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June 29, 2015, 1:27 p.m.
LINK: current.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   June 29, 2015

A group of Southern public media outlets is getting a second shot at a collaborative effort to cover education in the region. The Southern Education Desk received $246,000 in funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting earlier this year, Current reports. The funding goes through April 2016.

southerneddesk_logoThe Southern Education Desk first launched in 2011 as part of a larger CPB-backed project to fund local journalism through collaborative Local Journalism Centers, but the funding expired in 2013 and only WBHM, the public radio station in Birmingham, Al., maintained the program.

Bruce Theriault, CPB’s senior vice president of journalism and radio, told Current that the Southern Education Desk “had a rough first two years.” (We wrote about those years in 2013.)

“I think they were too general around education,” he said. “They didn’t have a clear enough sense around the master narrative. I’m not saying it was a total failure, but it didn’t gel the way other [Local Journalism Centers] did.”

So what went wrong?

The desk faced several challenges, according to Tanya Ott, now vice president of radio at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Ott served as managing director of the desk for most of 2013 while working as news director at WBHM.

To start with, the desk comprised eight stations across five states, making it “if not the largest geographic spread of the LJCs…one of the largest,” Ott said. Furthermore, participants included radio and TV stations and joint licensees, which created challenges in “conceptualizing cross-platform content,” she said.

For most of the two-year cycle for the CPB grant, station reporters also had difficulty balancing station and desk responsibilities, Ott said. At times, journalists were challenged to provide locally focused education coverage while also delivering stories that other partner stations would air.

The revamped Southern Education Desk will narrow its focus on how it covers education, and it has a goal of producing 10 series on various topics before its funding expire. The first, which was published earlier this month, was on Common Core standards.

Funding, however, remains a challenge as CPB says it doesn’t plan on extending its funding beyond next April. Though the Southern Education Desk is hunting for additional revenue sources, other LJCs have had trouble remaining viable.

Innovation Trail is a collaboration between five upstate New York public media outlets covering tech and business, and editor Matthew Leonard told the Lab in 2013 that it has been able to remain active past its initial CPB funding because the participating stations have all contributed money to continue the reporting, and reporters only spend part of their time reporting on collaborative projects. Still, Leonard said, it hasn’t been easy.

“People just see the content out of their radio like it’s Morning Edition or All Things Considered, so it’s very hard to sell the LJC as a brand,” Leonard said. “You’ll likely hear people say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do a 10-part series around universal pre-K’ — around a story idea — then you can get that. But around the LJC itself: ‘Isn’t that attractive and appealing to you as an underwriter?’ Not so much.”

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