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Archive for the 'Education' Category

What I’ve learned two months into a 10-month series

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

You know it’s bad when even your boyfriend, who is not a journalist, keeps telling you that you need to update your blog. My last update was the end of July, so I didn’t want September to slip completely by, as August did, without any updates.

I also want to update everyone on the series I wrote about before the school year began and sent me into a crazy-busy tailspin.

As I previously wrote about, I began in August the first part of a 10-month series. The series is basically a year in the life of a local elementary school on the brink (it was then at least…) of restructuring because of No Child Left Behind. The idea was and is to go inside and spend time at a “failing school” to see what takes place in the classroom, on the playground, in the office, at the homes, etc. and examine why this school is in the position it is and what we can learn from it. It’s a comprehensive look at all the different factors that come into play, each month focusing on a different facet.

The August package was setting up the series, explaining all of the changes this year, introducing some key players and terms and spelling out why we are focusing on this one elementary all year. The second part, in September, was a look at the make-up and motivations of the teaching staff, with a look at how much researchers say those teachers matter to the kids success. The October story, which I’m just beginning now, is a look at the families that make up the high-poverty, highly transient population of the school.

Miller series part 1, August 2009. Miller series part 2, September 2009.

You know what they say about the best laid plans, right? I began work on developing and pitching this story and getting the permissions I needed during my second furlough in May. It took all summer to plan and prepare. And four days before the first story ran the school district dropped a bomb shell: The school’s changes — including an eleventh-hour agreement with the teachers union to extend the school day and year — were enough to constitute restructuring per the Department of Ed. It doesn’t have to worry about closing or replacing staff or hiring private management. That is great news for the school. But it meant a last-minute rewrite and refocus that was not at all fun.

The initial premise of my first version of the August story was essentially that this year was the last great effort to save the school. Once that news broke on Thursday afternoon, I had to not only write a story for online and then Friday’s paper. But I also had to completely start over on the mainbar of my Sunday package. Oh yeah, and Friday morning I had to work the 6 a.m. cops shift, which kept me plenty busy besides finishing that rewrite! It was a great exercise in Plan B and not cracking under pressure. I remember several people coming to me and saying, “I’m sorry about your series…” because they thought I’d give up on it since the premise had shifted. Not at all! The topics I and my editors identified are still important, and whether this school has “restructured” or faced the possibility doesn’t diminish what those areas can tell us not only about our community but about other schools that could reach this fate in the coming years.

Overall, the experience to date has been fascinating and frustrating.

I have absolutely enjoyed the hours I’ve sat in classrooms at the school just observing. Sometimes it’s entertaining and sometimes it’s heart-breaking. I’ve never been a teacher and don’t have the patience to become one, but these sessions have helped give me a glimpse of what exactly goes on in different classrooms and different types of classrooms. It’s been great really getting to talk to staff members and parents on a level I’ve never been able to reach before. It’s funny because the week before the second part ran, I spent nearly the whole school day there several days. A few of the teachers even asked when they were going to start paying me to be there since I was there so much.

Probably the greatest part so far has been the community feedback. In the months leading up to my series, I was writing a lot about the school because it was facing this major dilemma. And people were weighing in, not always constructively, with their opinions. Since the series started running, the discourse I’ve heard both personally and through letters to the editor and even story chat comments seems to be much more proactive. It makes me feel this is helping people understand what is happening (and has happened) and why it matters. Two weeks ago, I was covering a school board presentation at another local district. After the meeting, I was talking to some parents when another man came from across the auditorium and interrupted us to tell me, “I’ve been living here for decades, and you are the best education reporter we’ve ever had.” He specifically cited the first part of the series and said it laid out so clearly the issue that he felt he finally understood. What more could you hope for?

It’s been frustrating, however, because as much as I’ve been able to do, I don’t feel it’s been enough. I knew going into the school year this was going to be an “in addition to” project. That is this package is in addition to everything else I have to do to continue to be the best source of education news in our community. I knew that we were short staffed as it was. But it has been difficult to make this project a priority when the daily paper also needs fed and when there are dozens of other interesting stories I want to tell. Because while this is interesting, there are only 315 students at the school out of 20,000+ in the entire county.

It’s also been both helpful and frustrating working with the photographer on this series. It’s the first time either of us has really latched on to a major project. We’re both young and have lots of ideas but not a lot of time. Bouncing ideas off each other has been helpful, but sometimes we’ve snagged between working out vision out with our schedules. Sometimes it’s been from lack of communication between us or from us to the editors. We’re getting better, and I’m thankful to have her thinking about this as well. She has a multimedia background, so she’s done some video and is continuing that. This package, to date, hasn’t had as much multimedia as I’d like for the same reason I haven’t done as much as I want period: time. Our paper is ~40K circulation. We don’t have a large staff, which means we don’t have time to drop the ball on other things. My priority has been on finding and telling the stories (each package has been the front-page plus a spread inside on two pages), and time hasn’t allowed as much alternative story telling as I’d like. While my editors have been relatively gracious as my deadline approaches, I personally still worry about my time. Finding the time and carving it out to do this package right has definitely been my biggest challenge to date. I’m still struggling with it, but I’m getting better.

That last sentence is important: I am getting better. I am already a better reporter than I was two months ago when this began. One of the reasons I wanted to do this series was it is an opportunity to grow professionally. Not many people get the chance to do a story like this, whether for lack of ambition, buy-in from their editors or access to their sources. I am fortunate I am in a position to be able to tell theses stories. It has challenged me to improve my reporting, my research and my writing. I know, as the year continues, I’ll grow even more.

You can read and see what we’ve already produced and follow the series throughout the year: http://jconline.com/miller (The presentation leaves A LOT to be desired. But we’re stuck with this template, and yeah, it’s frustrating. But I’m trying to focus on things I actually can change.)

I’m still excited about what’s ahead. Glad to be one-fifth finished, but looking forward to more stories to come. If you have any feedback or ideas, definitely share them.

Embarking on a 10-month project *gulp*

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

On Friday, my editor, the projects editor and I finally finished developing the budget for a story I first pitched in May. Yes, it’s almost August.

But this isn’t just any story. I’m more excited about this story, or rather the series of stories, than I have ever been about a story and than I probably should be. Not that two years and seven months working professionally is a huge range to draw from, but this will be the biggest story of my career to date. Maybe ever?

And it wasn’t until I was staring at the wall of white board on Friday, every inch filled with the topics I will pursue, the people I will seek out, the issues I’ll explore… Even after months of pitching it, developing a list of topics I wanted to hit on, getting the support of my editors and the permission of the school and district, it wasn’t until I saw the wall of work ahead of me that it hit me how ambitious the undertaking is. How crazy I must be to think I can pull it off. And how accomplished I will feel when I do. And mostly, how powerful the story will be when it’s all in place.

I’m going to be doing a 10-month series. An entire school year, August through May. Each month, I will write a Sunday package on a different but related angle, with different vignettes and issues. I’m not posting the topic/theme just yet as we’re still working out details, but I’ll post about it when the first package runs Aug. 16.

I won’t have the luxury many people have had — in the past or at larger papers — when taking on projects of this scale. I work at a community daily with fewer than a dozen local reporters. I have a beat to cover, with more than two dozen school districts and hundreds of schools full of stories for me tell. I will still be at every school board meeting I’d normally attend. I’ll still write a weekly Schools Page and maintain my School Notebook blog. I will still cover test scores, graduation rates, announcements, accomplishments, features, breaking news and any other schools-related items. I knew that going in. That’s part of why we’ve structured the stories to fit into monthly chunks. They can see fruits of my labor throughout the year. And I don’t drop the ball on the beat I’ve spent more than two and a half years building.

I also have to do it not knowing what the next 10 months holds for the newspaper business or my own newsroom. Just since I first came up with the idea, I’ve been on a one week furlough and through one round of layoffs. (Obviously, I wasn’t laid off.) Both those events made me question whether it was prudent to launch into something as ambitious as what I’ve proposed and what now is weeks from coming to fruition. I’m embarking on a long journey. I don’t think when I first came here, I even expected to still be here today, let alone committing to at least another school year and likely much more. But this is the type of thing journalists live for. I’m going to a tell a story that’s never been told before, that shows my community the consequences of the choices we’ve made and the policies we’ve instituted, that shines a spotlight on an overlooked but looked-down-upon place to see why it matters, what everyone can learn and what they can do about it. Those are the types of stories that make people worry newspapers will go away. Yes, it’s scary to launch into something like this not knowing. But if you spend your life afraid to overstep your comfort zone, or looking over your shoulder worried it’s not worth the effort, you’ll never accomplish anything. At some point, you have to just jump and trust it will work out.

So, I wanted to document my excitement now.

I also was hoping that maybe some of the more experienced reporters and editors who stumble on it will give me some tips. I have, needless to say, never done anything of this scope. I’m on vacation this week (my 24th birthday is Wednesday!), and during that time I’m going to be putting a lot of thought into how I’ll organize my days and my notes as I proceed through 10-months of reporting. So I figured now would be a good time to solicit any tips from the veterans out there.

A list of 100+ education reporters on Twitter

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

For months, I’ve had in mind finding all my education reporter peers across the country on Twitter. I decided this afternoon it was time to finally put together what I’ve gathered and to see how many more I could find. What follows is a somewhat comprehensive list of education reporters on Twitter. I say somewhat because there are a few exceptions:

  • Anyone who hasn’t updated in 2009. For all I know they’ve been laid off/fired/quit/changed beats/etc. and abandoned the Twitter account. Who wants to follow someone who hasn’t updated in seven-plus months anyway?
  • Anyone with protected updates. I can’t tell when the last update was. Besides, it’s obviously a private feed not about advancing their work if they’re not letting the world see. That’s fine, but not really useful to this purpose.
  • Anyone who doesn’t state they are an education reporter in their bio. In some cases, I know the person so I included them anyway. But mostly, there really isn’t a good way to find someone who doesn’t put this in the bio short of cross-referencing staff lists with Twitter, which isn’t worth my time.
  • Also excluded were group/organization Twitter accounts and those for an agency not a news organization.

It sounds like a lot of exclusions, but they didn’t add up to many of the ones I actually was able to find.

Aside from suggestions by my own followers, I compiled this list largely by scanning the search results on site:twitter.com “education reporter”. I have updated this list to include individuals who identified themselves as belonging here.

So what is the purpose of spending several hours on my day off putting this together? Honestly, it was kind of selfish. I think it’s interesting to see what other peers on this beat are covering. In many cases, we’re writing about the same things. We struggle with the same FOIA-ignorant officials and try to wrap our heads around similarly incomprehensible state test data. And I figured extending my own network to include more of those folks could help me with ideas, trends to look into, and just some camaraderie.

Oh yeah, and I was curious how these people were managing their Twitter feeds and whether I shouldn’t modify my own tack. (For those who don’t follow me @meranduh, I tend to veer from posting about mundane or insightful thoughts on current stories/meetings/topics to the strange things I see on the streets of Lafayette to pictures of my nephew to details of my mundane days.) Unsurprisingly, there was wide variance in how reporters handled their Twitter account. Some were just an RSS feed or a list of links. Some didn’t include a single education-related post. Some had few posts of any type. Some included lots of links to their sites, and some offered none. All of them used real names, if not in the username (which many did) then in the name field. Most identified their news organization, but many left off the URL or their own site’s link. Many were like mine, a mix of the biz and life. Others were clearly representing their company as part of the overall brand. I even came across one that had both a personal and business Twitter account. The takeaway? There’s no right way to Tweet your beat, but there are lots of different ways to do so.

One more unrelated trend I noticed: We all stink at coming up with original beat blog names. Every one linked from a Twitter profile (my own included) is some cliche/pun on something school related. Not that it matters, but it amused me.

OK, so behind the cut is a location-based list of the 120+ education reporters I found on Twitter. (I realize the link still says 90, but so many people had already linked it, I changed the title but not the link.) Location is by state/country, and then it’s alphabetical by username. Also, if the user didn’t provide a link to a resume/site/employer, I tried to provide a link to the organization where he or she works. Finally, if I added other details to fill out a lacking profile, I italicized that change.

If I missed you or your education reporter, send me a message @meranduh and let me know.

Kudos to Kent News Net coverage of riots

Monday, April 27th, 2009

I first saw the coverage Kent News Net had of the riots at Kent State this weekend on Twitter. My immediate reaction was, “come on guys.” Not about the newsroom, which was pumping out updates at rapid-fire pace, but about the future alumni of my alma mater. People already associate the school with police (err national guardsmen) in riot gear. But at least they were fighting for more than the right to party obnoxiously.

But I digress.

My next thought, when I clicked through and checked out the Web site, was, “wow, these kids (that would be the Stater/TV2/BSR reporters) are doing an AWESOME job covering this.” The page was — and still is — decked in videos and photo galleries.

The next morning after I noticed the story on my Twitter feed, my mom was telling me about how the web editor was quoted in the Akron Beacon Journal’s story about the coverage/riots:

The Kent Police Department would not make a statement Saturday evening, but student journalists at the Daily Kent Stater and KentNewsNet.com were out in full force, covering events on their Web site and updating the community regularly on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/kent360.).

Kristine Gill, editor of KentNewsNet.Com, said she and others went to investigate after seeing flames from their office at Franklin Hall.

”The flames were filling the street, like 15 feet high, and kids were throwing furniture on it and hanging from trees and screaming ‘KSU’ over and over again,” she said.

She said students told her the fire was started because police were harassing students on their front lawns and firing rubber bullets. Gill said some students showed her welts.

I know just last week, one of my former journalism professors said she was teaching those students about Twitter. Although I have said recently that even I am sick of hearing about Twitter these days, this is a great great great example of its power. Read back through their posts that night and you can feel the adrenaline rush. And then in the days since, you can see the rest of the story unfold with statements from the police chief and university president tweeted to the more than 300 followers. (I don’t know, but the KNN staffers might, how many people were following pre-riots?)

This is exactly what Twitter can be and should be used for in the news media. It’s not the only thing Twitter is good for, but with this coverage they have proven it’s a great tool and likely turned many new skeptics into converts.

I just wanted to take this space to highlight the awesome work of these student journalists.

My new education beat blog at the J&C

Monday, February 16th, 2009

I started an education beat blog for the Journal & Courier in January.

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. Two years in, I now feel I have a strong command of my beat. I also feel I can handle both my normal workload and the added work of the blog without diminishing my daily work. Even though I knew (and know) it is more work for me, it is something I think will improve my beat and my coverage. So in my annual review this year, I really pushed for it.

After some discussion with editors, showing examples of other education beat blogs and explaining my ideas, I got the go ahead to try. The first few weeks were just be me testing the waters. I’ve kept blogs before (obviously), but this is a bit different both for me and for the J&C. While we have a handful of staff blogs (mostly sports), we do not have any news reporters blogging. Until now.

Obviously, the test was “live” because it was through the Pluck system on jconline. (Pluck barely qualifies as a “blog” except in concept, but it is what we’re working with, and although it hinders easy access, I’ve decided it’s doable. I think.) But it wasn’t put on the staff blogs page or promoted in print until last week. The editors dropped it in a couple of the print “more online” refers. I highlighted it in a breakout on my weekly schools page. And in Sunday’s paper, I talk about it in a Q&A on the opinions page about my beat and new blog.

Q:Tell us about your new blog.
A: What gets printed in the newspaper is a fraction of what I report. Much of what happens never lands anywhere beyond my notebook. I wanted somewhere to put those items and other things that won’t make it into the J&C but that parents or teachers might be interested in knowing. I’m hoping it becomes a collaboration between me, publishing what I know so far, and readers, responding with their thoughts or even leads I don’t know about yet. Check out the School Notebook at jconline.com/blogs

I have no idea if anyone else has looked at it. No comments yet. But actually, I did get one reader who submitted a message to my profile with a story idea that I looked into and posted a blog post about. Then, when the Indiana House voted on the bill, I turned it into an A1 story. I would have learned the provision in the bill eventually, and did get notes about it a day after my initial blog post, but that person tipped me off a little earlier.

Basically, this is still very much in the experimental stage. I’m still trying to figure out both what to post, how often to post and when to post. I know there’s no magic formula. (Though, I have to say if I could replicate Kent Fischer‘s blog in Dallas here, I’d be pretty happy.)

So far, I’ve learned a few things:

  • It takes more time than I expected to write up a post, including appropriate links/files, etc. Since my regular workload remains the same, this is one of my hindrances.

  • But for those posts I later turn into a story or a brief for print, it reduces the time needed to write the pieces.
  • I have a long way to go to put this into my “routine.” For now, it’s more an afterthought than where I break news. (If it’s true breaking news, then I’m breaking it on the front homepage where more people will see it.) So far, my posts have come first thing in the morning, around lunch, when I’m waiting on a call back, when I’m done filing for the night … basically when the urge strikes.
  • I also need to figure out what to post/not post and make it regular. This is hard because my schedule is pretty unpredictable. However, I think if I started a few regular features, they would give me something to post even when news is slow. It would also make it harder for me to ignore the blog when I get busy, which has been a problem so far.

There are also a few brick walls I’ve hit that I’m working through:

  • Pluck, the social media program underlying all Gannett sites and which our staff blogs run through, is not at all user-friendly. Not for the blogger nor the reader. You can’t, for example, just write HTML code for a link or to make something bold/italic. You have to actually highlight and paste in your link using its form. This slows me down because I usually just write the HTML as I write the blog, without stopping. You also can’t just drop in a YouTube video or a google spreadsheet. It does let you upload some things, like images, but it’s very limited WYSIWYG. That makes it easy for a regular person to start a blog on the site. It makes it maddening for an experienced person.

  • There is no spell checker on the blog form. Since the posts don’t go through an editor, this is kind of an important feature. I have to spell check it in another program or site. Even the automatic spellcheck on Firefox doesn’t work on the site for some reason. I could write the post in another program, but then I have to go back in on the site and format the links/text.
  • There’s no easy way to point people to the blog. Pointing to a specific post is even more challenging. So far, what we’ve been doing is just referring people to the jconline.com/blogs directory. That works, OK. Except, then they have to find my blog (the second one listed for now). Then, even though the most recent three posts are listed, whatever they click takes them to the main page of the blog. And finally, from that page, they can actually click to read an entry. One entry at a time. I get that each of those are page views, but seriously, how many newspaper readers would follow three jumps for a 200-word story? I suspect even fewer will follow those jumps online.
  • Each post is its own page without context in reference to other posts. The main page is like a partial RSS feed: You see the first few sentences but have to click to see more. What’s more annoying, however, is that the posts themselves are standalone. You have to click to see them, then to see another one, you have to go back to the main page or click a recent post in the sidebar. There’s no “next” or “previous” and no way to see multiple posts on the same page. Again, this has to do with page views. But I tend to think ease of use will get someone to load more pages and stay longer, rather than get annoyed with an unwieldy, unintuitive interface.
  • Only the most recent 10 tags are shown. If you look in the sidebar, you can click on the most recent tags, but not any others. This is complicated for me because I want to make sure I’m using the same tags to make them useful. But it doesn’t recommend tags I’ve used in the past or have a list where I (or readers) can look specifically for that tag. This is a problem because I cover more than two dozen districts, with multiple schools. I want people to be able to find stories specific to their community. I haven’t figured out an easy way to do this yet.

Now that I’ve complained, here are a few things going OK:

  • The RSS feed seems pretty good. I would like some of the tracking and social media features feedburner (Google?) offers. But the feed works and includes — Thank you! — full posts.

  • I’ve been able to drop things on the blog before I could get the story out and also things I will never print. For example, the post about an anonymous $1,000 donation for impoverished kids and about schools continuing without power. I’m trying to limit these to things people might actually be interested in. I don’t want to bore the potential readers with process, but I do want to expose some of the things that spark my interest or might spark theirs.
  • It’s already prompted at least one story idea. See my comment above about the charter school bill. That is even before we’ve really started promoting it. As I start telling people on my beat about it and regularly promoting it on the schools page, in print, etc. I hope it will become more useful — for me and my readers.

I still have a long, long way to go to make this what I want. The blog is very much in its infancy. But so far, I’m already seeing the payoff, even if it sometimes come with the headaches. Unfortunately, many of the headaches are beyond my control. But where I can, I’m trying to come up with some other solutions/ideas to make it work.

Since I know some of my readers here are beat bloggers themselves, I’d be remiss not to end this post with this plea: What mistakes did you make that I should avoid, and what are your best tips?

Also, if you’re a beat blog follower: What posts get your attention? What could you do without? What would you want to read about your local schools/education?


I decided to take some time this morning before I go into work to come up with solutions to some of my complaints. Not ideal, by any means, but I think these will make it easier on my readers:

• I created a blog entry with every tag I’ve used so far and links to search for it. I will update that entry (dated to be the first entry in the blog) as more tags come into use. I also made a tinyurl for that entry (tinyurl.com/jcschooltags) and placed it in my “about me” section above the blog. Unfortunately, the profile section doesn’t let you actually create a link. So they’ll have to copy and paste it. I did put it as the top link in my “blog roll” — just under the most recent tags section.

• Until I come up with a better way to easily point people to the blog, I created a tinyurl to link people there: http://tinyurl.com/jcschoolnotebook

Kent State’s case study in converged student media

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

One of my old professors Fred Endres, who teaches online journalism at Kent State, sent me a link to a package he produced about the student media operation today. More specifically, it’s about Kent State’s “marriage” of print and broadcast media into one newsroom and one Web site.

Sadly, as I’ve lamented before, I missed this convergence by a semester. I was part of the initial student media discussions, but graduated just as things were getting good. But I’ve been back to visit several times, and while it’s not nearly as homely and cozy to me as the former Daily Kent Stater digs were, it seemed pretty streamlined. And the technology was top-notch. I can’t even get Excel on my machine at work (OK, so actually after two years I’ve finally managed that … any day now), but these kids have everything from the Office suite to Final Cut Pro at their disposal.

I was never there to see the new combined news team react to breaking news, but I can imagine it was the same as it was for the Stater alone: A flurry of activity and a dash of figuring it out as you went along. These days, however, there’s an added discussion beyond who will write the story for online and then tomorrow’s paper. Who is going to shoot it, both still and video — perhaps at the same time — and ready the script for Black Squirrel Radio and TV2 to broadcast?

Anyway, check out the link Fred sent me to thekentnewsroom.com. It’s an interesting, and entertaining, look at how the marriage happened — and some of the stumbles along the way.

On developing the multi-media mindset:
Students from the newspaper staff talk more to students from the television station. And both talk to the small Web staff. On some days, those conversations lead to creative and productive cooperation and content. On other days, the students may say hello to each other. There is no consistency to the mindset yet. After three semesters in the newsroom, it’s pretty clear that the multimedia mindset is BE-set by some lingering turf issues, lack of trained bodies, too-busy schedules and indifference.

We sometimes wonder whether the move to real convergence can be led and maintained by busy students who spend a year or two in student media and then graduate or move on to other interests. It’s like having speed bumps in the newsroom. Energy spurt — screeching halt — progress — slow down. It’s frustrating for students, advisers and faculty. Consistency and continuity may be issues that confront every university attempting convergence where students truly run the newsroom, as they do at Kent State.

We do remain optimistic about developing the mindset, however. More importantly, so do the students.

An interesting case study for anyone considering a converged, collaborative or shared newsroom. (There’s even tips and lessons learned.) Or, since there’s so much debate on what journalism schools are or aren’t, should or shouldn’t, be teaching, anyone interested in seeing one school that is trying something new.

The best stories are where the people are

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Last week, I wrote a story about a reading program making a big difference in the local Catholic schools. (In a year they increased kindergartners’ average reading by 27 percentage points on a national test.)

As part of my story, I contacted the national foundation behind it and talked to the director about the program. I even had them send me more material than I could ever use in my story about how it works. I spoke to her the day before I had a scheduled visit to a classroom using the program. When I mentioned that — as in, I’m sorry to have to ask you to explain this but I haven’t seen it in person yet — she said something that saddened but didn’t surprise me. She said, “I so respect journalists that still visit the classroom.”

What seems normal practice to me is, I know, not necessarily a reality for many time- and space-strapped reporters.

One of the best parts about having the education beat is all the kids I get to meet — and usually only when they’re being cute kids. It’s hard to not be cheered up after walking into a room of smiling faces who are singing, acting, telling you about their grand ideas or high opinions or whatever. I hate the days I spend stuck in the newsroom, which is why I probably do more short features than many people. I didn’t go to j-school to learn how to cover the science fair, but if that’s what’s happening in local classrooms, why not highlight the kids’ work?

Also, it’s a way to get me into the schools without an agenda. But when I’m there, I’m constantly observing, and I introduce myself to everyone. It helps me develop my beat and get local people in the paper doing cool things. I can turn a quick story in an hour and eight to ten inches, not much of an investment on our part but it means a lot to the schools and kids featured. It also begets more story ideas, both the light features and also harder news to investigate, from the people I meet and even casual readers. They trust me with their stories because they know me.

I also look at those stories as relationship builders. So when something not so positive happens — such as test scores coming back way below where they should be or an embezzlement or bomb threat or whatever — I can call up the teachers, parents or principals and they don’t associate me only with sensationalizing or with bad press. And when I am accused of only writing negative things, I can give dozens of recent examples that highlight positive things in the schools. The administrators, at least the ones I’ve been able to build relationships with, which sadly because the number of schools and districts and geographic size of my coverage area isn’t all of them, are honest with me. I don’t come with an agenda. I come with a story I’ve researched and usually reported already, and I want their input.

Yes, I do meeting stories. Any education reporter, especially one covering as many districts as me, spends a fair amount of time in meetings. But I rarely break news out of a meeting because I’ve done my job beforehand to find what was coming and why it ever was going to the board. Most often, the best stories — the stories behind the decisions — will be given big play the day of or before the meeting. This is also why I do something most of the other media outlets here don’t do, I attend work sessions whenever I can, even if I won’t report a word out of it. That’s where the story behind the story, or decision, comes out. (There are exceptions to this, but it’s been my experience.) That’s when you find out whose agenda it is and hear the reasoning and asides about it. That’s when board members are people not rubber stamps.

I began to think about this after reading Mindy McAdams’ post highlighting something Andy Dickinson posted last week. It’s about the essence of stories and how stories are often superficially gathered and reported online without the key element.

Mindy and Andy actually hit on something about journalism that keys in on why I’m a reporter and why I didn’t take the online producing route immediately out of college, even though I’m really interested in finding innovative ways to tell stories you can’t on paper. The truth is, I wanted a solid journalistic foundation for whatever job or jobs I someday hold. I wanted to be good at finding and telling stories before I moved on to evangelizing how it should be done.

But at the heart of journalism is the story. I want to tell people’s stories, not necessarily tell people stories. If that makes any sense. I feel a sense of pride in helping share a moment or achievement. Even if not many people read it, it’s cathartic for me and the subject. I’d rather tell you the principal cried when he received the test scores than his grand plans to better them. Both are important elements, but the first helps you understand this isn’t just a story about numbers, it’s a story about people.

I find that there are two kinds of articles I truly enjoy: The stories where I have to rush against a deadline or really, truly dig for the truth. And the opposite, stories where I get to spend extended periods of time conducting interviews and just observing people.

That’s why my favorite stories have been those where I’ve gotten to actually see someone else’s world view. Where I’ve gotten to know them, or at least the parts of them relevant to the story, where they’re not just a source or a subject, they’re a person. That’s why I think Andy’s on to something with his statement that “stories come from people.”

They come from the collective experiences, social contexts and relevence of communities. To find a story and know why it’s a story, you have to be part of or active in those communities. That’s something that ‘traditional’ journalism is supposed to be good at. Understanding the communities/audience they serve. Being relevant through the intimate knowledge of a patch. Having the ‘in’ at the ground floor of a story.

He’s talking about how to move the classroom visit experience beyond the physical world and into the virtual world. Certainly, there are stories to be told that way. But life, for now, still exists in the physical world. Even in my own overly digitized life, the story isn’t in my blackberry, on my blog or in my twitter updates. The story is the laughs I share with co-workers and the tears I share with family. You can glimpse me through those digital windows, kind of the way I glimpse the classrooms I swoop in on. And you can tell some good stories that way or from the memories of those who went inside. But the best stories will still come from leaving the office — or if you must report online, leaving your comfort zone — and going, as Andy points out, where the people are.

I know that is time-consuming reporting. Trust me, I work for a 40K community daily newspaper; I often feel overwhelmed with the amount of work I have before me, between online updates, byline expectations and just making sure I get my news covered. I was told once that the way to deal with too much work is to turn what doesn’t have to be great — those meeting reports and quick-hit features — as straight and quick as you can, so you have more time to devote to the things that really interest you, and the things that really matter. I don’t blow off the little things, but I don’t get caught up in them either. Instead, I use them as building blocks for bigger ones. It’s worth the time. If anything can, better reporting not more reporting will save journalism.