Journalism that works: Telling the story of school deterioration, rebuilding

Many of America’s school buildings are in disarray, with leaking roofs, toxic air and termite-infested walls. Parade Magazine decided to tackle this issue in a 2,000-word story, but one that editors and freelancer Barry Yeoman chose to tell through a lens of success rather than as an unrelenting diatribe.

“It was a story that was reporting on a very difficult problem, but we also knew if we didn’t have a solutions piece of it, that it wouldn’t have the impact on readers who tend to gloss over stories that are just unrelentingly depressing,” Yeoman told Poynter. “If you tell an uplifting story, you’re more likely to get readers to be able to focus on the underlying problems.”

Jennifer Marquez, Parade’s articles editor and daughter of a public school teacher, pitched the story after coming across a statistic from the group “Rebuild America’s Schools” about how many millions of students attend class in deteriorating buildings. Her own experience in worn-down school buildings, plus the statistics she found, enhanced a natural curiosity about what she described as a national problem that needed local solutions.

Yeoman, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Glamour and countless other publications, says while the idea didn’t originate as a positive story, it quickly grew in that direction.

“While obviously it’s very important to be unflinching in talking about how bad many of our nation’s school buildings are, it made sense to travel to schools that were doing it right,” Yeoman says. “It’s easy to document poor conditions from a distance … But what I needed to see firsthand were schools that were reversing the trend, that were finding solutions and actually creating really inspiring school buildings.”

One such school was California’s Santa Ana High School. The community filled with immigrant families working multiple jobs banded together and raised the money to renovate the dilapidated 1935 building. Yeoman reports:

Raising taxes would not be easy in a city that in 2004 was ranked No. 1 for “urban hardship” by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. But in 2008, Santa Ana residents voted two to one for a $200 million bond issue that would improve the city’s 56 public schools. The resulting property-tax increase—less than $100 per year for a modest house—meant collective belt tightening. “We saw parents picking up recyclables just to make ends meet,” says Maria Cante, the high school’s community and family outreach liaison. But relatively few complained, she says—they knew that better schools would give their children a surer shot at higher education.

Journalists are hardwired to tell the gritty, dismal, stark stories of injustice. What draws us into the profession – the urge to expose wrongdoings and educate readers or listeners about social and environmental problems – can make it almost unnatural to approach a story from a positive angle, Yeoman says.

“We become journalists because we feel called, because we have a sense of mission,” Yeoman says. “We are more oriented toward telling stories of social problems because we want to see them corrected. Otherwise, why would we stay in a field that is shrinking before our very eyes and has never offered the type of livelihood that other college educated professionals might expect?”

At the very core of many of us is the impulse to write about what is wrong with the world, Yeoman says. And that generally comes in the form of stories that are not uplifting.

But that urge to drift away from the inspiring is also a byproduct of pushing back against the onslaught of spin and agenda thrown at us from publicists daily.

“So many of the positive stories that cross our desks have built-in reasons for suspicion,” Yeoman says. “And when that sets off our alarms, we run in the other direction.”

While reporting this story and figuring out what schools to highlight, Yeoman said he relied on what he calls a “pretty good BS detector.” After covering politics and government, he developed a knack for telling when a source is being honest.

“I know when I’m being sold,” Yeoman says. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. At the first warning sign of somebody spinning me, I can detect it.”

Richardsville Elementary, just outside Bowling Green, Kentucky, before and after it was transformed. (Courtesy: Parade magazine)

In order to tell the “good” news but avoid the PR slant, Yeoman made sure to vet all the schools before he even set foot on an airplane. He checked them against multiple accounts from the media and third parties to make sure there were no red flags. And regardless of whether he felt a source was being open and honest, he made sure to fact check everything they said.

That need to assess transformed schools was what made being on the ground and seeing them in person so important, Yeoman said. By visiting Richardsville Elementary, a school in Kentucky that built green to meet district policy and save money, Yeoman was able to see firsthand the impact of the new facilities on the students:

But what really makes Richardsville Elementary stand out—beyond the sunlit corridors and cutting-edge technology—is how conservation is woven into the fabric of everyday learning. Geothermal temperature gauges are exposed for children to monitor. So is a pipe that collects rainwater for nourishing a garden. There are hallway displays about solar power and recycling, and even first graders can explain how renewable energy works. Warren County is doing more than saving money and keeping kids healthy—it’s producing students who are literate about environmental issues before reaching puberty.

In order for a positive story to be successful, it has to have a gripping narrative, Yeoman says. And it also needs to illuminate a bigger issue or inspire a reader to make a personal life change.

But with stories such as these, sometimes a positive outlook helps illuminate a societal flaw while also providing readers with insight on how to fix it.

Fundamentally, Yeoman says, this is a story about a social ill. And writing a story with aspirational examples wasn’t sugarcoating it, he says, but instead providing readers with a look at actions that helped these school systems counter a very real problem.

“It felt to me and it felt to my editors like we could tell both halves of the story with real integrity, while not scaring off an audience as general as a Parade audience,” Yeoman says.

Because Parade is a general interest magazine, Marquez says the staff is always thinking about offering readers a good mix in terms of content and tone, especially cover stories over the span of a month or year.

“We know that a positive story that is heartwarming or uplifting is going to engage people on a Sunday morning, but we won’t turn a good story away just because it doesn’t have a happy ending,” Marquez says.

This report is part of an occasional series on journalism that works, in partnership with “Huffington Post Opportunity: What is Working.”

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