The Collaboration Behind Last Year’s “This American Life” Series

Mainstream news outlets aren’t known for working together. They tend to be competitive in an instinctive, knee-jerk way that can seem unwarranted to everyday readers who barely pay attention to where they’re getting their news from (much less journalistic minutia like bylines).

But — desperate or innovative or both — outlets seem to be cooperating more than they have in the past, working on projects together (like the SF homeless project) or sharing content, or collaborating on reporting (as with NPR and several local stations).

One such example comes from just about a year ago this week, when This American Life aired “The Problem We All Live With,” a two-part series on school integration that has since then been shared, discussed, and awarded many honors.

What you may have missed at the time was that the piece was aided by the reporting of several local news outlets and education reporters, including the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch’s Elisa Crouch.

Hannah-Jones had already published a long ProPublica piece about Normandy schools. And This American Life had also obtained tape of a controversial school meeting where parents and students discussed the transfer program. But they didn’t have any good tape showing what it was like to go to school at Normandy. That’s where Crouch came in.

That spring, Crouch had spent time with two honors students.

In one story (From top of her class to a harder path), Crouch details the experiences of a student who’s transferred to a better-performing school and stuck it out despite the difficulties.

In another piece (A senior year mostly lost), it’s excruciatingly clear that the education being provided at Normandy is inadequate. Students sleep or text through class. Worksheets are set at the middle-school level.

Crouch, who did the work with the help of a Renaissance Journalism Equity Reporting Project fellowship, was asked by This American Life to come in and talk about what she’d seen and reported about the education being provided at Normandy.

Hannah-Jones summed it up: “Four periods of music, three academic classes, one where a teacher actually taught. It’s hard to imagine a bar lower than that.”

Radio-wise, it probably wasn’t as good as an in-person interview with the student, or a recorded visit to the school, but the student apparently wasn’t doing any more interviews and so the recap (and some background conversations between Crouch and the TAL reporters) helped round out the picture being described.

For Crouch, being involved was a positive experience in large part because it meant having so much attention paid to an issue that she and others had been reporting for years. “We’d been frustrated that no one would come in and do a story here,” she said. “What [the This American Life] piece did was elevate that, finally.”

Go back and read the two profiles if you missed them the first time through — as I did. They’re both interesting and impressive. Crouch also followed up with pieces including this fascinating one (Money being not being spent) showing that districts receiving funding via transfer students weren’t necessarily spending it on those students. That is, Normandy and other struggling districts were losing funding due to transfer students, but the students weren’t benefitting from the funding being sent with them.

Related posts:
Some Questions About This American Life’s School Integration Story
Three Key Moments In The Hartford Integration Episode Of “This American Life”
Little-Known Project Funds Equity-Focused Education Coverage

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.