way conversation.”
As part of these efforts, they’ve invited community members to tell their own experiences with the school system in person, sessions that have led to reported stories and deepened the coverage that the paper was already working on. They’ve hosted a daylong self-organized “unconference” on school discipline, with the help of the nonprofit outfit Journalism That Matters. This fall, they’re doing a monthlong Facebook conversation with parents of color and teachers, with the help of Spaceship Media, another nonprofit organization trying to help newsrooms rethink how they work.
Sometimes, the engagement efforts lead to scoops, such as when the paper broke the story about district changes to its suspensions policy that hadn’t yet been announced. It’s not that these events all lead directly to stories, says Shaw, but they lead to doing stories better, with more depth and nuance than they otherwise might have turned out. She cites recent series on discipline, truancy, and school finance as examples.
Doing things differently takes time but has “been really fun, actually,” says Shaw. She’s had to do more public speaking, and finds that rethinking and explaining what the paper is doing is a good thing.
One related tool that Shaw and others are eager to try is a platform called Hearken, whose motto is “Listen to your audiences first, not last.” The effort grew out of WBEZ Chicago’s Curious City series, in which readers asked the station questions and reporters answered them. It’s a chance for readers to tell reporters what’s interesting and important to them before the reporters start working on something.
Sometimes, reporting based on reader questions encourages journalists to see issues in new ways. The answer to the question Were Chicago’s Public Schools Ever Good? resulted in WBEZ Chicago reporters informing readers that Chicago schools are doing better now than they were in the past. (“Maybe, just maybe, we’re living in CPS’ golden era right now,” says WBEZ’s Becky Vevea.)
Another, much more straightforward way to engage with readers is introducing them to reporters and other staff members, and explaining why the staff picks certain topics to report. Among those who’ve given it a try include ProPublica, Chalkbeat, and (of course) the Seattle Times.
One new initiative at Chalkbeat’s Tennessee bureau is “office hours.” Chalkbeat journalists set up shop at a community center once a month and talk to whomever stops by. Last month’s office hours generated newsletter signups, parent and student interactions, and a handful of story ideas, according to Chalkbeat cofounder Philissa Cramer. It’s also a much lighter lift, logistically speaking, than a full-blown event.
Still, Chalkbeat also uses live events to generate reader questions and reporting assignments. The benefits are countless, Cramer says. They let readers “talk to each other as well as to us.” They generate better information than online or phone conversations. They attract new people who may become valuable sources of information. And they make Chalkbeat’s reporters less of a faceless virtual institution. “Live events personalize our team, telling readers, ‘Hey, we’re people, and we’re really devoted to getting the answers to your questions,’ ” says Cramer.
PUTTING KIDS & TEACHERS FIRST (IN YOUR STORIES)
A new Atlantic/Teacher Project podcast highlights the unfiltered voices of teachers and former students
In the same way that many schools are trying make learning more active and engaging to students, some education news outlets are engaged in an effort to rethink the roles they give to readers in their stories.
One relatively new podcast is the Atlantic/Teacher Project collaboration, What My Students Taught Me. What makes the series innovative is not that it’s a podcast – everyone’s got one these days – but that it represents a concerted effort to put teacher and student voices at the front.
“There are not many spaces where you hear relatively unfiltered teacher and student voices talking about the teacher-student relationship,” says editor Sarah Carr about the series, which features a teacher-student pair reflecting on their time together in each episode. “This is something that a lot of news organizations want to do and profess to do, but is difficult to do, to really prioritize teacher and student voices.”
Carr notes that the Teacher Project has taken a similar kids-first approach, including its coverage of credit recovery in Chicago. “I think people really connect with those types of pieces. It is something of a void,” she says. Putting kids and teachers out front is “a common thing to say, but it’s not a common thing to do.”
Innovation isn’t everything, of course. There are lots of powerful pieces that rely on good old-fashioned reporting. Think about the Houston Chronicle’s much-discussed series on special education limitations in Texas, or USA Today’s series on teacher discipline flaws that found 9,000 teachers across the nation who should have been flagged for past disciplinary offenses but were not.
But it’s clear that there’s a lot of experimentation going on – and crossed fingers that some of it leads to effective, replicable, and scalable ways of making education coverage as compelling and powerful as possible.
In fact, we probably need more innovation, not less — especially around how stories are presented and what stories are being picked to cover.
“We need to go and find audiences where they are, not expect them to come and find what we’ve done,” says NPR’s Drummond. “There are so many ways people can receive information.” And we need to rethink what we’re covering, he says. In the future, “maybe we’re not sitting at the school board meeting or following Betsy DeVos around.”