December 16, 2007

Writing the Minneapolis Schools story

The Minneapolis Public Schools story surfaced after perusing the school district website. The recommendations, though not finalized at the time, were the most newsworthy thing on the site. Even just the first recommendation by itself and its controversial initiative to restart or replace low-performing schools seemed appropriate to write a story on. This seemed like an issue that people in Minneapolis would want and need to know about. Everyone seemed to be in agreement that the Minneapolis schools are facing a lot of problems, but this restart and replace technique appeared controversial.

There were two big problems I encountered while writing this story. The first was getting a hold of people. Trying to find a time when people like principals and schoolteachers are by their phones and not in class or in meetings was very difficult. The second thing was getting people to talk about the recommendations in plain English. The recommendations were written in very bureaucratic and vague language, and the people working for the schools in communications departments often preserved the language the reports used in interviews. They weren’t able to clarify, sometimes because they themselves didn’t know what the language meant, and often because more specific procedures hadn't even been decided on yet. I also talked to a few community members about some of the biggest issues in the schools today, and they seemed to agree with the things school officials were saying.

Obviously, the most exciting part of writing the story was having the recommendations approved the night before the story was due. It gave the news a more real story angle, made it more exciting and gave me a feeling of necessity in writing it!

Minneapolis Public School Board accepts all nine of McKinsey's Recommendations

Hilary Brueck

Dec. 12, 2007

The Minneapolis Board of Education adopted a set of nine recommendations Tuesday night to combat the school district’s biggest problems, including addressing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

The recommendations will also aim to better prepare students for college and put a stop to student flight out of Minneapolis public schools, according to the report.

The Minneapolis Public Schools have been fighting student flight to suburban and charter schools and one of the biggest racial achievement gaps in the country for over five years. The ongoing racial achievement gap in the schools is believed to be responsible for many students and families deciding to leave.
According to statistics released from the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, statewide passing rates for basic skills tests in 2003 differed drastically by race: 78 percent of white students passed, compared with 33 percent of black students, who underperformed both Asian and Hispanic students. Also, Minnesota’s overall high school graduation rate of 82 percent in 2003 was high, but the 4-year high school graduation rate gap between white and black students was the second largest in the nation.

McKinsey & Company, the independent consulting firm hired in May of 2007 to review Minneapolis school performance, recommended the district “restart or replace the lowest-performing 25 percent of Minneapolis public schools to dramatically improve their performance by 2012.?
The company also recommended more challenging coursework, closer family involvement in the schools, and improving teamwork between teachers and principals.

The recommendations are based on interviews the firm conducted with teachers, parents of both students who have left the district and current students, city employees and business owners asking what they thought the Minneapolis Public Schools need to do to succeed, according to the summarized findings by the company.

It’s now up to the school board to decide how the recommendations are going to be carried out.

“Without clear and direct implementation, these recommendations will be meaningless,? Pam Costain, who chairs the board, said.

The board expects to have a full plan for putting the recommendations into action by spring 2008.

The board has two choices as to how to improve performance at the lowest performing quarter of the schools.

If the schools are “replaced,? they would be re-modeled, based on initiatives like smaller charter school models, longer school days, or all-day kindergartens, Ryan Fair, the communications and public affairs specialist with the Minneapolis Public Schools, said.

If the board decides to “restart? the lowest performing quarter of the schools to help close the gap, it would mean a systematic firing of all teachers and principals at those schools followed by a re-hiring for all of the positions in the school, Fair said.

Fair said if the schools were restarted, new teachers and administration would be brought into the district, with new energy and fresh faces, creating a district jumpstart.

Ellen Hebert, principal of Minneapolis North High School, said the district should do anything they can to close the achievement gap and improve student enrollment, including closing down underperforming schools.
Hebert insisted the district needs to “gain back the confidence of families? and bring families back into the Minneapolis public schools. She said she fully supports the changes and said they will make the district more directly accountable to the schools’ “number one customer:? families.

But the restart strategy is controversial, Royce Holladay, director of strategic planning for the Minneapolis Public Schools, said.
“It upsets a lot of people in terms of their jobs,? Holladay said, adding “it’s distressing to kids? to have teachers and staff they have established relationships with be replaced. Holladay said although the strategy is “pretty disruptive? to schools, teachers, and students, it can be a way to break bad habits and create new energy.

“It has been proven to be worth the difficulties it causes,? Holladay said.

“The problems are very large. I don’t think there’s any one answer.? She cited low tests scores, flight to alternatives like charter schools and the suburbs, and the problem that schools don’t have a unified, district-wide curriculum, which makes it difficult for students to switch schools.

“Over the last five to six years, we’ve lost over 25 percent of our students,? Holladay said.

December 9, 2007

To profile or not to profile, that is the question.

This week’s coverage of the Minneapolis police department lawsuit story has led to numerous spin off stories. Two of those stories ran, one in each of the Twin cities papers.

The Star Tribune decided to turn the scandal into a profile of the police chief Tim Dolan and tie it into upcoming news on his year of tenure and it being almost the official one year anniversary of his work, they also decided to include some other big stories he’s been a part of, good or bad (35W bridge, or race relations).

The Pioneer Press decided to stick more closely to the story and just talk a bit about his other actions as chief, in the context of the current story.

Here the Star Tribune definitely pulled it off better, not only did they have a breaking news story that compared to the PiPress one, but then they came back with a story that was a bit longer just in time to tie it into his other work over the year. It’s always good to contextualize the news when you can so the public can make informed judgments about an event, and maybe even weigh in on things like whether or not people should be prosecuted or laid off., or just plain be informed on the competencies of pubic figures

Two approaches to covering tragic incidents

In the aftermath of the window cleaner falling to his death at the Crystal Court in Nicollet Mall’s IDS center last Wednesday, the two main local papers took two different approaches to recounting and expanding on the tale to make it a non-braking news story:

For the PiPress, this meant talking to a woman who worked in the Crystal Court, getting her reactions and walking us through the death in her shoes, then filling out the story with the viewpoints of the family of the man and other people who work at the building and were there when the accident happened.

The Strib, aired a story from the AP wire. It was about the time and the days leading up to the accident, gleaned from the quotes and dictations of family members. This one has a bit more of a story book feel and impending doom movie theme than the PiPress story.

It is interesting to note that neither paper tried to compete with the AP's coverage style- only re-airing their story, or repeating the breaking news, but not directly competing with them through extended interviews, simply using the people who were around at the time the story happened (workers, etc.) and quick quotes from the family.

I must say in this case I still prefer the Pi Press coverage, just because it feels a bit less doctored. The PiPress read as if they just walked up to this women for an interview, and then, being the interesting character she is, and the way she reacted to the event, she became a good vehicle for telling the story in a compelling way and highlighting it's unusualness.

December 2, 2007

Refinery fire kills one in St. Paul Park

The mystery is over: one St.Paul Park employee who was missing after a fire broke out at a fuel oil refinery was found dead today. This follow-up story was reported by two main major news outlets- the Star Tribune and the Associated Press (which had it’s story carried by both the Pioneer Press and WCCO). The Star Tribune made their reporting much more transparent and contacted more local and family sources, whereas the AP stuck to the company and quoting businesses and organizations. The AP reporting also contributed in part to the STrib (mostly for background). As usual, the AP had more historical context, tracking the company to the late 70s, whereas the STrib was more concerned with the story evolution and how the scene looked.

Fly me to the moon… a pricy task from MSP

In the Star Tribune’s Sunday business section, the paper reports that the Twin Cities are the fourth highest priced airport market in the country. The findings were released in a report by former senior U.S. Dept. of Transportation officials. Why? The higher prices come from a mix of relative absence of low cost carriers (dominance of a certain market force known as Northwest) and according to Northwest execs, a large market for business travel, but small one for leisure travel. The article suggests that in the next few years we will start to see more low cost carriers here, like Southwest Airlines, and that bigger more traditional carriers should start focusing on medium-sized and smaller city routes and overseas flights- two areas discount carriers can’t crack because of costs.

David Phelps was given this story by another reporter who regularly tracks research and news in the airline business. Phelps said the reporter came across some independent research that gave a comparative analysis of the airline industry in transition (low-cost air carriers and the effect of fares of dominant carriers on the industry). Since the reporter who found the report was busy with other stories, he handed this one off to Phelps.

Phelps then used public documents from the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) on the number of takeoffs and landings and the number of flights annually at MSP to figure out how much of an impact Northwest had on the total volume of flights at the airport.

He didn’t encounter any insurmountable difficulties, but did say the biggest challenge in reporting the story was finding independent experts to use as sources in the aviation industry who didn’t have a vested interest in the carriers or their earnings. He also talked to officials at Northwest and other airlines, to make it a “thoroughly reported story,? and provide balance.

November 18, 2007

Mankato car accident misses Pi Press coverage

Early this morning one Mankato State University student was killed and another badly injured while they were in the road in Mankato. The two upperclassmen were girls, and it appears that one was laying down in the road, and the other trying to help her up when they were struck by an SUV being driven by a 17 year-old boy.
This story was covered by WCCO, KSTP, and KARE in almost exactly the same way. Comments from police, the university president and the simple who, what and where. All the news sources had the historical information piece, about a pedestrian being hit and killed last month in Mankato.
The story was also covered by the Star Tribune, in a bit more detail, although this early in the investigation process there isn’t too much being said. There were longer interview quotes with university officials, and information about how friends and family members are being contacted.
This story was notably absent form the page, the website of the Pioneer Press.

Something Minnesota mean cooking in the Justice Department?

On nov. 13th, U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose was the subject of a NY times article, investigating corruption in U.S. attorney’s offices around the country during the reign of Alberto Gonzales as the head of the justice department. Paulose is the focus of a federal watchdog agency investigation.
Paulose is the youngest U.S. attorney, and has been criticized for having little experience, and being a pick for the attorney’s office for her loyal ties to the Bush administration rather than promising legal experience or background.
Even republican senator Norm Coleman who endorsed her, is now skeptical of her work.
The story is being followed up locally this week with Pi Press (associated press) and Star Tribune articles.

The Pi Press and the Star Tribune are now reporting Paulose is denying she made racially smearing remarks about a black employee being fat and lazy. She made her comments public for the first time in a friend’s blog a few days ago.

The Strib focused much more on following up and adding to elements in the Times story, whereas the Pi Press story (perhaps since it is an AP story/ competes more directly with The Times) went off into how the suit came about ad it’s history, as well as who was refusing to comment for the story. The Strib article reads much more cleanly and like an interesting book, but the AP focuses more on what is new news, updating old stuff.

November 11, 2007

The sky is falling, the bridge is falling, MNDot employees are falling out of thier jobs!

The Minnesota organization who oversaw the collapse of the I-35W bridge this summer may have their own crumbling infrastructure to worry about.

Sonia Pitt, the emergency manager for MNDot was fired after people found her going on tropical vacations with taxpayers money as well as allegations of possible inter-employee dating.

Pitt had been on paid sabbatical since the beginning of September, but her firing was made final last week.

Vikings add injury to insulting loss

And in the newest episode of the Adrian Peterson chronicles: tonight at Lambeau filed, injury strikes the young superstar. In tonight's game against the green bay packers, in which Peterson and his teammates suffered an embarrassing loss to the Packers, Adrian was called out of the game by coach Brad Childress, It is believed that he might have a sprained right heel.

The">Star Tribune alluded to the injury being influenced by injuries from his pre-pro days.
The Pioneer Press chose to attack the story from a blog format. WCCO used an AP wire story that was rather detailed for a news brief. It was interesting to note the very small amount of confusion/ fact errors surrounding these stories, but although non of the versions conflicted with each other, each had a different take on which parts to highlight, after the nut graf was laid out.

November 5, 2007

Mondale picks Clinton for '08 race

On Sunday Hillary Clinton's campaign announced that Walter Mondale was endorsing it. "America is ready for change, and Hillary Clinton has the strength and experience to deliver it," Mondale said. "Hillary is uniquely qualified to rebuild America's standing in the world and lead this nation from her first day in the White House." The story was reported both in the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press, but both articles were short and un-invasive, covering the facts and questions that had to be asked, but not trying to investigate or prod into what their connections might be/ his interests in endorsing her.

Not so nice Minnesotan job market

The Star Tribune reported that job employment rates are growing slower in Minnesota than nationwide. Minnesota has a smaller percentage of unemployed people getting jobs. Retail, transportation and other common jobs are growing slower than the national average in Minnesota. In the past, Minnesota has been a leader in unemployment- with some of the lowest rates in the country. This piece is critical because it speak to a possible bigger issue of economic shifts in Minnesota, but was notably absent from other news sources around the state.

October 28, 2007

Craigslist murder coverage

The website Craiglist, where people can buy and sell everything from old mattresses to personal ads has had a reputation for being linked to crimes and criminals. But never had this gone so far as it did on Thursday morning when a Savage, Minn. man allegedly committed the first murder linked to the networking site. 24 year-old Katherine Olson's body was found in the trunk of her car Friday night. Olson had gone to Savage on Thursday to meet with a family, answering an ad for a nannying job on Craigslist. Olson had used networking sites like Craiglist in the past to find jobs with little trouble, and was an experienced nanny.

This high-profile story has gotten media coverage from almost all big local media outlets, so in order to week out the competition, each has taken a somewhat different angle on the story, trying to showcase their specific reporting:

Kare-11’s website focused on other crimes committed through Craigslist, saying this was the first murder believed to be linked to the site, and quoting an interview with Craig, the site’s founder.

KSTP-5 and WCCO stuck to the story as it had been reported earlier: facts, details on the life of Katherine, how her body was found, and the unclear motive.

The Pioneer Press took another, more inquisitive approach, in getting people from around town to comment on their experiences with Craigslist: creepy furniture requesters, and a couple of nannying ads. the Pioneer Press also speculated on the name of the accused, saying that police had not revealed his name, but giving the name of a 19-year old on the roster at Scott county jail. This is a pretty bold move, considering that this could be any 19-year –old man who was booked in, but the Pi Press seems to like to get people’s names in the paper whenever possible. The article does not quote Craig himself, but a spokesperson for the website.

The Strib took a different road altogether, following not Craigslist nor the victim, but the suspected murderer. They interviewed friends who said the alleged murderer was quiet- into cars and the outdoors, saying he used Craigslist for car parts he used fixing up cars in his spare time.

Pawlenty might get his feet in the snow this spring

Tim Pawlenty might want to start stocking up on long underwear and start testing the wind chill ratings on gloves and mittens. Not for the cold Minnesota winter ahead, but for a lovely week-long spring excursion.

Governor Pawlenty is moving closer to confirming a trip to the arctic in May to see climate change for himself, alongside arctic explorer Will Steger. Steger runs a foundation to promote understanding of global warming, and Pawlenty may carry on the torch, as head of the National Governor's Association, in convincing his colleagues of the critical state of climate change.

This story was reported by the Star Tribune (no coverage found the the Pi Press, nor MPR) and WCCO-4 news. There are many similarities in the stories and some sentences are exactly the same, which leads me to wonder if the AP release wasn't done by the Strib reporter. Still, the Strib's lede and opening grafs are much more unconventional and have a more narrative, playful style to them then the traditional AP brief. The strib went into more motivations for Pawlenty's trip, such as his being a possible vice-presidential hopeful, and the writer also gave the reader more context, such as connecting Pawlenty's current environmental stance to his history on the issue.

October 21, 2007

No neighborly cup of sugar for this Edina home

If you are looking for a new home in Edina, be careful how big the house is and which block it's on.

Neighbors and residents have crowded into city council meetings, and put up hostile signs in their yards, protesting a new neighbor. They are calling it a 'monster,' refusing to invite it to neighborhood meeting or parties. What is so offensive about this neighbor? It's new, it's big, it's a 'McMansion.'

The home is being built by a developer on a lot that had fallen into disrepair and been vacant over the past few years. But neighbors don't see why this should give developers free reign to build something on their block of modest 1930's and 40's homes that is over two times the size of all of their houses.

The neighborhood, near the 50th and France shopping area, is a developer's dream. The Mayor and City Council have to weigh the competing interests of new development, which brings new families, affluence and higher tax payments to the city, with citizen complaints and upholding neighborhood character and integrity. Emotional attachment and personality versus money and investment. Edina Mayor Jim Hoveland says he is working on the city's zoning policies, but as of right now, there is nothing illegal going on at 5308 Oaklawn Ave. Still, the development has had quite the influence on the neighborhood climate : it has outraged neighbors enough to create their own You Tube video against it and vow never to invite the new neighbors to any neighborhood functions. So new owners- kiss that potluck hot dish goodbye.

This article appeared in the Star Tribune, and being such a specific story, there wasn't comparable coverage in any other media outlets. I am wondering if the story sprouted from a routine City Council meeting visit, or a neighborhood stroll.

The issue of monster homes has been recurrent in Edina. Mary Jane Smetanka works on the Star Tribune Bloomington and Edina city beats. Smetanka says the story idea came to her through an e-mail that was sent to her from a friend of someone who lives on the block where the house is being built about two weeks ago. She watched a video residents of the block had made on You Tube. The city council refused to hear neighbor’s complaints or watch the video itself in a meeting since the matter was something that was up for discussion in one of the meeting agenda items. Smetanka also watched parts of the meeting online. In general, she does not go to City council meetings unless there is something really controversial on the agenda, but she always checks the agendas online and minutes after the meetings, as well as talking to people who were at the meeting afterwards for stories and watching videos of the meetings in places where they are taped.