Blog: The Educated Reporter

‘How I Did the Story’: Award-Winning Higher Ed Reporters Share Their Skills

Here’s a little gift for the holidays: Advice from higher education reporters who won the top prizes in EWA’s National Awards for Education Writing.They shared their perspectives with attendees at our 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford University.We asked Samantha Hernandez of the Door County Advocate to contribute today’s guest post. Stream any session from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes. For more on higher education, visit EWA’s Story Starters online resource. 

What do you need to write a prize-winning education story? Curiosity, patience and a lot of shoe leather.

Each of the presenters at the “How I Did the Story” session at EWA ‘13 said they spent significant time cultivating sources, talking to people, and tracking down documents. The topics of their winning work ranged from ranged from sexual assault to misconduct by university governing bodies. 

Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report, who won second prize for beat reporting, discussed several of his articles, including one that he wrote about Montana State University, a small university that had seen an increase in college graduates. Marcus said that Montana State was not the top school in Montana, but it was moving the needle in a positive way, thus contributing to its state’s overall increase in college graduates.

“What we found was that the state (of Montana) was small enough, that the whole public higher education system was smaller than Ohio State University. That enabled them to do a lot of things that a lot of states had been talking about but hadn’t done,” he said.

Marcus made the trip to Montana to see firsthand what the state was doing differently. He also visited universities in Nevada. According to his research Nevada has the lowest college graduation rate.

Marcus’ tips to other reporters included urging them to try and spend more time on campuses at any number of events and when interviewing people make it clear you understand the subject matter. Also, find students to interview for stories. He works occasionally with the Young Invincibles, a student rights group, to find such sources.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas spoke about the story behind the series of articles she co-wrote for the Connecticut Mirror about the state board of regents’ improprieties, which helped her win EWA’s top prize for beat reporting. The initial reporting started with a standard meeting of 12 Connecticut regional public community college presidents. But during the meeting, the director of human resources came in and “what happens after that becomes a little unclear,” Thomas said.

At the conclusion of the meeting one of the presidents was offered a buy-out, which was later confirmed to be an expedited separation package. Thomas and her colleagues at the Mirror decided to dive into those details.

Part getting to the real story entailed reviewing the president’s and vice president’s contracts, among other documentation, and talking to board members and others involved. During the course of the investigation, she found that Executive Vice President Michael P. Meotti received a 27 percent raise despite system-wide wage freezes. She also uncovered other improprieties during the investigation.

Justin Pope, who was with the Associated Press when he took home second prize for national education reporting for his stories about Title IX and sexual assault on college campuses, said the series stemmed from trying to answer his own questions as a reporter. “I came to the realization I didn’t know what Title IX was about,” he said. It turns out, he discovered, that a lot of those who work in higher education also do not understand how the part on sexual assault portion of the law is handled on college campuses.

One of the challenges was finding sources.

“How do you find a rape victim who is willing to talk?” he said. He did find a group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who put him in touch with victims who wanted to talk. He also found a man who had been wrongly accused of rape.

Pope said working with advocacy groups can be a problem, but they should not be ignored as possible sources.

He talked to about dozen victims, but many were clearly not ready to talk and some stories he decided not to use because of space.

“Look at what everyone is doing and write the opposite story,” he said as his final tip.

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.