Category Archives: News

Thank You, Puget Sounders. Now Go Save Your Public Radio Station.

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I couldn’t have been prouder to stand with this group of people. The KPLU News Team, Nov. 12, 2015.

I knew I’d gotten lucky. I’d visited this school in a highly-diverse south Seattle neighborhood. My predecessor on the education beat had covered this school’s efforts to turn itself around before, and from my visit, it was clear those efforts were starting to pick up speed. The staff were doing interesting work. The students told fascinating stories. I knew I had to get to know this school intimately, but I needed to convince my bosses to give me the time — a lot of time — to go.

The pitch I gave them could not have been more shapeless or open-ended — um, maybe this could be a thing? like, a Big Thing? like, a long-form project, maybe? — but it couldn’t have mattered less. I was pushing on an open door. KPLU’s editors value giving reporters the space and time needed to do journalism that matters. More than a year (and a teachers strike and a court decision or two) later, KPLU aired Renaissance Beach, a documentary about Rainier Beach High School.

My name’s on the byline, but KPLU itself deserves a lot of the credit.

So it is with deep gratitude — for all the ambition, dedication, curiosity and tenacity that drives KPLU; for the year and ten months I spent tapping into that amazing energy — that I share some news about me: I’m moving to Los Angeles. I’ve taken a job covering education for NPR member station KPCC in Pasadena. I will leave KPLU on January 15. Continue reading

Why We Were There

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It’s like this:

If University of Missouri biologists cured cancer, you — you, reading this — would want to know how they did it.

You’d want a picture of the pill that would save the lives of millions. You’d want to know what it looked like. How many times a day do you take the pill that cures cancer? Do you have to consume it with food?

You’d want to know how Mizzou paid for it, because you’d want to send the funder a thank you note. Maybe the government funded it, so you’d want to write your state rep and tell them which program’s funding to double.

You’d want to hear the emotion in the lead MU researcher’s voice as she told you that she worked 20-hour days and worked through years of failed trials because her dad died of cancer when she was 7. Left fatherless, she devoted her life to a goal that everyone told her was impossible to attain.

You’d also want to know if they were kidding. You’d want to know how many Nobel laureates reviewed their data. You’d want to know how solid were their experimental controls. You’d want to know whether the pill has side effects. You’d want to know whether the biologist was simply toying with our emotions in a gambit to double their program’s funding, win sympathy for herself or paper over the fact that the cure wasn’t scientifically proven to work at all.

In other words, you’d want to know all the things they didn’t put in the varnished press release.

But if anything, you’d want someone there who’s good with a camera so the picture of you looks good in the history books.

You want us there so you can always remember exactly how it was that day we all gathered on Carnahan Quad to celebrate — of all things — the end of a pestilence; that we partied like Mizzou Football was No. 1 again; that we danced for joy that cancer would soon claim its last life.

Who does this job? Journalists. On their good days. On our good days. We do this job. We live to cover that cancer cure, that World Series win, that school defying the odds, that time the little guy — once, just once — stuck it to the man.

On our bad days, we ask the Klan what the fuck they’re doing in our town. We ask the displaced disaster victim what they need right now — water? food? shelter? blankets? How can the watching world help you at this very moment? We ask the politician why he squandered our money — and we feel like an ass doing it because we ambush him and stick the mic in his face. But this elected douchebag has been dodging the voicemails and emails and knocks on his door that all of you — that’s you, again; all of you reading this — absolutely did not have the time, wherewithal, gumption or resources to carry out.

We do all of that, too. And when we mess up, we’re transparent about it. Few professions are quite as open about their faults as we are. We correct stories. We put liars out to pasture. It’s messy business, and we’re not perfect. There are bad apples among us.

But the point here is that there are plenty of Fortune 500’s that make bad calls, too, but when they make bad calls, they can simply lay off 2,200 employees and call it capitalism. When we make bad calls, you threaten us.

And even when we make good calls, when we’re there for the right reasons, when we act within every boundary of our profession’s ethics and our society’s laws, sometimes you threaten us for that, too.

You threaten us with “muscle.” You block our cameras.

We’re “the media,” you spit at us with derision. You wave our sins — the dirty laundry we often air ourselves — in our faces. You coveted our presence when few of us are there, yet you deny the value of our presence when many of us arrive.

We know that it’s a sensitive request to ask students of color to share their stories of pain and victimization. We know not everyone is willing to share these stories.

But so many of you gathered in hopes of spreading awareness that students are in pain and are being victimized. We imagine your critiques of “the media” would be far harsher if journalists didn’t attempt to ask you about it at all — or if “the media” ignored your protest entirely.

Honestly, we saw you gathered in a public place. Although people typically do want to speak to the media when they’re gathered in this way, we know you are under no obligation to do so. But in a public place, journalists are going to do what they are paid to do: ask the question and take the picture. And we cannot ever apologize for that.

We don’t think you — yes, you again… you still there? — would want us to. Some police officers disregard the laws about cameras in public when it’s convenient. Some government agencies would rather have embarrassing or controversial public business conducted in secret. Journalists have to know what American citizens can and cannot do while they’re in a public space, meeting or right-of-way — and we’re sensitive about this because it’s so fundamental not only to our jobs, but to our society’s belief in the free exchange of ideas.

Journalists don’t suspect #ConcernedStudent1950 is trying to maintain opacity because they have something embarrassing to hide. We have no right to expect protesters to comment for our stories. And we also can understand that many simply don’t know about laws governing our rights in public spaces and right-of-ways. (The only laypeople I have encountered who get it are truly abortion clinic protesters who take meticulous care to stay on public sidewalks.)

But why was “muscle” necessary to remove journalists, and not Brother Jed? As in, the homophobic, hate-spewing preacher who for years occupied Speakers’ Circle — the campus’ famed venue for anyone who wants to protest publicly without a permit just yards from where #ConcernedStudent1950 camped?

I want to be clear: #ConcernedStudent1950’s victory today is not the cure for the cancer of racism. I have no illusions of that. That’s not the analogy I’m trying to make. And on this point, too, I’ll be clear: Tim Wolfe and Bowin Loftin aren’t cancer or the Klan or a natural disaster. That’s not the analogy I’m trying to make, either.

The analogy I’m making is that #ConcernedStudent1950 won a victory that will be remembered at the University of Missouri for ages to come. As a proud alum, I’ve learned something from them. I hope they start a conversation that will not cease until their are no more slurs, cotton balls, swastikas, or any other manifestation of racism, overt or not.

When University of Missouri students deal a great blow to racism, you — you, reading this right now — want to know how they did it.

And that’s not only why journalists are there. That’s why you want us there.

Serial: Hold All Comments ‘Til The End

Courtesy of Serial

Courtesy of Serial

Of course I listened. I listened obsessively, like basically everyone with a smartphone, the whole time fighting an urge to flood social network feeds with every possible thought that occurred to me about the most talked-about podcast ever.

I held extended comments until the end for two reasons: (1) I wanted to comment on the whole body of work. (2) I’m a member of the public media family, and this family has a bad habit of eating its own young prematurely — so I didn’t want to prematurely comment.

But it’s over now. So here goes:

Marketing. Serial is public media’s first inorganic success. It is the first public media product to succeed not because of the quality of its storytelling or its journalism — and it is generally-speaking quality journalism and quality storytelling — but because of the quality of its marketing. Dig past all the next-big-thing headlines and you’ll find signs of a choreographed launch: placement in Slate and industry media leading up to the release of its first episode on the already-successful (duh) This American Life. We forgave Serial its faults because it was already a cultural commodity — and this is where I found the Serial-to-House of Cards binge-watching analogy to be the most apt: we didn’t all follow every plot twist and detailed point of HOC, but we powered through anyway because everyone was watching.

Earned opinions. Serial was at its strongest when it earned opinions about a verifiable set of facts. I think it’s what made the show’s non-chronological-yet-chronological narrative structure work — and it’s what kept me coming back. For instance, “Route Talk” is my favorite episode. In it, Sarah Koening laid out all of the finer points of the cell phone records, piece by piece. Finally, when all of the evidence was on the table, producer Dana Chivvis comes in and essentially says, ‘I’ve gone over and over this, I know this evidence as well as anyone, and I think the most logical explanation is that Adnan’s phone was in Leakin Park.’ This show’s forward momentum came not from probing the inner emotions of an alleged killer, but from facts — from twisting what Koenig called “the Rubik’s cube of this case” through as many permutations as possible and highlighting the permutations that made the most sense. It’s what Mike Pesca calls an “earned opinion” — when a journalist knows a subject as well as anyone and has tried to see it from as many points of view as possible, sometimes the greatest service a journalist can offer is their perspective on seemingly inscrutable facts. It’s not a journalist telling you how she feels per se, but rather taking a body of evidence like a set of disorganized dots and showing the most logical way to connect them.

‘Eyes like a diary cow.’ Listeners deserved to know “The Deal,” so to speak, “With Jay,” with Adnan, with Hae; with any of the principals in this case. We deserved to hear Koenig’s admission that she cared about this case because was intrigued by Adnan — the “nice guy”-turned-(supposedly)-violent-killer. It’s an admission that produced the best Adnan-Sarah exchange of the podcast, at the end of Episode 6: “If I’m going to spend a year finding out he’s a nice guy, I might as well piss off.” But Serial was at its weakest — and most seriously troubling — when it tried to see past Adnan’s explicit motivations, past his brown “dairy cow” eyes and into his psychological state of mind. At best, it was boring. At worst, it felt like Koenig was just vamping, riffing off speculations about what was going through his 17-year-old head 15 years ago with psychologists who never met the guy. Episode 11 should’ve never aired; it’s title “Rumors” should’ve been a giveaway. I so desperately want to separate the Serial that picks apart the timeline of the state’s case, so meticulously lays out the just-as-damning evidence against Adnan, explores the biases that skewed his jury and ultimately leaves so many questioning whether our legal system actually works; from the Serial that ham-handedly explores the same questions Nancy Grace asks every night at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Race. In nearly every story I’ve ever covered, race has been a factor. Sometimes it’s far in the background, and mentioning it would make no logical sense. Sometimes it’s obviously a factor, and leaving it out would put an unaddressed elephant in the room. It’s a judgment call. Journalists deserve some deference in making it, even when we do find ourselves “stomping around” in communities we don’t know at first. If and when I make the wrong call one day, critics will be right to speak out — but I hope they’ll be more specific than Jay Caspian Kang’s dismissal of SerialI thought the whole of the facts and Koenig’s body of subsequent reporting didn’t support his argument. I don’t want to shut the door on the conversation about the intersections of race, culture and Serial, because I admit to cringing in a few places at how Koenig handled this moment or that — her conversation with Adnan’s mother in Episode 10 comes to mind. But Conor Friersdorf is so on the money here: “Critiques shouldn’t hinge on whether the journalist ‘feels like’ an interloper, or was disabused of ignorance in the reporting process.” And journalists who actually do go wrong on issues of race don’t need a bludgeoning. They need a clear explanation of what they did wrong and an understanding of how to do it right the next time.

Did he do it? As a juror, I also vote to acquit — but who knows. From Episode 12, I gather Koenig, Chivvis and fellow producer Julie Snyder worry like I do that no case could stand up to this scrutiny. They cite their private investigator as saying this case is not ordinary — it’s problematic in a way that isn’t normal for a criminal case like this. But on this score, too: who knows. I’m worried one of two things just happened: (1) We all just spent two-and-a-half months rapt by a podcast that, by its nature, lends equal weight to so many pieces of evidence in the case when really, there are some pieces of evidence that are more important than others — the fact that Jay did know where Hae’s car was, for instance; a view of Serial that ultimately suggests Adnan is guilty… or (2) we all just spent two-and-a-half months rapt by a podcast that was focused on all the wrong evidence because the right evidence was never collected (see: the end of Episode 12); a view of Serial that suggests Adnan is not guilty. And also suggests we all just basically sat around listening to a washing machine for two-and-a-half months expecting it to play Jingle Bells.

Structure. Serial played out like a paint-by-numbers picture: Episode 1 laid out all the basic outlines in black and white, and each successive episode has added a new shade of color to different slivers of the narrative. There’s obvious merit to this approach. I also can’t help but think of how Serial would sound different if it actually played out chronologically — not in the “we followed our reporting from the very beginning up to the present day” sense, but if the reporting team, say, began their podcast with Hae’s disappearance. Of course, this is just a thought exercise at this point, but I think there’s a case to be made here that the emulators who (as seems both right and inevitable) follow on Serial‘s success might actually try a more traditional beginning-middle-end structure with better narrative results.

The really tricky thing for emulators here is that Serial‘s greatest strength (see: ‘Marketing,’ above) obscures whether Serial truly worked as a narrative. It was so popular that Sarah Koenig could have gone on about what nail polish Hae was wearing and it would’ve been the most-listened-to 20 minutes of podcasting that’s ever existed.

Don’t mistake any above criticism for overall dislike: On the whole, I really did love Serial. On balance, the amazing outweighs the cringe-inducing. I really can’t wait for Season Two. I’ll listen with just as much devotion. I only hope through discussion of the podcast’s high-points and low-points, we purveyors of public media can learn the right lessons from Serial about the work we do and the work we will do.

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I’m Moving To Seattle!

Seattle, from Lake Union. Seattle!

Seattle, from Lake Union. Seattle!

The bluest skies I’ve ever seen — some-thing some-thing… And the hills the greenest green — some-thing some-thing

I can’t be the first to lean on Perry Como to deliver this exact news, but the man had good lyricists and the words are resonating with me as I slowly break some life news to more and more people:

I’m moving to Seattle! Some charitable souls convinced the capable, experienced team at KPLU to hire yours truly to report on youth issues and education policy. It’s a really exciting opportunity to report across platforms — on the radio and on the station’s cool platform for online feature reporting, Quirksee.

When it’s time to leave your home and your loved ones, it’s the hardest thing a boy can ever do…

The move will be bittersweet. Thrilled as I am to tackle a new challenge, I’m parting company — in a physical sense, anyway — with some fantastic people in Indiana. I work with some truly amazing, funny, smart, talented and driven individuals at WFIU & WTIU and I’m blessed to call them my friends. Public media friends, keep a close eye on the work these people are doing. They’re fantastic.

Equally difficult will be letting go of StateImpact Indiana. I often tell people who ask that I feel a sense of paternal ownership over that project — I did help launch the blog two-and-a-half years ago — but of course, it’s not my baby alone. It’s the result of hard work by my closest colleagues at WFIU. It’s the result a talented team NPR who ably shaped the project’s editorial vision and offered training to the project’s reporters that truly changed the trajectory of my career. I cannot thank them enough for trusting me to tackle a challenge so great.

Seattle! Can you see Mt. Rainier, coming out from under the clouds?

Seattle! Can you see Mt. Rainier, coming out from under the clouds?

Like a beautiful child, growing up, free and wild…

I’m excited to make this move. KPLU has a great digital strategy in place and I love how their work sounds on the air.

On top of that, one of my dear friends out there keeps selling me on Seattle as “Minnesota West.” The parallels are certainly hard to miss — water, pine, lots of Scandanavians and lots of former Vikings winning rings on the Seahawks. But I’m not moving out there for familiar sights, sounds and scents — I’m moving out there for the new ones. It’s time for a new adventure, a new place and a new challenge.

I love you all! See you soon, Emerald City.

Full of hopes and full of fears,
full of laughter, full of tears,
full of dreams to last the years
in Seattle.

In Seattle!

How I’ve Put Free, Simple Data Viz Tools To Use In My Reporting

One highlight of my Online News Association 2013 Conference experience: sharing the stage with some talented journos to deliver a lightning talk about what we can learn from the StateImpact project. The whole speech was a blur, but I guess I gushed about Google Fusion tools a little bit — there’s Twevidence:

.@kystokes “I can’t code, but I can do (#Google) Fusion Tables. I love this stuff.” #ona13centerstage #ONA13 @vanessagene — David Smydra (@smydrad) October 19, 2013

@smydrad Nice! Would love to see stories you’ve used it for, @kystokes? — Vanessa Schneider (@vanessagene) October 19, 2013

Happy to oblige, Google Geo Media Program Manager Vanessa Schneider. (She, along with Amanda Hickman, gave an #ona13 talk on Google’s data visualization tools. I’m sorry to say I missed it live, but thankfully, there’s audio of the session here.)

Guys, Google Fusion Tables are amazing. They take some getting used to. There are growing pains. There are certainly quirks to feel around. But thankfully, there are tons of great resources on using them — like this primer from StateImpact Oklahoma‘s Joe Wertz.

Clearly, the system has its limitations. You can’t pull off heat maps or data apps like this or this with Google Fusion Tables without some heavier lifting. Displaying two layers of data is a possible, but a challenge. But don’t get caught up in that. With relative ease, Fusion does make a bunch of ambitious, time-consuming, unruly projects in Microsoft Excel seem doable — even on deadline. Here are three favorite examples:

  • Election 2012 Stories. These maps of contributions to the political campaigns of the Republican and Democratic candidates for the state’s top elected education office required more work in Excel than on Fusion tables — the data needed lots of cleaning. But I love these so much more for the stories they drove — about the GOP incumbent’s rising national star (“rising” at the time, anyway) and the grassroots effort that drove the Democratic challenger’s improbable upset.
  • Layering Points & Polygons. To tell the story of which charter schools “compete” for enrollment with traditional public schools, we really need to layer two different datasets — polygons of traditional district boundaries and points representing the addresses of the charter schools. That’s not functionality endemic to Fusion Tables. But I got unreasonably excited to find a free tool that displayed two separate layers of data at once. It not only visualized the data, but led to one of the story’s central points: only one in ten school districts in Indiana has a charter school within its boundaries (but those districts account for one-third of the state’s total student population).
  • ‘The 165 Story.’ In the midst of a controversy over how Indiana’s high-stakes academic performance ratings for schools were calculated — a controversy that focused largely on one charter school — I put together a map that visualized an analysis of the numbers showing the impact of the changes were much broader than the media was discussing. Instead of a handful of schools, we showed that 165 schools saw their “A-F grades” improve because of the change. The map isn’t all that different from the election projects in substance, but once again, they became interactive centerpieces of the broader stories I hoped to tell.
  • Test Score Resources. The crack development team that built the StateImpact platform was prescient enough to include plugins for sortable tables driven by Google, but we’ve done a couple of visualizations of test score data by district — and we’ve found they have a long shelf-life. (Here’s another and another for good measure.)

As I allude to above, much of the real lifting here comes in acquiring the data and cleaning it up in Excel before uploading it to Google Fusion Tables. If you have questions about that, leave me a comment. While you’re at it, leave critiques for the pieces, because honestly, I still feel like I’m building this airplane as I fly it.

I’d be remiss to wrap up this post without a shout-out to former StateImpacters Matt Stiles, Jessica Pupovac and Elise Hu, who all preached the Google Fusion Tables evangel during their time with the project. They taught me what I know.

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Now On The Record: My Rules About Going ‘Off The Record’

Courtesy WTIU

Courtesy WTIU

I think more journalists should be as clear as possible about the ethical codes governing their reporting process; too often, too much is left unsaid.

In particular, I think many people who act as sources for journalists may have false notions about the difference between doing an interview “on the record” and having an “off-the-record” conversation — or, more insidiously, the difference between a “background” and “off-the-record” conversation.

With that in mind, I’ve appended a section to my Ethics page about how I view “going off the record” in which I outline a few rules for sources to know: Continue reading

Shots Fired

First, watch this video. We don’t know who shot it or why this person put it on the web.

Then, consider when this shooting happened — and where — in Columbia, Mo. From The Tribune:

Police have released very few details about a shooting at Tenth Street and Broadway that injured three people early Saturday morning in downtown Columbia… A news release said the incident happened at 12:26 a.m.

(That’s two blocks from the most iconic college bar in my college town at the exact time it was full of college students — to say nothing of the quarter-mile walk from the front doors of my school. It’s maybe half a mile from the place I called home.) Continue reading

Church Shopping

St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minn. This is where my parents were married and where my grandparents still attend — it's the place I've felt most comfortable attending services in the past decade, in which I can't say I've had a true church home.

St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minn. This is where my parents were married and where my grandparents still attend — it’s the place I’ve felt most comfortable attending services in the past decade, during which I can’t say I’ve had a true church home.

I’ve been a Submarine Christian — the kind, we joke, that surfaces only on Easter and Christmas — for the better part of a decade now, a longer period of time than I can now fairly explain away by recalling my parents’ discontent with my childhood church home or busy weekends in college.

So let’s get heavy now, shall we? As I resolve here and now to stop thinking about church-shopping and to start actually church-shopping, I’ve been thinking a lot about the profound disconnect between how comfortable I am identifying as a Christian and the cumulative discomfort I’ve felt every time I’ve attended a church service in roughly the past six years.

It’s very possible this is all my fault — that, aside from being lazy about rolling out of bed on Sunday mornings, I’m just a picky customer. I don’t want rock bands, coffee shops or T-shirted pastors sitting cross-legged on a stage. I’m too progressive for most traditional Protestant denominations (which, I grant, works greatly to narrow my search) but I’m not progressive enough to reject some very traditional notions about church liturgy and even some traditional notions about church doctrine.

Look, I’m going to be fine. I know part of finding a church home is for me to put in a reasonable amount of effort. But why is it that I believe every word of The Apostle’s Creed, yet have also come to shorthand my frustration with my church search by simply telling people who ask, “I love Jesus, but I don’t always love Jesus’ people”? Continue reading

Who Died And Made Deadspin King?

Tommy Craggs, via.

Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs, via.

After hitting paydirt with their Manti Te’o scoop, the response of Deadspin’s staff to legitimate questions about their methods has all the charm of an obnoxious touchdown dance that’s gone on too long.

Exhibit A: Why didn’t Deadspin’s staff put real effort into contacting Manti Te’o or Notre Dame before posting the piece? The lengthiest answer to this I’ve seen the site’s editor Tommy Craggs give in text is this one, from Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Program:

We did what we could to get those “critical components,” but we weren’t betting our shirts that Notre Dame or anyone from the Te’o camp would to talk to us. It’s fun to imagine some frictionless plane of journalism where potentially hostile sources return phone calls and grudgingly fill in all the blanks out of some sense of duty to the truth, but that’s now what we were working with. If we’d sat on the story for a day, maybe even hours, I have no doubt we would’ve been scooped by the story’s own principals, to say nothing of ESPN.  Continue reading

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My Post On NPR Politics: What The Debate Over Pence’s Budget Says About The GOP & Taxes

Look, ma! I’m on It’s All Politics on NPR.org:

When Republican Mike Pence replaced Mitch Daniels as governor of Indiana this month, he wasted no time setting out to establish his conservative fiscal bona fides.

Pence, who made a name for himself in the U.S. House as a social conservative, rolled out a proposal to cut Indiana’s state income tax rate by 10 percent over the next two years. He joined Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Nebraska’s Dave Heineman and other Republican governors in pushing for state income tax cuts.

In theory, it should be an easy sell for Pence. Indiana has a projected budget surplus of $518 million next year. And like 24 other Republican governors this year, Pence enjoys Republican majorities in the Legislature to work with. In fact, Pence enjoys Republican supermajorities in each chamber.

But it may be harder than Pence expected. Prominent Republican lawmakers in Indiana are lukewarm at best on the new governor’s tax cut plan, preferring to replenish funding to programs the recession forced them to cut and shore up Indiana’s budget for the long haul.

“I was here in 1998 when we had a $2 billion surplus,” Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma told reporters last week. “I was here and became speaker in 2004 when we were $1.4 billion in the red. This isn’t a two-year budget cycle concern. This is a long-term sustainability issue for the state of Indiana.”

This post is a national version of a post I did for StateImpact Indiana, breaking down where Bosma & Pence stand on the tax cut question. Big ups to NPR’s Chris Swope in editing and feeding this up the ladder.