As good stories about our schools are swept away, this team battles to stem the tide.
Schools are full of positive stories that are seldom covered by traditional media outlets. To remain solvent in a digital world where revenue is tied to clicks, only stories expected to generate high readership are produced.
If anything’s to blame, it’s human nature. More readers will read a story about a bad teacher than a good student.
Believing that positive education stories deserve headlines, too, superintendents in Kent County, Michigan, decided they should publicly highlight the many success stories they saw in their schools everyday.
How to do that was the $64,000 question.
Since emerging from the 2008-2009 recession, only one of 20 public school districts still employs a full-time communications specialist.
So, superintendents tapped the Kent Intermediate School District’s three-person communications department to launch their own news outlet, School News Network, now in its second full academic year.
“Schools are good at providing information, but I’m not sure we’ve been great at story telling, which is the way of conveying stories that will stick with people,” said Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent of KISD’s organizational initiatives and community issues. “Those are stories the public deserves to hear about their public schools. That’s what we’re hoping to provide.”
Building consensus for something new
About five years ago, when local newspapers stopped routinely staffing school board meetings, Koehler admits some K-12 superintendents were not disappointed.
But it wasn’t long before they discovered the down side. The only school news being reported was bad news.
Furthermore, with local media no longer covering board deliberations, dissent became noticeably “uninformed,” Koehler said.
K-12 superintendents leading districts of varied size and demographics tapped Koehler to recommend engaging ways to get the good news out, and provide educators with a venue to comment on education issues.
Finding a communications solution that would benefit and satisfy all constituents would not be easy.
And it still isn’t, Koehler acknowledged.
This week he will present an alternate plan for funding School News Network to area superintendents because, despite a strong editorial product, the project hasn’t generated enough revenue to cover news gathering, web development and web hosting costs.
It continues to publish at least eight new stories online each week only because superintendents of the 18 participating school districts find value in it and because KISD has contributed the $12,000 in monthly costs that organizers had hoped advertising would cover.
Here are the principles Koehler says he and his staff followed to build support among stakeholders for School News Network:
• Focus on the vision you want to happen.
• Build a broad base of supporters who will publicly advocate for the vision.
• Be realistic. Remain open to different ways that the vision could be realized.
The last point, Koehler said, has been the most challenging.
In short, it’s not easy.
But supporting sex-less, blood-less, crime-less “positive school news” is the right thing to do.
Koehler’s staff began developing School News with the understanding that the project had to be “cost neutral.” Koehler recommended a third-party company be allowed to sell banner ads on school websites, and that proceeds be pooled among all participants to cover costs.
The idea of public schools having to resort to commerce didn’t sit well with some boards.
“We had to sell the dream of what this site could do,” Koehler said. “Otherwise, advertising would never be accepted as means to an end.”
Koehler brought Tom Rademacher – whose general interest column in the Grand Rapids Press has won first place in the National Society of Newspaper Columnist’s annual contest in three of the last five years – to a superintendents meeting to talk about the transformative power of storytelling.
Eighteen of 20 public school districts served by KISD eventually voted to sign on. Some had to change anti-ad board policies first.
But local ad revenue projections were never realized. Not even close, Koehler said.
In August, a superintendents advisory committee heard sales presentations from four new advertising companies. The pitch he’ll make to superintendents this week involves combines two options – one for local ad sales and another for national advertising.
Sales projections from both sources, Koehler said, are not expected to generate enough revenue to cover expenses. That’s why the new funding plan he will present during a superintendents retreat will include a provision to charge districts a flat rate or per pupil participation fee.
“There’s a reason why our local news media have been struggling,” Koehler said. “Ad revenues are just not there. We’re being realistic. Ad dollars will not be enough.”
Making a splash
Aside from finding the right business model, launching School News Network has been enjoyable work, said Allison Kaufman, KISD’s director of communications and marketing.
There was already a lot of school communications expertise in the area. Grand Rapids-based Foxbright, which has built websites for schools throughout the Great Lakes Region, designed School News Network.
The site contracted with Charles Honey, Erin Albanese, Linda Odette and other former Grand Rapids Press reporters. Some of the most widely read stories are on the challenges of educating children from impoverished families, students who overcome obstacles to earn a diploma, columns by Northview Superintendent Mike Paskewicz, and a humor column. (Don’t miss Odette’s riff on school nutrition programs, “Attack of the Whole-Grain Pop-Tart,” and Honey’s “Making Math Add Up.”)
With limited promotion, the site has drawn more than 100,000 page views and almost 40,000 repeat visitors. Seven thousand people subscribe to a service that emails links to all new stories. As readers share content on social media, regular readership could multiply quickly, Koehler said.
Internet analytics reveal an interesting anomaly, Kaufman said. Chicago and Ann Arbor rank in the Top 10 of School News Network’s readership, although neither are near Kent County.
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