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Archive for December 11th, 2007

A ‘duh’ moment on finding education impact sources

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

Today, I learned a something I can’t believe nobody told me before.

I cover 26 public school corporations. (That’s what they call districts in Indiana.) There’s about 40,000 students among them. But while I do cover all those districts, I tend to stick mostly to the three districts in this county (admittedly, they account for more than half of the student population). So, I don’t get out to the “region” districts very frequently. Consequently, my contacts there are, shall we say, lacking.

When stories pop up that require me to find “real people” from those areas (i.e. impact sources, which we are all but mandated to include in EVERYTHING), it’s not always easy. Here, I usually know parent council members or a parent or two at the school or at least the principal well enough that he or she can help point me in the right direction, or I can always stop by a school at dismissal to grab someone. But, at schools an hour or more away from here, especially on stacked days like today where long-shot phone trees don’t work, this isn’t really an option. I struggle with it.

Last Friday, one of the five stories I wrote (Fridays are always my busiest day) was about a consolidation study being conducted in one of the counties. I talked to the people actually involved, and I talked to the group chosen to do the study (which will begin next year). I made a feeble attempt to find a “real person” through a contact or two, but by 7:30 p.m. after starting around 9 a.m., I ran out of time and motivation. My story was solid except impact sources.

My editor had the reporter on Saturday, who had a lighter schedule than typical, make some calls and write into my story with parents. Whatever. He easily found three parents. I reasoned that he’s older, wiser and better connected than I am (having worked at the paper almost 30 years, all of those are true statements), so it was easier for him to make those calls and find those people.

Turns out, I could have found them just as easily. I just didn’t know where to look.

Today, a state report was released that recommends schools do basically exactly what the study I wrote about is considering. I got pegged, rightly, to do a schools reaction piece to complement the news of the report.

I needed “real people” to comment, and though often I find myself grasping at straws for the usefulness of those sources in stories, this was one instance where there was no question that was a needed voice. But how to find them?

I mentioned to my editor I had the local professor who advised the commission and school officials, but I needed some parents. He made the off comment that the way the reporter found people on Saturday was looking for unique names on honor rolls and finding it in the phone book.

My reaction: “OMG are you serious?! Why didn’t I think of that?” That was non-verbal of course, because I felt like an idiot for not having thought of that before. Genius.

I mean, we run honor rolls for 26 school corporations, dozens of schools, etc. on the Communities page. We archive them all. Many have hundreds of names of students. Names that are tied to parents, who therefore obviously have a vested interest in the schools, who therefore might have something intelligent to say about the schools when topics requiring that opinion arise.

So this afternoon, it took a few attempts to call someone who answered. But all told, it took less than 15 minutes to find a “real person” who rounded out tomorrow’s story well. Way less effort was needed than I’d usually have to give. Duh!

It was “ding, ding, ding” in my brain. I can’t believe it’s been almost a year and nobody ever gave me this advice tip before.

I’m sure there are other old-hat tricks that nobody has thought to share with the rookie, but man, this just makes so much sense I really was dumb founded I didn’t think of it myself. So, anyone reading this with their own brilliant reporting tips, by all means, share the wealth.