By Jay Small • LMA chief operating officer

Focused on how COVID-19 affects education in their state, news organizations in the Oklahoma Media Center collaborative have delivered several high-impact stories in the two months since the first article was shared.

The Oklahoma Media Center, launched by Local Media Foundation with financial support from Inasmuch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners. The OMC’s first project is called Changing Course: Education & COVID.

“It’s been wonderful to see OMC newsrooms embrace not just the sharing of stories, but also the sharing of ideas on how to tackle the problems Oklahoma’s schools are facing in the midst of a pandemic,” said Jim Brady, CEO of Spirited Media and LMA consultant serving as OMC project manager. “The number of reporters we can throw at any topic has declined dramatically in the past decade, and our goal now has to be to use those remaining resources in a smart, non-duplicative way. And it was nice to see newsrooms — many of whom have competed for years — agree with that and throw in together for this effort.”

Since July 10, 20 news stories on this topic have been shared for redistribution among collaborative partners, including these:

StateImpact and The Oklahoman investigate rural districts ignoring COVID guidelines

Prior to the start of the school year, Oklahoma state officials advised districts to close and have students learn from home when their county reaches a level of 25 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. In an investigation published Aug. 24 (at The Oklahoman | at StateImpact), OMC partners The Oklahoman and StateImpact surveyed 136 districts in counties at that level or higher, and found only six would start the year with distance learning.

Reporters Nuria Martinez-Keel of The Oklahoman and Robby Korth of StateImpact also found that roughly a third of districts in the survey implemented mask mandates for students and faculty. And they cited examples of policy conflicts between rural school administrators and boards of education, as well as among state government leaders.

“The story was the result of our participation in the OMC,” said Logan Layden, managing editor, StateImpact. “I don’t think it would’ve occurred to us to work with an Oklahoman reporter without OMC.”
Layden said the initial experience with this collaboration excited the StateImpact education and health reporters. “They can work with journalists across our collaborative, which increases the number of people who see and hear their stories, and fosters good working relationships among the partner outlets. They all want to do more together, which can only be a good thing.”

The joint report was redistributed by the Tulsa World, another OMC partner, and others in the collaborative.

OMC survey results table
Districts’ answer to this question became the focus of the survey report.

Lessons for fall from districts that moved to online learning last spring

StateImpact produced another survey-based report showing how Oklahoma school districts took things they learned from interrupted spring schedules and applied them to instruction plans for fall and beyond, as well as contingency plans in case in-person learning must shift back to online.

In this case, the survey of local districts was conducted by the Oklahoma State Department of Education back in May. StateImpact obtained survey data via an open records request.

Joe Wertz, senior environment reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, serves as a contributing data journalist to the Oklahoma Media Center. Wertz worked with the StateImpact team to research survey results and narrow the focus.

Joe Wertz

“After talking to Robby [Korth, the reporter] and Logan [Layden, StateImpact managing editor], we decided that one of the survey questions was really the most important one to share and visualize,” Wertz said. “I prototyped a really basic version of the graphic and sent it to them to test on their website. Once we got it working, I added some colors and a search bar and cleaned up the formatting a bit. Then we re-tested on the website and made sure the embedded graphic looked good on mobile and tablets.

“I also read through Robby’s story and script during their edit, just to put another set of eyes on things and confirm his interpretation of the data and numbers in the story,” he added.

NonDoc explores a dilemma: No-bid education contracts for speed vs. transparent, efficient use of CARES funds

Tres Savage at NonDoc reported on education service contracts executed by Oklahoma’s state government without public bid processes, using funds from the federal CARES Act. The conundrum: skipping the public bid process speeds implementation of the education services in a time of crisis, but also makes oversight of the contractors and funds less transparent, and may jump over more competitive suppliers of similar services.

As schools open, The Frontier checks on district responses when cases spike

In the first days of Oklahoma schools’ reopening for fall, Ben Felder at The Frontier examined school districts’ responses when new COVID-19 cases were reported among students and faculty.

One rural district quickly closed classrooms and switched to virtual learning. Others struggled with methods of contact tracing and controlling spread once a new COVID case emerged.

Griffin Communications websites, stations both contribute and redistribute

KWTV News 9 in Oklahoma City, owned by OMC partner Griffin Communications, produced a story describing how students and parents try to cope with the lack of normality in going to school — whether a consequence of online learning, suspension of extracurricular activities, or absence of in-person social events like proms and graduation ceremonies.

That story was picked up by, among others, The Oklahoman on its website. And Griffin sites have redistributed shared content from other OMC partners, including a story from Oklahoma Watch describing the wide variations in mask-wearing and in-person learning policies across Oklahoma districts.

Ryan Welton

“This has been a challenging process, challenging in a good way,” said Ryan Welton, director of digital content for Griffin. “For the creation of stories, we’ve worked out a reporting workflow, and for the sharing of stories, we’ve added to our capabilities on the site. Little things like adding bylines from journalists who aren’t in-house. We’re set up to do this, and now we can focus on getting quicker about both reporting and sharing.

“Understand that for us, our focus is not on creating original content as much as it is amplifying the content, digitally, produced by our journalist colleagues on TV,” he said.

News organizations participating in the Oklahoma Media Center include Big If True, the Center for Independent Journalism, CNHI Oklahoma, Curbside Chronicle, Griffin Communications, KFOR, KGOU, KOSU, The Luther Register, NonDoc, Oklahoma City Free Press, Oklahoma Eagle, OU Student Media, Oklahoma Watch, The Frontier, The Oklahoman, StateImpact Oklahoma, Telemundo Oklahoma, the Tulsa World and VNN.