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June 25, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Business Models

From Nieman Reports: Solutions journalism brings data and good news together to engage readers

Rather than pointing out solely what’s wrong with the world — think political gridlock, war, terrorism, and catastrophic climate change — solutions journalism aims to show how people are making things better.

Editor’s note: Our colleagues at sister publication Nieman Reports are out with their new issue. In this piece, John Dyer examines how the right combination of data science, scrutiny, and an uplifting narrative are proving a popular recipe for publishers and readers alike.

Journalists make careers out of covering the symptoms and causes of bad urban public schools, writing tragedies about students falling through the cracks, scoring scoops from school board investigations, and chasing scandals alongside concerned parents, angry teachers unions, and others. The Seattle Times and the Solutions Journalism Network took a different approach.

Reporters and editors at the Times’ Education Lab team felt their audience was desensitized to the laundry list of challenges facing schools in Washington State. Unruly teenagers, poor performance among low-income students, and high dropout rates weren’t news to anybody anymore.

So the team flipped the script on education reporting. Instead of identifying the worst schools in the region and explaining why they were failing, they set out to find the schools that were improving and ask how their educators and students excelled despite poverty, crime, and other challenges. Instead of reporting on the problems in the schools, they would cover the solutions. “[W]e’ve committed to…telling you about some of the places that appear to be doing things right,” wrote Seattle Times editor Kathy Best when she launched the Lab with the Solutions Journalism Network in October 2013. “Our hope is that rigorously examining the elements of success might help spread them.”

Answering that mandate, Education Lab reporter Claudia Rowe dove into classroom discipline—a large part of most teachers’ jobs—and discovered how a few local schools had cut suspensions by engaging closely with students who behave badly rather than ostracizing them.

The Kent School District in suburban Seattle adopted a softer touch in disciplining students, for example, opting for in-school suspensions where students study instead of kicking them off school property, and training security guards to act as mediators as well as rule enforcers to cut down on the extreme behavior that leads to harsh discipline. One Kent middle school brought in two new assistant principals to deal with student behavior, and now calls its detention hall the “Focus Room,” to reflect an emphasis on students keeping up with classwork. Critics said the new policies amounted to warehousing students, but advocates of the new approach cited national research that found that draconian out-of-school suspensions resulted in the worst students often giving up on school entirely. Kent schools went from battling an NAACP lawsuit for handcuffing and pepper-spraying students to cutting suspensions by more than 30 percent, The Seattle Times reported.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

POSTED     June 25, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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