What Birmingham readers want: dig deep and be a ‘witness’

Engaged readers appreciate deep and nuanced reporting on education and race relations in Birmingham, but they also wish news outlets had the resources to send reporters to all the board meetings of the area’s 25 school systems.

That was one takeaway from a book-club style luncheon on Tuesday sponsored by BirminghamWatch, Columbia Journalism Review, and the Institute for Nonprofit News. “We need you to be a witness,” said Cameron Vowell, a semi-retired nonprofit manager.

The luncheon, part of a collaboration between CJR and local nonprofit news outlets to engage readers in conversations about local news, attracted an overflow crowd. Three journalists who have worked for BirminghamWatch, along with Executive Director Carol Nunnelley, a board member, and I, were joined by retired educators, businessmen and women, a civil rights lawyer, and others. A county school board president even showed up.

Aubrey Miller, president of the Shelby County School Board, hadn’t actually received an invitation, sent out to BirminghamWatch readers, but he’d heard about the luncheon. “I thought I should be here for this,” he said.

Most attendees received a packet of news stories before the luncheon to prepare for what turned out to be a lively discussion. The packet included four stories from BirminghamWatch on local education issues: Marie Sutton on a “devastating” year at a long-struggling elementary school; Trisha Powell Crain, who recently left her nonprofit education website, Alabama School Connection, for a job covering schools at Alabama Media Group, on years of dysfunctional relationships between adults in the administration of another struggling elementary school; and two stories by Powell Crain diving into specific data sets–one on the stubbornly high number of Alabama high school graduates who have to take remedial courses in college and another on the unexpectedly high test scores at an elementary school many with a high level of poverty among its diverse students. The packet also included the Tampa Bay Times series on the resegregation of five Pinellas County schools, “Failure Factories,” which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting.

Taken as a whole, the packet represented a range of journalistic possibilities, from what one reporter armed with a spreadsheet can do in a few weeks to what an investigative team can accomplish over a year. Each story made the point that adults can and need to do more in struggling schools.

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Powell Crain may have put it best in the story she wrote on the Trace Crossings school in Hoover, Ala.: “School officials, board members, teachers and parents in Hoover through the years have blamed shifting demographics of children for Trace Crossings’ decline, but court documents now reveal there were many problems among the grownups inside the school.”

Luncheon attendees were interested in how journalists come up with stories. Sutton explained that she often starts with an anecdote, something someone tells her that sounds worth checking out, to see if it’s an outlier or representative of something bigger. Powell Crain said she often finds a spark of an idea when she looks for data that would explain–or possibly refute–what those involved in education take as truth.

Nunnelley, a veteran of The Birmingham News, where she was managing editor, asked the attendees what type of education stories they’d like to see more of, and jotted down notes about unifying themes the attendees offered, ideas that might interest readers across the Birmingham region. Some attendees said they’d like to see more stories told in digestible chapters, the way the Tampa Bay Times rolled out “Failure Factories.”

Nunnelley called the luncheon a success, and said she hopes to do more. “I’ve come away with a sense of how important writing about education can be, and about ways to reach people in the media clutter,” she told the attendees.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.