On Campus: Education writers give, take lessons at conference

Posted by Nan Austin on May 21, 2014 

I’ve been in Nashville this week, at the annual conference of the Education Writers Association on the tree-lined campus of Vanderbilt University.

It feels like a step back in time, walking among a mix of stone European churches and stately brick banks fronted by white columns. One bore the inscription “Social Religious Building: The glory of God and service of man,” well-suited to a school founded in 1875 under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Unlike most institutions of the era, however, it allowed women. At least one woman attended from 1875 on, notes the university website.

The Peabody College of Education and Human Development is our host, with the American Educational Research Association a major sponsor. My hands-on session on using National Center for Education Statistics numbers was taught by one of their top researchers.

Every national story on education you’ve read this year – those writers are all here (very humbling).

Thoughtful conversations are everywhere, along with urgings to look at issues through a real-world lens, delve deeper to ask better questions and follow the data to see what’s really happening.

In other words, it’s been a Common Core lesson for journalists.

We have to get out of our comfort zone of just writing about what’s on the agenda and sent to us in press releases. We have to dig in and do.

It feels exhilarating and overwhelming (also very Common Core) to hear what journalists in every corner of the country have come up with to illustrate human stories and illuminate stubborn problems.

A session on using social media to bring readers into the news loop was a little like the teaching strategy most call “pair share.” The leader speaks, then the audience – in this case social media contacts – discusses what that means.

Caitlin Moran of The Seattle Times has a grant to involve the community in finding education solutions. She and her team write bimonthly stories, launching each one with social media posts, guest opinion columns, interactive quizzes, live chats online and other tweak-your-interest add-ons.

Facebook posts get used in the paper as mini letters to the editor around the topics. For major topics, they bring in a speaker and host live events, offering free food and child care to pack the house.

At Chalkbeat New York, an online education site, Anika Anand challenges every reporter to focus on a key question, figure out who is already talking about this to find sources and home in on who needs to know (target audience) and how 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 do with this information?

The big test: Anand counts Facebook responses, page clicks and all the other data points that digital media offer to see what worked the best. Which questions drew posts, which ones sat silent, how could they do it better next time?

At a small, rural paper in Michigan, The Morning Sun’s Lisa Yanick-Jonaitis uses favorite topics (“click bait”) on Facebook and Twitter to create stories. She has readers send in pictures on topics, such as first-day-of-school snapshots, to make galleries at www.facebook.com/assignmentmidMichigan.

In a March madness theme, people sent in pictures of pets, which were made into trading cards she laid out in brackets. Online voting 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. (The kitty won.)

Jake Batsell, a digital journalism professor, moderated the discussion, noting other projects. A reporter at The Seattle Times created a Facebook page to connect with high school grads from five years ago and see how job hunting had gone. The Texas Tribune created a user-friendly database for parents to look up school information.

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

Will I make the grade as a Common Core-challenged journalist? I’ll look forward to you telling me.

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