Blog: The Educated Reporter

It Takes a Village: Engaging the Community on the Education Beat

Bringing the audience into news gathering felt like a tectonic shift, shivering down the hallowed halls of the Fourth Estate. Who knew the quake would yield so much sunlight, or how musty those comfortable old spaces had grown?

At EWA’s 67th National Seminar, held at Vanderbilt University in Nashville last month, a raft of fresh ideas were explored on using social media to break down few more newsroom walls. In essence, it takes the conversation outdoors.

Moderated by digital journalism instructor Jake Batsell, the seminar session focused on three projects that reached out and welcomed in readers.

The subject is one Batsell studied in writing Engaged Journalism, due out in January as part of the Columbia University Press CJR Books series. An assistant professor at Southern Methodist University, he starts a fellowship working at the Texas Tribune in August.  

Examples Batsell gave stretched from a Facebook page seeking high school graduates of five years earlier for a story on how recession graduates fared (Seattle Times), to the very low-tech handing out of informational fliers at community events (Columbia Missourian).

The Texas Tribune took its reporting and created a user-friendly portal to school information by campus using the service to drive traffic to their site and education coverage.

What started as a frenzy to post everything everywhere has shifted to a smarter look at what’s working and why, Batsell said. More newsrooms are tracking data to evaluate their virtual reality.

The three projects featured in the workshop used tech connections to better illustrate human stories, illuminate stubborn problems and build market by just shaking the sillies out.

Beyond the siren song of the newest tech tools, these methods took the news gathering lens and shifted it, looking past what the news gatherers wanted to show, to what news consumers said they needed to see.

Caitlin Moran, community engagement editor for the Seattle Times, outlined solutions journalism funded by a grant to the newspaper. Moran and Times reporters write bi-monthly stories, launching them with multiple entry points.

The meatiness of the topic and the stretch to reach its target audience leads to some combination of social media posts, guest opinion columns, interactive quizzes, live chats online and other tweak-your interest add-ons as the story breaks.

Facebook posts on the subject become mini-letters to the editor in a block on the editorial pages.

For major issues Moran brings in a speaker and hosts live events, offering free food and child care to pack the house with folks who could use the information.

At Chalkbeat New York, an online education site, Anika Anand challenges reporters to craft a summative question for the story. With a fine-tuned focus, the next step sources the topic, figuring out who is already talking about this.

From there, Anand hones in on who needs the information and searches creative ways to be sure the story finds them.

On her sheet to talk about with every big story: What should the next conversation about this topic be? What can the audience actually do with this information?

Last, evaluation: She counts Facebook responses, page clicks and all the other data points digital media offer to see what worked the best. Which questions drew posts? Which ones gathered virtual dust? How could they do it better next time?

At The Morning Sun, a rural paper in Michigan, Lisa Yanick-Jonaitis draws readers into a friendly social space. Local reaction flavors favorite subjects (“click bait”) on Facebook and Twitter.

A recurring feature has readers send in pictures on themes of the week, like first-day-of-school snapshots, to make a gallery on Facebook.

For a March Madness theme, people sent in their pet pics and info for virtual “trading cards” laid out in basketball-style brackets. Online voters picked the winners. The final two got feature stories, a cat named Jackie O. who had survived cancer three times and a native son celebrity dog before the final vote. (Jackie O. survived again.)

All three newsrooms showed an evolution from throwing things out there to purposeful streaming, and sifting the return.

“The common thing you see is it’s authentic engagement, not robotic retweeting,” Batsell said. 


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