Local education reporters have faced no shortage of news in the past few years.
First, there was the pandemic, which shuttered schools and forced students, teachers and parents to adapt to virtual learning. Then came misinformation-ridden battles over everything from critical race theory to classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Everybody recognizes that the systems that we’ve tried for a long time in schools are not working, and people are thinking about how to reimagine things after the pandemic,” said AL.com education editor Ruth Serven Smith. “This is a great time to be in education and to be trying new things.”
Among the people doing that work are journalists at “education labs” around the country. These labs vary in format, but most comprise a small group of reporters and editors who focus on identifying solutions to educational challenges in their communities. They are supported by grants despite being located in for-profit local newsrooms.
The Seattle Times was the first to launch an education lab in 2013. Since then, The Fresno (California) Bee, The Dallas Morning News, AL.com and The Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina) have all created their own labs, many of them modeled after the Times’.
“Education is the core of communities,” Dallas Morning News Education Lab editor Eva-Marie Ayala said. “Education is the core of your neighborhoods. It filters up into your businesses, into what your workforce needs are. It affects every facet of a community.”
Some papers maintain education beat reporters outside of the lab who focus on breaking news and day-to-day coverage. Meanwhile, philanthropic funding allows the education labs to devote resources to enterprise and investigative projects. Post and Courier education lab editor Hillary Flynn pointed out the nonprofit funding of her lab also allows them to publish stories outside of the paper’s paywall.
At AL.com, the Education Lab has become a true laboratory, where reporters experiment with different ways to deliver information to readers. In addition to traditional stories, reporters there have created surveys, hosted live events, assembled a curated newsletter and written guides for parents.
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“It happens to be a lab for education,” Serven Smith said, “but it’s very intentional about trying to do types of journalism and coverage that experiment and can benefit the rest of the newsroom.”
There is a lot of interest in funding education reporting, as seen by the rise of nonprofit online outlets dedicated to the subject, including The 74, The Hechinger Report and Chalkbeat. The Hechinger Report is part of a collaborative that includes the five local education labs and the Christian Science Monitor. Each week, editors meet to discuss possible joint projects.
Editors at all five local papers said they have found success with the education lab model. Some have tried replicating the format in other areas of their newsroom. The Seattle Times, for example, now has Project Homeless and Traffic Lab, both of which are grant-funded initiatives. They also recently started a mental health team.
Times Education Lab editor Katherine Long said that subjects that have the potential for solutions are particularly suited to the model.
“Readers really like to read about solutions. They don’t like to open up their newspaper or open up their website every day and see a string of doom and gloom stories,” Long said. “So this offers hope.”
Correction: The Christian Science Monitor is a part of the Education Labs collaborative, not Chalkbeat.
Poynter reporter Amaris Castillo contributed reporting.
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to telling stories of local journalists.