On verge of teacher strike, Chicago turned to social media

On Monday night in Chicago, more than 300,000 children and their families waited to find out whether teachers from the nation’s third largest school district would strike in the morning. As the clock ticked toward a midnight deadline to reach a deal, the city’s education reporters watched from a downtown conference room, where union leaders were reviewing an offer from the city’s appointed Board of Education.

Because it was so late, the story unfolded on social media, where reporters shared photos and streamed video, engaged with parents and teachers, and tried to verify rumors in real time. It was a fascinating show of just how powerful social media has become for reporting local stories and for taking readers and viewers behind the scenes for an intimate look at how government works. On Periscope and Facebook Live, every report became an informal version of the late-evening news.

“The education audience in Chicago is so loyal and so involved and wants to know what’s going on,” says Lauren FitzPatrick, an education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, who tracked developments on social media in the paper’s newsroom until the deal averting a strike was finally announced just before midnight. “People were biting their nails, and it was getting later and later.”

Sarah Karp, who covers education for public radio station WBEZ, was all over the story on Twitter. She told her 2,100 followers when union president Karen Lewis was smiling, and reported that a top aide to Mayor Rahm Emanuel was “making a long phone call and pacing.” Her tweets gave her followers a front-row seat at the negotiations. When a follower asked if she thought a deal was close, she responded that she honestly didn’t know, something a reporter would be hard pressed to do in a routine story. She tweeted that she had told her own son to do his homework, just in case he had school in the morning.

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The press weren’t the only ones using social media. The Chicago Teachers Union relied primarily on Twitter and Facebook to update its members and parents on the status of the negotiations, while also trying not to interfere with them, says Ronnie Reese, member communication coordinator for the union. “We knew we had to let bargaining run its course and provide information sparingly,” he says. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t say more, because we knew that the entire city was in limbo–or at least the half that wasn’t watching the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs.”

Principals and teachers also were monitoring the negotiations on social media. When the deal was reached and finally announced close to midnight, several principals tweeted the news to their followers. The school district announced the news on its Facebook page at 12:42 a.m. The post was shared 789 times and had 229 comments from students and parents.

“In situations like this, there’s no direct line of communication from central office to principals,” says Nate Pietrini, a principal at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy. “So we do rely on journalists and social media in order to have information available in real time.”

Chicago education reporters often use social media to report their stories, particularly from Board of Education meetings when dozens of parents often sign up to testify, says Matt Masterson, associate digital producer and education reporter for WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, a topical public affairs news program that airs nightly at 7 p.m.

But Monday night was unique, says Masterson, who was among those tweeting from the 11th hour negotiations. The Chicago Public School district already had notified parents about alternative sites to send their children if schools were closed, and teachers had been picking up strike signs and gear since the weekend. “There was this  glass room all the negotiators were in,” Masterson says. “You could see right into what they were doing, Were they smiling or frustrated or looking things up? We could immediately publish that.”

Juan Perez Jr., education reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was juggling two cell phones and a laptop during the negotiations. “This was just a situation that was a little unusual because the audience was much larger than what we would normally experience.” he says. “The engagement I saw dwarfed anything we would normally see from a school board meeting.” (Perez had more than 3,000 viewers on one Periscope video of a press conference from the negotiations that he streamed on Twitter.)

It felt a little bit like election night.”

Although Perez typically doesn’t livestream while reporting, he used Periscope Monday night to provide live video coverage on Twitter. “It’s reserved for a situation like it’s a weird hour, a breaking news story,” he says. “It was the perfect opportunity for this.”

Craig Wall, a reporter with the Fox News affiliate in Chicago, reported live from the negotiations through his Facebook page, even though the Fox also cut into regular programming with updates. “Basically I was able to cover it and bring the Facebook viewers to the press conference,” he says. “In these kinds of circumstances, people want to keep up. It’s a great way if they aren’t expecting it to be covered by TV late at night.”

Parent Jessica Espinosa was following Fox News and the Chicago Teachers Union on social media to find out whether her three children would have school in the morning. Just before midnight on her school’s Facebook page, she shared the Fox 32 Facebook Live video of the press conference announcing a strike had been averted. “For all the negatives social media can create, they can be a useful tool for getting up-to-the-second updates,” Espinosa says. “Me and my husband were following Twitter all night until we got the news on the agreement.”

The major news sites all updated their websites as the night went on. But as FitzPatrick noted, even this kind of updating can’t keep pace with the immediacy of social media.

“It felt a little bit like election night,” she says. “We had an awesome editor on, a political editor who is smart and fast. But the technology takes time to do news alerts. Twitter is just the fastest way to tell people.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.