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News Outlets Seek More 'Engagement' on Education Stories

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Nashville, Tenn.

In a previous post from the Education Writers Association meeting here this week, I wrote about reporters who use Twitter to help them report on big-city school systems.

Another session at Vanderbilt University involved broader efforts by publications covering education to engage their communities using social media.

The Seattle Times has launched Education Lab, a yearlong project aiming to engage readers with a dedicated blog, live chats, guest opinion columns, quizzes, videos, Google+ Hangouts, and live community events.

"For us, the story is the starting point," said Caitlin Moran, the editor of the project for the Times

For example, the project has a Google+ Hangout coming up next week on how families can navigate Washington state's community college system. A recent event, meaning an actual physical gathering of people at a place to hear from live speakers (as opposed to a live web chat) brought five students together to speak to an audience about how they got into the colleges in which they were accepted.

The project is co-sponsored by the Solutions Journalism Network and is backed by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Knight Foundation.

At the much smaller The Morning Sun in Mount Pleasant, Mich., a popular social media feature is called March Pet Madness, in which readers' pets compete head-to-head for reader votes for cuteness. That led to an education idea: to have readers submit pictures of children on their first day of school last fall, though the submitted photos weren't offered up in a face-off.

Social media engagement efforts "don't always have to be so serious," said Lisa Yanick-Jonaitis, the community engagement editor at the paper.

The engagement efforts aren't confined to traditional print newspapers. Chalkbeat, the online-only publication with bureaus in New York City, Indianapolis, Memphis, and Denver, has an elaborate strategy to engage with readers, said Anika Anand, the director of engagement for the site.

The organization and its reporters use an intimidating-looking spreadsheet to set goals, such as, "This story will be successful if it sees 100 retweets."

"I think engagement is more of a state of mind," said Anand, who was formerly a reporter for GothamSchools, the forerunner of Chalkbeat New York. "It has to be incorporated throughout the journalistic process. 

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