How Oregon Public Broadcasting is managing a 13-year-long reporting project
What’s the longest you’ve ever worked on a single project? A few weeks? Maybe several months? For reporters at Oregon Public Broadcasting the answer would be six years — and counting.
The Portland-based public broadcaster is in the midst of Class of 2025, a 13-year-long reporting project that’s following a group of students as they progress from kindergarten in 2012 to high school graduation in 2025.
This week in Solution Set we’re taking a look under the hood of Class of 2025 and are going to examine how OPB manages such an exhaustive project. We’ll share some tips for how your newsroom can undertake similarly ambitious projects that are engaging and captivate audiences.
Solution Set is a new weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one awesome thing in journalism, share some lessons you can take away, and point you toward other excellent resources. (You can catch up on earlier issues here.)
And we want to hear from you: What do you think of Solution Set? Does this format work for you? Is there something going on in your news org that you think others can learn from? Let me know. Email me at [email protected], or find me on Twitter at @ylichterman.
Here’s the TLDR version of what you need to know about Class of 2025:
• The Challenge: Oregon Public Broadcasting wanted to find a way to put a human face on the state of Oregon’s stated goal to have 100 percent of high schoolers graduate by 2025.
• The Strategy: OPB created Class of 2025, a project that is following a group of students as they progress through school. The initiative has produced reporting in English and Spanish.
• The Numbers: There are 27 students participating in the Class of 2025 project.
• The Lessons: Long-term projects are often more work than you expect, and require coordination and organization to make sure that they’re sustainable.
• The Future: OPB is thinking of how it can turn all of its reporting into a documentary at the end of the project.
• Want to know more?: Check out some other examples of long-term reporting projects.
Now, let’s dig in a little deeper:
In 2011, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that set an ambitious goal for the state’s education system: By 2025, 100 percent of Oregon students will graduate from high school.
At Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Portland-based public broadcaster, education reporter Rob Manning and his editor at the time, Eve Epstein, began thinking about how they could cover the pledge and the state’s work to achieve the goal in an understandable and relatable way.
They wanted OPB listeners to better understand the challenges facing the state’s education system as it pursued its ambitious agenda.
“This is an actual group of kids,” Manning said. “This can be a lofty goal; you can say it’s impossible or not, but there’s going to be a class of 2025. Why is it so preposterous that every one of them would finish high school? We started talking about finding a way to make that idea into a reporting effort.”
Manning and Epstein have slightly different recollections of what happened next, but ultimately they settled on a plan: Manning would follow a group of students starting kindergarten that fall and follow them through their high school graduation in 2025.
That germ of an idea ultimately evolved into Class of 2025, OPB’s ongoing coverage of a cohort of students as they progress through school. That reporting has been presented on the radio, on TV, in Spanish and English-language podcasts, and online.
The students OPB is following as part of Class of 2025 are in fifth grade now and are preparing to enter middle school in the fall. How did OPB lay the groundwork for such an ambitious project and how has it been able to keep it going over the years?
Before committing to a years-long project, Manning needed to see if the project was actually feasible. And the first step in that process was to find a school that would let them work with the students. They wanted a school that was diverse and demographically representative of Oregon as a whole.
Manning had at least one conversation with a school district that said no because it was worried OPB would publicize its faults. But while reporting another story at a different school, Earl Boyles Elementary, Manning asked the school’s principal about whether they’d participate in the class of 2025 project. “I got a good feeling from the principal,” he said.
He asked: “I talked to her and basically said, ‘Hey, can I run a crazy idea by you.’ And she was really into it. She was like, ‘That would be great! I wish people would cover education that way because that’s how we should be judged. How are students doing over time?’”
The school district agreed, and they gave the project the green light. Getting the principal onboard was a key step because the district deferred to her judgment since she was so supportive of the project.
OPB did a handful of stories while the students were in kindergarten, and that year Manning and reporter Amanda Peacher sent notes home to all the kindergartners’ parents asking if they’d be interested in participating in the project from first grade onward. They also made phone calls and sent emails to parents in order to make sure they had a representative sample of students in their group.
The parents of the participating students have all signed written agreements that grant OPB permission to attend their children’s parent-teacher conferences, access their grades, access special education plans, and also interview them without their teacher present. Manning or other OPB reporters will attend the parent-teacher conferences and use them as springboards for story ideas to follow throughout the year.
“Every conversation I have with a teacher or a family is helping to guide where the story is going to go,” Manning said.
As a result, Manning has gotten to know the students and their parents incredibly well over the years. He’s made it his mission to build relationships with the families. Maintaining the families’ trust and sustaining the station’s relationships with them is critical, he said. He works to be transparent about what he’s reporting and makes sure the parents understand how their participation is helping the project.
Manning has said he’s had to share more details about himself with sources than he typically does because he wants to “have a relationship that’s going to last through high school.”
“It’s tricky. You always want to treat your sources with a lot of respect, but there are times when sources are not going to like everything you did,” Manning said. “I’ve had times when some of the parents had not been completely happy with what I’ve done, but we set a good enough relationship at the beginning that it hasn’t meant that people have left.”
Part of the trust Manning has built with the families has allowed him to introduce additional reporters into the project. Most notably, reporter Roxy De La Torre joined OPB to create a Spanish-language version of the Class of 2025 podcast that caters to Oregon’s growing Latino community.
“[Because of] the trust [Rob] built all those years with those families and the kids, right away when he introduced me to them they were very open to another person being part of this project,” De La Torre said. “They knew that some people were coming and going even though Rob was there all the time. It was very nice and at the end of the year last year, I saw one of the kids and they said, ‘Hey, Roxy!’ and came and hugged me. I told Rob that now I feel like I belong here.”
OPB initially reached out to 81 students across three kindergarten classes at Earl Boyles Elementary to recruit them for the project. Ultimately, 27 students and their families agreed to participate in the Class of 2025 cohort. “It’s kind of a good number… it’s the size of an elementary school class,” Manning said.
The participating students speak four different languages other than English at home: Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Somali. Manning and Peacher worked hard to recruit a cohort that was diverse and representative of the state’s population.
OPB has received two grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support the project.
In 2014, OPB received $50,700 from CPB, which allowed it to hire a part-time education reporter so Manning could spend half of his time on Class of 2025.
OPB got another grant from CPB in 2016, which allowed it to hire De La Torre and pursue the Spanish-language podcast. That grant has since ended, but OPB has hired De La Torre to work full-time for the station to work on Class of 2025 and produce other Spanish-language news stories.
• Make it your beat: When working on a long-term project like Class of 2025, it can be difficult to balance your day-to-day reporting responsibilities with the bigger project.
Manning, De La Torre, and their editors have worked on balancing their workloads, but they’ve also begun using Class of 2025 as a mechanism to address issues that they’d cover anyway through typical stories.
For instance, Oregon enacted a law to improve how it supports students with dyslexia. One of the students in the Class of 2025 cohort has dyslexia, so Manning used her experience to illustrate the impact of the new legislation.
“Part of what I love about this project is that it keeps us honest,” Anna Griffin, OPB’s news director told me. “We’ve been very public with people that we are going to cover some wonky stuff. Education is not a hugely sexy beat. We’re going to cover this stuff over the long term. It also ensures that our coverage of education is focused on actual kids, and parents, and teachers, which really helps when you’re talking about topics that can be so dry, complicated, and policy-based.”
• Bilingual coverage is hard: When a news organization primarily works in English, it can be difficult to incorporate another language into its coverage. The Spanish-language podcast and subsequent coverage have been more work than OPB and De La Torre initially expected.
While there were editors to help with the editing and guide coverage of the English version of the podcast, De La Torre had to do much of the work herself or find outside help since there isn’t anyone at OPB who speaks Spanish well enough to conduct edits.
For the podcast, Manning and De La Torre would report the episodes together in English and then De La Torre would adapt them for the Spanish-speaking audience.
“We didn’t know how much work it was going to be, so I was working a lot. It was challenging sometimes,” she said.
De La Torre got the work done through “the sheer force of her personality,” Griffin said, adding that if OPB really wants to expand its Spanish coverage it’s going to require additional help.
OPB was able to pay a professor at nearby Portland State University to help De La Torre with the editing, but since most of the interviews were conducted in English, she needed to track down volunteers to conduct Spanish voice-overs.
De La Torre is now also producing Spanish-language news coverage for OPB. The Latino population in Oregon is growing rapidly, and OPB sees an opportunity to reach a new audience that’s hungry for more local coverage. Though it admits it’ll need to add additional staffers for it to scale.
“The community responded really well to all the stuff that we’re doing,” De La Torre said. “They’re asking for more and more.”
• Grant funding has its challenges: Grants, like the ones OPB received for Class of 2025 from CPB, can bring in much-needed added revenue, but they can also result in added work and force deadlines.
Most grants come with certain obligations that grantees must fulfill, and can force newsrooms to change their priorities. In early 2017, Manning was working on another investigative project, but there were also looming deadlines for the CPB Class of 2025 grant.
To finish Class of 2025 podcast and meet the grant requirements, Griffin pulled Manning off of his daily coverage until it was done. And the project ultimately took another nine months.
“When you’re dealing with outside organizations, when you’re dealing with grants, you have to make choices like that,” Griffin said. “Whereas if it just had been Rob and it was only our money we were playing with, we would’ve had a little more flexibility to push back deadlines or say let’s not do this story, that’s not worth your time, or we had some news break and the priorities change. Grant money lets us do things we wouldn’t otherwise do, but it does come with some extra responsibilities.”
• Prepare for the future: Manning and De La Torre have no plans to leave OPB or the Class of 2025 project, but they’re working anyway to future-proof the project so additional reporters can join in or access their work for other long-term projects.
All of the Class of 2025 reporting is saved in its own section of OPB’s server and it’s organized by school year.
A former OPB intern created spreadsheets that document how many times each student was in a story and another spreadsheet contains details about who was interviewed in each raw audio file. Those documents are regularly updated.
With long-term projects — especially one that’s 13 years long — it’s likely that multiple people will contribute to the reporting. It’s beneficial then to organize your notes and reporting in a systematic way that others can access and understand.
• Middle School: The class of 2025 starts middle school next year, and Manning is getting ready for the wave of academic, social, and developmental changes that go with kids entering that stage of life.
“They’re getting older. They’re maturing and changing. I’m trying to be really aware of that,” Manning said. “Rather than knowing how it’s going to change, I just know that it is going to change. To me, the most important thing is can I do everything in my power to make sure I have a good relationship with the family.”
And Griffin said that as the kids mature, OPB will be able to use their stories as a lens to look at other more complex issues. Students in the cohort are already dealing with issues such as their parents’ immigration status or poverty, which are the subject of larger national conversations.
“The most interesting stuff is yet to come, which is a good thing from a storytelling aspect, but we all feel a kinship with these kids now and feel like we’re part of the family,” she said. “Their ups and downs become even more heart wrenching to watch and experience.”
• 2025: By the time the students graduate high school, OPB will have 13 years of footage and reporting that shows how this group of kids has grown up — a real-life version of the movie Boyhood. That point is still many years away, but it’s thinking that it would like to create a documentary or some type of story that wraps everything up.
“Everybody is pointed toward the big thing that we do at the end of it all,” Griffin said. “To a certain extent, every bit of reporting we’re doing right now is in service to whatever comes at the end.”
• In this 2015 article, Nieman Reports wrote about the growing interest in “slow journalism.” The story highlighted Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk, in which he is following the path of human migration, from Africa to the tip of South America, on foot.
• CJR last year published a story that emphasized the importance of local Spanish-language journalism for Latino communities.
• Translating stories into different languages is always a challenge. In 2016, I spoke with a bunch of European publishers to learn how they were trying to make the process more efficient.
• Additional ideas for new storytelling formats can be found on Better News, a resource from the American Press Institute that’s part of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative.
Is your newsroom doing any cool long-term projects? How do you handle reporting in multiple languages? Is there anything else you’d like me to cover in Solution Set? Send me an email, I’m at [email protected].
I’ll share some of the responses in next week’s edition.
See you next Thursday!
Photo is a screenshot from this OPB TV report on Class of 2025.