Editors at The Dallas Morning News knew it was a story: Dallas area Hispanic families were facing a number of challenges in accessing early-childhood education programs. There were a few ways the paper could tackle it, like starting an investigative series or even creating a new beat. But instead of turning its own reporting power on the problem, it decided to give the community tools to report on itself.
This fall the Morning News launched the Hispanic Families Network, a program that teaches parents some of the basics of journalism in an effort to help spread information about early-childhood education within the community. Staff from the Morning News have worked with a group of mothers on skills like information gathering, reporting, and verification techniques. But rather than publishing their work in the Morning News or on dallasnews.com, the information is primarily shared inside a Facebook group.
With readers in the role of reporters, and Facebook acting as the distribution channel, the Morning News is mostly removed from the process. That was a purposeful step, said Tom Huang, Sunday and enterprise editor for the Morning News. The goal of the network is for parents to identify the information they need and share it directly with their friends, family, and neighbors. In order for the program to be really effective, it had to operate on a grassroots level, he said.
“The idea was to train the parents to essentially be citizen journalists and to negotiate for themselves to get the information they need for their families,” said Huang.
After running a pilot program with around 20 mothers from Dallas’s Bachman Lake area, the Hispanic Families Network will be expanded into two new neighborhoods in 2015 through funding from the Knight Foundation. Knight awarded $250,000 to the Morning News, its Spanish-language sister paper Al Dia, and Southern Methodist University, who are partners in creating and operating the network.
“I think we’re really trying to figure out how to transfer some of our journalistic and reporting skills to a community that has up to now been disenfranchised,” Huang said.
Part of that process has meant embracing the tools and networks that are the most accessible, which is why they placed an emphasis on mobile. The program shares similarities with VozMob, a reporting platform born from the journalism and education programs at the University of Southern California that lets immigrants and low-wage workers create stories using cell phones.
For the Hispanic Families Network, participants were given a smartphone with a data plan that would allow them to not only easily post to Facebook but also find, verify, and translate information found through Google or other sources. They’re also planning to use WhatsApp as a way to spread information around the network, Huang told me. As the program grows they intend to feature some of the information from the parents group in the Morning News and Al Dia, he said.The network will be funded by Knight through the fall, but Huang said they hope to work with local groups to keep the project sustainable in the future. From the paper’s standpoint, the benefits of the project will largely be indirect. Creating a stronger relationship with the Hispanic community could potentially lead to deeper sourcing and eventually better stories, Huang said. But the network, much like Al Dia, presents the Morning News with an outlet to reach audiences that can often be overlooked by the traditional press.
The Morning News worked with local nonprofits and service organizations to find potential members for the network. Cynthia Pérez, the coordinator of the program, said the group includes both stay-at-home moms and working moms, most with children preschool age or younger. Because of the unusual nature of the project, they initially had to overcome confusion about the purpose of the group: “They thought we were there to hear complaints about the schools,” she says.
Perez, a former teacher, said the paper had to build a relationship with a group that may not have felt connected with the Morning News. Over several courses, Perez and volunteers from the paper’s staff worked on building skills inside the group, as well as listening to their concerns and finding ways to make the network better fit their needs. The overall goal is for the group to become self-reliant over time, as parents work together to share news and invite others into the group, Perez said.
“To see these moms drive the network — they’re so engaged and invested,” she said. “I know, as an educator, parents want to do things but don’t always know how or where or have the resources.”
Doris Luft de Baker, an education professor at SMU who is evaluating the network, said navigating the world of Head Start, Montessori programs, and other preschool choices is difficult for most parents. That’s made more difficult if there are language or cultural barriers that can get in the way of enrolling a child in a pre-kindergarten program. Newspapers are a natural connector in this case because they have knowledge of local school districts and community assistance programs, Baker said. “I think there is a disconnect in the sense that not all these families, the mothers, might read the paper, whether it’s in English or Spanish,” she said.This is one of the reasons the Hispanic Families Network is a unique approach for a metro paper like the Morning News — it’s a proactive way to address a local issue. Rather than reporting a story and leaving the solutions to local government or business, the paper is offering a remedy of its own. It’s a similar idea to The Seattle Times’ Education Lab collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Network. As the name suggests, the network is interested in reporting that presents potential solutions to local problems.
Alfredo Carbajal, managing editor of Al Dia, said as school districts have become more enamored with testing, graduation rates, and college readiness, education reporting has followed suit. As a result, Hispanic access to early-childhood programs is a story that has mostly gone under the radar. “I think it has not been reported as thoroughly as it probably needs to be in all the media, together in print or broadcast or online, in English or Spanish,” he said.
In meetings with community groups and parents in the months prior to launching the network, pre-kindergarten programs were a constant source of questions and concern, Carbajal said. Since parents were talking about the problems, they decided to help amplify that discussion and arm parents with tools to share better information.
They know it’s not a traditional role for a newspaper. It’s part education, part outreach. Carbajal said it’s possible there are other types of citizen information networks the Morning News could help develop that would provide some utility to people in the Dallas area. It’s a new position for the newspapers to be in, Carbajal said: “We’re not educators, we’re not administrators of educational programs. But we are creating a vehicle for disseminating and sharing information about those programs.”