Cooperating Across Newsrooms

The newspaper partners for our Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class joined the students and I in Chapel Hill this week for a discussion about how a collaboration would work. I was interested in hearing about content ideas as well as logistics. I think we had an incredibly engaging and informative conversation about story ideas. Logistics seemed to be less of a concern.

Here are some of the angles to the dropout issue that our partners were interested in pursuing:

Truancy and the Role of the Parents. There seems to be real debate in communities about where the authority and responsibilities of parents, school officials, court officials and the department of social services begin and end. Truancy court is apparently one of the saddest things a reporter can witness.

This is a theme we’ve seen time and again in our research on the topic, highlighted by the Durham judge who said that the best way to solve the dropout issue would be to get kids alarm clocks. More than anything else, some kids at a very early age appear to just need someone who cares enough to get their butts out the door in the morning

Cultural Factors – In Wilmington, there may be a racial attitude toward the dropout problem, and we talked about the difficulty in getting people to understand and engage in a story when they naturally think that their kids will never drop out, that it is a problem for “other” people.

In Gastonia, there is a long history of people being able to make decent wages in mills without much of an education. Those mills are gone, but the attitudes toward education they fostered may be harder to shake.

To me, it’s interesting to see that North Carolina has a lot of high-dropout counties in the traditional rural Black Belt that runs east of I-95 and also in the predominantly white rural mountains of the west. Of course, urban dropouts are on the rise and, in terms of raw numbers, account for most of the state’s dropouts. If there really are two North Carolinas, does the dropout rate affect both? Does it affect both in the same ways? Does this issue connect them or demonstrate how different they are?

Community Colleges. The number of dropout incidents that are attributed to the pursuit of education in community colleges saw a dramatic increase in 2003 and have continued to be on the rise. One reporter saw former governor Mike Easley’s Learn & Earn program as having a major effect on the state. More and more often, the reporters agree, community colleges are becoming a place for students who want to fast-track their education rather than as a safety net for students who might be looking for a second chance.


Relevance. The students and reporters identified a few challenges that will face our project. The most prominent being an apparent lack of reader interest in explanatory, issue-based journalism. Everyone agreed that crime sells on the Web unlike any other subject. But that it is very tough to get readers to read through a long story or stick with a long series of short stories over time. We must find a way to make these stories relevant to our audience. I’m looking forward to seeing whether we can identify any new media storytelling techniques that can help readers engage with stories like these.

We will have to keep a laser-like focus on our stories, clearly define and plan them early and make sure that they start with an effort to answer the question “So What?”

Resources. Ironically, one of the other challenges the reporters mentioned would be a lack of space available in print. It seems that the economics of the situation is responding to readers’ demands for shorter stories by providing them with less content in print.

Reporters have little bandwidth to work on long projects. I’ve had at least two media partners from big cities tell me that they simply did not have the resources to take advantage of this service-learning class. Not long ago there would have been concern about taking free labor from students, whose work might be seen as less than professional. Now, there seems to be a hunger for any content that comes at zero cost or effort.

Sourcing. There was a good bit of discussion about how stories on public policy topics can tend to focus too much on a narrow and predictable set of official sources. We want to be sure that we cultivate sources who have direct experience with the issue in their families or in their own lives. Because our subjects are going to be students, this is going to be particularly challenging for us.

The other thing I keep hearing is that the state’s educational data system — the place where they keep track of things like dropout incidents and cohort graduation rates — is a total mess. But getting a hold of those numbers and putting them in some clean format will be crucial to creating an interactive site.

Even if we can sort out those two major sourcing issue, we will need to be fairly sophisticated in our ability to know which stories are people stories and which are data stories. I always fear portraying a rich anecdote as evidence of a broad trend.


I believe that there should be only two kinds of meetings in this world – brainstorming meetings and agenda-setting meetings. This one was a bit of both.

The next steps we came up with are:

1. Putting the students in to three groups – one for Gaston County, one for Wilmington and one for statewide issues. Each group will be four or five students and will need to have some sort of mix of technical skills and interests. That will probably happen in the next seven days.

2. I need to create some sort of communication tool to make it easy for the partners to shoot ideas to the students and that will also allow students to share ideas with each other. Everyone agrees that e-mail is not the solution. But I still need to figure out what is.

3. Students are soon going to begin their blogs in which they will write about the process of reporting their stories, and they will each be writing an “FAQ” on the topic by Feb. 26.

4. I’m going to assign each student one or more education writers around the state to contact and “adopt” in an effort to begin to build our connection.

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