This article is part of an LMA series on solutions and innovations at and for local media organizations, in which we explore the products, best practices, and strategy behind sustainable and thriving local journalism businesses.
By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
San Joaquin Valley student-success rates are among the worst in all of California, prompting The Fresno Bee to help improve those outcomes. Now there are more dedicated beat reporters covering Fresno education than the community has seen for the past half-century.
The McClatchy-owned daily newspaper partnered with the Central Valley Community Foundation to establish an Impact Media And Measurement Fund that collects contributions from Fresno-area residents. Fundraising started in spring 2019, and late last year the foundation raised enough money to formally launch The Fresno Bee Education Lab, which would eventually include four journalists: three reporters and an editor.
Six months later, more than $600,000 has been raised, or enough to fund the Education Lab for the first two years, said Publisher Tim Ritchey, who is now working with the foundation to raise third-year funding.
“It’s not just about telling stories,” Ritchey said. “It’s about having an impact that leads to change.”
The conversation with community leaders started at least a year before launch. Gretchen Moore, chief strategy officer for the Central Valley Community Foundation, said it was clear during those conversations that The Fresno Bee shared a clear interest in making systemic improvements to the community.
“I don’t know that this type of arrangement works with any media outlet in any community,” Moore said. “It truly is a partnership in which we support one another.”
While the foundation and its donors have no direct influence on the editorial content, The Fresno Bee established several goals to ensure the program is successful.
Education Lab project goals:
- Work together
- Ensure access to education
- Celebrate progress
- Highlight persistent challenges
- Share reporting to further reach
- Deeply report stories never reported before
- Solutions-oriented approach
Coverage so far has highlighted struggles of English learners who are “falling through the cracks,” graduating at lower rates and sometimes being admitted to special education programs despite not having a learning disability.
Executive Editor Joe Kieta also highlighted coverage of school district education bonds on the election ballot as well as efforts by State Center Community College District to end a program that provided free public transportation for students. Kieta said The Fresno Bee’s coverage of the issue helped result in an extension of the program.
“And then, all of a sudden, ‘boom’ the pandemic happened, and honestly it changed everything for us,” Kieta said. “Many times it felt like this was the perfect time to have started an education lab because … we were able to go into depth on all these issues in ways that we would’ve never been able to cover before.”
When coronavirus shut down schools, the Education Lab reported on remote learning concerns for students who lacked technology access and other means for homeschooling. Rather than simply cover those issues, The Fresno Bee Education Lab took efforts a step further by connecting parents with a homeschooling expert, Moore said.
The lab also produced a workbook, which featured curriculum and various resources, for rural students. Such extra efforts would not have come from standard beat coverage, she said.
“They have really hit on something that our community cares about and wants to hear more about,” Moore said. “If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t see that in the fundraising dollars, so that’s been really clear from the get-go.”
Much of that community coordination was led by the Education Lab’s engagement reporter, who works with an editor as well as early education and higher education beat writers to build up sourcing and connections in disadvantaged communities in Fresno — one of the poorest large cities in the country, Kieta said.
Additionally, all content produced by the Education Lab is translated into Spanish and posted online and printed in Vida en el Valle, The Fresno Bee’s weekly Spanish-language sister publication.
“The issues here have been present for generations,” Kieta said. “These Spanish-speaking parts of the community didn’t have a connection to The Bee’s journalism, and now we can reach them.”
The project models after other “lab” concepts that were subject-specific and funded entirely from outside sources. Most notably, The Seattle Times debuted its Education Lab in 2013 in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon and City University of Seattle. Other prominent lab projects touted by The Fresno Bee as inspiration include the Miami Herald’s coverage of Hurricane Maria aftermath as part of a collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation. Washington Post, Vox Media and The Los Angeles Times are among several other for-profit outlets to take on this nonprofit-style model with success.
Another lab from The Fresno Bee, dubbed Fresnoland after a partnering nonprofit of the same name, was announced in June. Fresnoland Lab features three reporters covering land use, housing, water and development challenges that contribute to regional inequality. It benefits from the same impact fund that funnels money into Education Lab, according to Moore.
The model for Fresnoland is different from the Education Lab, Kieta said, because much of the work was already happening but lacked The Fresno Bee’s built-in audience. Early work includes coverage of rental assistance programs for local residents struggling during pandemic-related lockdowns.
“We’re still in the early stages, and we’re already doing work that’s impactful,” Kieta said.
The Fresno Bee coverage could not have occurred, Ritchey said, without partnerships with groups such as Fresnoland and the Central Valley Community Foundation. Having those nonprofit partners helped residents overcome concerns about contributing to a for-profit operation, he said.
“If you can get that relationship in place, [residents] are much more comfortable giving money to a community foundation,” Ritchey said.