Clustering Education Stories Doesn’t Always Work Best

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Above: Overview of 12 Slate stories from “Tomorrow’s Test” series this week.

These past few weeks and months have included a number of ambitious, multipart education series:

*The WNYC series “Integration 2.0” includes 10 segments so far, depending on how you count them.

*The Slate series “Tomorrow’s Test” includes 12 segments over the course of this week.

*The recent NPR School Money series includes 20 stories plus a map and Facebook Live videos released over the course of three weeks.

Pushing related stories out clustered together over a few days is common and certainly understandable. And yet it’s not always clear whether it’s effective to put out so much content (plus bells and whistles) from both production and readership points of view.

According to reporters and editors who’ve been part of these kinds of pieces, the incentives and advantages behind clustering stories together far outweigh the downsides.However, at least one outlet recently spread its series out — and won a Pulitzer for it.

The upsides are pretty clear: Pushing out a cluster of stories in a day or week creates drama or attention that otherwise might not occur. Think about the Panama Papers, or, in TV terms, think of Amazon Netflix dropping an entire season of “House of Cards” (or whatever) so that people can binge-watch.

The downsides are more abstract: Does the effort to do so much in such a short time period affect the quality and distinctiveness of the pieces. Does readership grow, or tail off? Do stories grouped together tend to get read more than they would if they were spread out over time?

private school graph

 

 

This animated GIF from the Slate series shows the demographic impact of white families disproportionately sending their children to private schools. 

The experts generally come down on the side of clustering pieces together:

First and foremost, it’s a way to build momentum for readers. A reader who’s interested in a topic wants to find more on the same topic, and soon.  Especially if stories are meant to be read together — are connected in some way or build on each other beyond covering a similar issue —  then it’s best to “just publish them all at once,” says the Neiman Lab’s Josh Benton, a former award-winning education reporter.

“It’s very hard to generate story-specific return behavior,” says Benton. “If someone finishes [story] 1, is engaged, and [story] 2 isn’t there for them, then you’ve probably lost them.”

For a variety of reasons, it’s also sometimes easier to produce a series during a relatively short, fixed period of time rather than over a course of months, notes the Education Writers Association’s Lori Crouch:

“For one, you might start out reporting a series/project with one idea of its direction and come out with a whole new perspective. So it’s easier to change course if your observations lead you in a new direction if you’re not wedded to the original idea,” she says. “Being flexible about switching gears is always recommended by award-winners who have presented on their work.”

Secondly, on practical grounds, holding off and pushing things out all at once means that “if something controversial erupts you must describe, your access to a school won’t get cut off midstream.”

Concern about losing access is a super-common concern among reporters, though I sometimes have the feeling it’s overblown. Does it happen all that often? Doesn’t it fuel a story as much as it might hinder it?

Last but not least, pushing out stories on a topic over time can turn a project into a chore rather than an opportunity. Few reporters get to stay on a single topic for long periods of time, and so distractions and other obligations take their toll.
Students in poverty
This animated GIF shows the potential impact of “controlled choice” integration proposal on Lower East Side NYC elementary schools, from WNYC series.That doesn’t mean that reporters and editors aren’t aware of the possibility of overwhelming readers.
“We chose a 3-week rollout for School Money,” says NPR’s Cory Turner. “The big reason: With 20 reporters, we worried that dropping that much content in one week would overwhelm our audience (and our distribution systems, both radio and web). So the team kicked things off with an interactive map, then broke things up into themes and a long read each week.

It seems to have worked, according to Turner. Readership “was strong” all three weeks, he says. (I must admit I was long gone by the third week.)

This interactive map from the NPR series helped readers find their state and district funding disparities.

There are no guarantees, of course, and no absolute consensus.

“It all depends on the content,” says Sree Sreenivasan, now Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum. “I’ve seen [clustering] be effective; and not.”

He says that his own preference is somewhat more leisurely:”once a week for some specific things on social and that rhythm works for me as a consumer of content – and a creator.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Failure Factories” series from the Tampa Bay Times took a totally different approach, pushing out major pieces about Pinellas County schools over a six-month period.

Doing so “helped keep pressure on the school district,” says reporter Cara Fitzpatrick. Board members couldn’t just duck their heads and wait for the onslaught to end.

It was also “easier to focus on one or two stories at a time rather than five.”

Related posts: Education News: Boring Glut — Or Golden Age?NPR’s “Grad Rates” Shows Us How Well Education Journalism Can Be DoneNew Rules For Education Journalism.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.