Nan Austin

On Campus: Breaking news – no, just making it over for next edition on Facebook, school desks

Looking on Facebook Thursday, I noticed a line of breaking news stories running down the right-hand column I used to ignore. It gave me a choice of stories written by The New York Times, The Guardian newspaper of London, Reuters and other big names of world journalism.

Very cool, was my first thought. Whoa, this is a new day for journalism, was my second.

The latter got the focus in a report on NPR’s Hear & Now, heard on my way to work. Spreading top-notch journalism to Facebook’s 1.2 billion or so subscribers is a good thing, media consultant Vivian Schiller told interviewer Robin Young.

“They are going to reach a much, much larger audience. They are going to reach people who would never come to their website or buy their newspaper,” Schiller said.

The revenue Facebook generates through the partnership will flow through to the newspaper publishers, at least in this inaugural arrangement, she said. “There’s reason to be wary, but what’s the alternative? The alternative is not to play. And that’s sticking your head in the sand,” Schiller said.

To ignore the wider reach and younger audience on Facebook, she said, “is a huge mistake, and it is to set off on the path to irrelevance.”

Seeing the news bordering chats about birthdays, summer plans and the political poundings of people I am otherwise very fond of, provided yet another perspective on just how fast the news industry is adapting to the digital world.

This week, The Bee rolled out its updated look and feel, in print and online. Within the newsroom, we’re shifting gears and beats to focus our coverage more on what’s newsworthy and useful for readers, less on cataloging the meetings.

In classrooms, students are getting news in yet another way from McClatchy papers – including The Bee – and about 39 other news outlets, through a free school news service now in its second year called Newsela.

The service pulls articles every day from online news sources, rewrites them for five different levels of readers, sets up quizzes to test what the kids got out of the articles, and gives teachers a variety of tools to set up assignments and get information about where students stand in comprehension and reading level.

At least 800 teachers in the region will not find this amazing at all. They already use the service, according to Newsela CEO Matthew Gross. I reached him by phone Tuesday.

Among the half-million teachers signed up for the free service is Janet Jeffries at Freedom Elementary School in Santa Cruz County, whose fifth grade students read a December article about migrant families in Watsonville and a housing rule the young readers saw as very unfair.

Outrage can be a good thing, a teachable moment kids remember forever, which is exactly how Jeffries turned fury into curriculum. The class read on, discussed the topic and learned to write a persuasive letter. They wrote to the the Department of Housing and Community Development in Sacramento, which in the last week of April wrote back.

The Migrant Farmworker Housing rule remains, the state letter said, but it commended the students’ advocacy. “It’s good to challenge rules you don’t believe in! Keep it up!” the letter said.

Those are the types of discussions Newsela aims for, Gross said. “We look for things that we think will be incredibly interesting in a classroom setting, articles they could debate,” Gross said. “We foment that discussion because we know that can turn into great learning.”

The shift to Common Core has put a far greater emphasis on reading nonfiction and doing research, understanding the difference between poll results and census counts, peer-reviewed scientific journals and Internet blather.

Students have endless streams of information pouring into their pockets on smartphones. They need better ways to analyze what they read than just noting which buddy, or which political persuasion, sent it. It matters to all of us that the next generation be smart consumers, savvy business leaders and informed voters.

Common Core has taken a lot of heat for raising the standards on reading and writing nonfiction. How-to articles, the latest on what Taylor Swift is doing, instructions for that new gadget, contracts, product descriptions – none of that is great literature, but that type of reading is a large percentage of what we all scan on a daily basis. Under the new standards, pulling facts from nonfiction gains new emphasis. News is custom-made for that work.

“But the problem is, how do you get them to read nonfiction, especially when you have a class with dramatically different reading levels,” Gross pointed out. He cited an example of English learners in a ninth grade class reading at a fourth grade level. “How do you keep them engaged and not leave them feeling totally demoralized?” Gross asked.

His answer was the multiple reading levels that the service easily clicks through with the same layout and pictures as the complex original. Even in the same class, kids of many levels can discuss the same article. That use of smart, integrated tech is what today’s teens expect and a serious deficiency in too much education software, he said.

“Real time is the only speed today’s generation of readers knows,” Gross said, adding, “News is bigger than it’s ever been. It’s never been more urgent.”

If news is urgent to teens, good journalism – in any medium – has a bright future.

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