In Switzerland, children attend school for 228 days a year. In South Korea, it’s 220 days.
By this measure, California looks like a slacker.
The typical California school year lasts about 180 days – and it's shrinking. California Watch Senior Reporter Louis Freedberg recently surveyed the 30 largest K-12 districts across the state and found the majority are slicing deeper into the school year – cutting to as low as 175 days to help balance their budgets.
La Opinion's Spanish version of the story.
The story went live on our website July 15. So far, nearly 20 media partners have published or broadcast versions of the story. It aired on TV. It played on public radio. And with the help of New America Media, it appeared in five languages, including Korean, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese.
This broad distribution strategy helped California Watch reach well over 1 million readers, viewers and listeners – considerably more than we would have reached if we had partnered with any single news organization, even the largest in the state.
Different versions of our story ran across an 11-day period on the front pages of the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Daily News and the Riverside Press Enterprise. Broadcast partner KGO-TV aired a story on July 15. Our primary collaborator, KQED-Public Radio, broadcast the story in different venues. The California Report aired a segment, as did KQED-FM's "Forum" talk show. The issue also received attention on KQED's news round-up "This Week In Northern California."
Many of our newspaper partners worked up significant local inserts to better serve their readerships.
As we carve our niche in the California-media landscape, we are finding new ways to reach an audience. If we had one word to describe our distribution model it would be this: flexible. We craft a new distribution strategy for each story we produce, depending on the topic and the intensity of local interest. Many of our stories don't need to be localized at all. They are statewide stories that don't have particularly strong local angles. Our piece this week about campaign donations to Carly Fiorina was one such example. The story ran on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle pretty much exactly as it was written by Senior Reporter Lance Williams. That's more of a traditional way that an outside contractor such as California Watch might provide content to a publisher or broadcast outlet. But the way we delivered our school-year package to news partners serves as a nice case study to illustrate some of the new and uncommon ways we are doing business here in our fast-growing newsroom.
Tightening up the story lengths
It started with an idea by Freedberg to survey the state's largest districts and find out what they planned to do about the length of the coming school year. He had written an earlier blog post about districts "thinking about" making cuts, but we wanted to nail it down. That research yielded a 1,900-word story edited by Senior Editor Robert Salladay. The full-length version would run on our own website. But we needed alternate drafts for our partners. Almost every time we produce a story, we generate condensed versions to appeal to news editors who want tighter, targeted content. We carved three distinct shorter versions – all in the 1,100 to 1,200 word range. Our North version played up examples from San Francisco and San Jose and cut examples form San Diego. We made sure the Sacramento area and Central Valley examples were highlighted for a Central version. The South version contained anecdotes from Los Angeles Unified and San Diego-area schools, but not Fremont and San Jose.
Participating in tag-team journalism
We began e-mailing and calling potential news partners a couple weeks before the story appeared. We hoped the reporting process would continue once Freedberg and Salladay were finished with our draft. We invited other news outlets to insert local examples or to write their own sidebars. This type of collaboration appeals to many of our partners, and several of them leapt at the chance – including the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, North County Times, Ventura County Star and Riverside Press Enterprise.
Riverside ran our story 11 days later with more local inserts.
The ability for our partners to add local content makes all the difference to news outlets that are attempting to serve their readership. Examples from San Francisco carry a lot less meaning to readers in Camarillo or Oceanside. We’ve developed strong relationships with editors and producers inside newsrooms who are eager to engage their local reporting resources to help finish the work that we’ve started, replacing far-flung examples with ones closer to home. It’s tag-team journalism. And we’re happy to facilitate it. The more time we can give our partners to complete this work, the better.
Building and tapping the distribution network
Over the past eight months, we have developed an impressive list of newsroom contacts up and down the state. Since we launched, California Watch content has appeared in more than 70 news outlets. We've set an informal goal of attempting to add at least one new distribution partner every time we publish a major story. The broader our distribution ambitions, the more people we need to help push out a story. Sarah Terry-Cobo has been a key assistant in building our distribution network over the past several months. On this story, she helped Freedberg get the word out to news editors and news directors. Robert Rosenthal, our executive director at the Center for Investigative Reporting, also pitched in. We started by circulating a story summary, showing news partners the first 335 words.
The San Francisco Chronicle ran the story a few days after the embargo.
By July 9, we began shipping the three shorter regional versions to potential partners based on their geographic location. That gave news organizations about a week to make changes or add sections before our news embargo would be lifted. When media partners alter or add to our content, we ask that they run changes by us. Since it's our byline on the story, this is a step we insist upon. Some news organizations assigned a local reporter to finish in time for the July 16 print embargo. A few others wanted more work done and waited as much as 10 additional days before publishing the story. The Riverside Press Enterprise published its version with significant local inserts this week.
A new way of thinking inside partner newsrooms
In the old days (and by that I mean up until a few years ago), news organizations demanded exclusivity. They competed fiercely with one another to be first – even though the vast majority of their subscribers or viewers had far better things to do than keep a scorecard tracking who was getting the most regional scoops. The strong competitive instinct still exists in newsrooms. And it would be a real shame if the flame were to die. That said, we’re seeing more pragmatic editors who recognize that it doesn’t really matter if a California Watch story appears in San Francisco a week before it runs in Riverside. Readers in Oxnard probably aren’t reading the Santa Rosa Press Democrat – either in print or online. Readers in Carlsbad probably could care less about what’s going on in Elk Grove hundreds of miles away. That basic reality has liberated editors to run local versions of our stories several days after the embargo date. The extra time allows them to prepare deeper, localized versions for their own market. But that's not the only factor resulting in later publication dates. In some cases, editors simply want to wait until they have more space to do the story justice. Or they want to release it on a slower news day when they could really use a good story. We saw all of these factors come into play on the school-year project.
Found in translation
California Watch believes strongly in making sure our stories reach new audiences. And the state's ethnic-media outlets are helping us meet that goal. For the school-year package, we again joined forces with New America Media, the San Francisco-based news center that has built a network of hundreds of ethnic-media organizations across the country. New America Media reporters Rupa Dev and Vivian Po generated a story about school board response and a story about parents' reactions that we offered to our partners. On top of that, New America Media helped us get the story translated in Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese. La Opinion, a frequent California Watch partner, provided the Spanish-language translation. Our story has reached at least 160,000 ethnic-media subscribers in California.
A Chinese-language version appeared in the International Daily News.
So does this strategy work? We think that it does. Putting this distribution model to work led to a broad audience for the story, reaching an estimated 1.15 million newspaper subscribers and about 200,000 TV viewers and radio listeners through our partners at KGO-TV in San Francisco and KQED-Public Radio. Our goal as a new-era news organization is to produce stories with impact. And we believe we greatly enhance our chances by reaching as many readers and listeners as possible.