Press Day 2007
Maps/Directions

 

Story Ideas from Press Day 2006 (A. Lenhoff)

The Investigative Story

The one ability "mainstream media" has these days is the investigative story. We have the resources, the space and the time to remain relevant by digging deeper.

The newspaper has lost its advantage of "getting the story first." It was first evident way back in 1963 as TV and radio beat newspapers to the story of the century, the assassination of President Kennedy. A more recent example of daily newspapers getting "burned" was the recent coal mine disaster in West Virginia, when pressed against deadlines, the morning papers went with the "good news" of a mine rescue, when in fact only one miner survived as newspaper headlines embarassing had the opposite story.

Do what others cannot

After judging the best overall newspaper competition for the 2006 Press Day competition, Henry Gomez, a Plain Dealer reporter, commented, "I didn't read anything that probably wasn't already on Mary Smith's MySpace.com page.

Gomez has joined with one of his former editors, Guy Vogrin of the Tribune Chronicle, and one of his former journalism professors, to develop a series of story ideas that will make your adviser nervous, your principal panicked and your readers incredibly informed. "If you're making administrators nervous, you're doing a damn good job," Gomez said.

From how to cover teen pregnancy and drug usage to your school's performance to how tax dollars are being used in your district, we have developed a list of story ideas that you can actually accomplish.

More ideas will be added periodically. Please check back often.

Investigative Reporting is the future for newspapers.Get your notebooks ready for real advice on stories you can actually accomplish.

The Internet and blogs have joined with older mediums such as TV and radio to pose the biggest threat print media has ever faced. News is broken online before it gets to TV, let alone the morning newspaper. Immediacy is everything.

It's all about the money...
"I don't go to press conferences." -- Bob Woodward

Reporters get real information that people need and want by digging, not just showing up at a press conference.

Much of the information that people want and need the most deals with money -- theirs.

A large part of any good reporter's job is to investigate how taxpayer dollars are being used.

As a high school journalist, you also have a responsibility to investigate how your school district is using your parents' and your neighbors' money.

Below, we have outlined several stories that you can tackle. Please know that by reporting and publishing therse stories, you are fulfilling an important public need.

Believe it or not, you have a right and a responsibility to report about salaries paid to administrators, teachers and staff of your school district.

Under Ohio's Open Records law, you have a right to know how much your school district is paying its superintendent, its principals, its teachers and its staff members.

STEPS FOR REPORTING THE STORY

1. Decide what story you'd like to write. There are countless options. Here are some: * A story comparing salaries paid to teachers in your district to teachers in other districts. For this story, you would need to collect the data from the districts you select. You will need to analyze your findings. How does your district compare? Do you have higher salaries? Do you have lower salaries?

You will then need to talk with officials from all districts selected. Share with them your findings and ask them to interpret them. What does it mean? Why does your district pay more or less?

Next, you will want to talk with some teachers and staff members and ask them to react to your findings.

Additionally, you will want to talk with some taxpayers of your district and ask them to react to the findings.

A final recommended step is to talk with members of your board of education. You will want to ask the board members more detailed questions about the salaries.

  • A story comparing salaries paid to administrators in your district to administrators in other districts. Follow the steps outlined above.
  • A story comparing salaries paid to staff members in your district to staff members in other districts. Follow the steps outlined above. For the stories outlined above, you can report all three and run them as a series.

2. Draft a letter to the superintendent or the treasurer of your district. The letter can read something like the one below which was written for requesting superintendent's salaries.

You, of course, will need to modify it depending upon what story you are pursuing: Under Ohio's Open Records laws, I am requesting access to information about the annual salaries and fringe benefits paid to ______.

Specifically, I would like to know:

  • how much the XXXX School District pays Superintendent John Doe in base salary each year.
  • how much Doe's fringe benefits cost the district.
  • how long Doe has been a superintendent with the XXX School District.
  • when Doe's contract expires.
  • when Doe's most recent contract was signed.

Additionally, I would like a copy of all evaluations completed for Doe for the last five years. I would also like to examine Doe's personnel file. I will contact you soon to discuss a time to pick up copies and examine the records.

As you know, Ohio law allows you to charge "actual" copying costs. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at .....

3. Compile your statistics in a chart that can be published with your stories. Make sure that you include columns for each of the districts you sampled. You also must include a source for the data. You will have multiple sources.

So, how much does your district spend for each student?

School districts have a great deal of control over how they spend the funds that they receive. There is a lot of disparity in how districts spend taxpayer dollars. For instance, the Boardman Local Schools spend $794 per pupil on what is classified as "administrative expenditures." The Liberty Local Schools spend $1,018 per pupil on the same "administrative expenditures." In Boardman, $4,697 is spent for each student on instruction and in Liberty, $4,109 is spent on such instruction. This information and many other interesting financial facts can be found on the Ohio Department of Education's website, http://ilrc.ode.state.oh.us/Districts/Default.asp This information can be used to generate countless interesting and important stories.

Some examples:

  • A straight comparison of districts in your county would be interesting. For this story to succeed, you would want school officials to explain why there are disparities. You will also need to have officials from the Ohio Department of Education define what is counted for each category. In other words, what is an adminstrative expense, what is an instructional expsne, what is a staff support expense, etc. Next, you will want to get feedback from faculty, students, parents and administrators about these findings.
  • A multi-level comparison where you track a school district's performance with its per pupil expenditures would be fascinating. Often, school district officials blame poor performance on a lack of funds. But many high-performing districts aren't the best funded. Layer these statistics to create an interesting story. For this story, you will also want to take your analysis to a wide range of people for comment.

Members of your board of education often attend conferences and meetings at the district's expense. Take a look at some of their expense reports.

Incredible stories can be found by examining the reports that employees or board of education members file for reimbursement for trips taken on school business.

Reporters have documented that some Ohio board of education members have used taxpayer dollars for such items as in-room X-rated movies, massages, expensive room-service meals and even shoe shines.

You are entitled to see all expense reports filed by members of a board of education or any school official. Use a basic form letter, like the one above where you mention Ohio's Open Records laws, and ask for copies of expense reports for certain people.

How does your school compare to others in graduation rates and college attendance?

One of the primary indicators of how well a school system is doing in terms of educating its students is to look at how many students graduate from high school and how many attend college.

A key part of this story - and many investigative articles - will be to identify a basis for comparison

The Ohio Department of Education's website is an incredible source for this data. You can easily compile statistics from many different districts in the state. Plus, averages for the state are also available.

Go to: http://ilrc.ode.state.oh.us/Districts/Default.asp

You will want to look at the "district report card."

Key questions to consider for this story are how does your school compare to others in the area, state and nation in terms of how many students graduate, how many go onto college, how many to the military. How do school officials respond to this? What do students say about it? What do parents say about it?

The men and women who push the brooms in the school have a lot to say...

A relatively simple, but important and fun story can be produced by talking to school janitors. Ask these janitors what conclusions they've reached about the school, its teachers and its students by cleaning the bathrooms, the hallways and the classrooms.

  • Which hallways are the worst?
  • Which bathrooms are the worst?
  • What have they found left behind in bathrooms or classrooms?
  • What is the most disgusting thing they've encountered?

This type of story, while more of an enterprise story than an investigative story, lends itself to great writing. In addition to passing on the concrete information that janitors share with you, you also have an opportunity to write a profile of the janitor. Remember that all good profiles, and all good stories, share one common trait: details. Describe. Describe. Describe.

 

Copyright ©2007 Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio 44555
Adam Earnheardt, Webmaster