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San Francisco Papers Squabble Over Special Reports on School Diversity

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The San Francisco Chronicle published a special report this week examining racial diversity in the city's schools, concluding that since race-based student assignments ended in 2001, the schools have steadily resegregated.

The package is crisply written and full of sidebar articles, colorful charts, photos, and other elements.

"Now that parents have more say in their children's education than they have in decades, San Francisco's public schools are increasingly segregated," says the main story on May 17 by reporter Heather Knight. 

In January, another journalism outlet in the City by the Bay had published its own special report on diversity in the San Francisco Unified School District.

"Today few educators and parents publicly dispute the idea that diversity is good for kids and for society as a whole. Yet despite their aspirations and efforts, San Francisco schools are increasingly segregated," says the introduction to the special report by the San Francisco Public Press, an independent, quarterly newspaper. The main story in the Public Press package, in the Winter 2015 edition, is by writer Jeremy Adam Smith.

In a blog post on the website of San Francisco magazine on Tuesday, writer Scott Lucas looks at the two packages and perceives some parallels.

"How similar are the two reports? Pretty dang similar," Lucas wrote. He notes that both packages pay special attention to comparisons of two types of schools: "One from a lower-performing school dominated by Latino or African-American students and one from a higher-performing school with more whites and Asian-Americans," Lucas noted. The specific schools were different, though, in the two publications' reports.

Also, both publications' reports "offer head-shaking school board members bemoaning the trends—illustrated by a timeline of important moments in the history of school desegregation," Lucas noted.

Most strikingly similar are charts in both papers' packages that show the racial makeup of every school in the district, some 115 in all. (The underlying data seems to be the same, but both publications say they applied their own tweaks in methodology.) The main difference in the online display is that the Public Press chart lists the schools from most to least diverse. (Move your cursor over the chart to reach the full list of schools.)

The online version of the Chronicle chart , focused on the city's elementary schools, lists the schools alphabetically and tilts the chart 90 degrees from the other publication's approach.

(However, the charts in the Chronicle's print report do sort the schools by diversity level, similar to Public Press. While the Chronicle labeled one group of schools as "Racially isolated," it gave this stark classification to the 10 schools that were least diverse: "Approaching apartheid levels.")

In a blog post on its website on Wednesday, the Public Press claimed credit for influencing the coverage in the Chronicle, San Francisco's flagship daily newspaper. "How a Small Nonprofit Newsroom Leads Education Coverage in San Francisco," was the headline of the post, which struck a mostly gracious tone.

"Our investigation clearly influenced the Chronicle's three-day series," Public Press Publisher Lila LaHood wrote in the post. "We are proud to have spurred so many news organizations, including one of the largest newspapers in California, to bring this significant equity issue to the attention of many more readers in San Francisco and beyond."

In an interview, Public Press Executive Director and Editor Michael Stoll also sought to be diplomatic, but he did not deny that some in his newsroom were irked by the Chronicle's report.

"It was flattering for us to see them follow our data analysis and style so closely," he said of the Chronicle.

"The Chronicle did a public service by issuing this report and bringing the problem of segregation to a much wider audience," Stoll added. "Whatever offense we might have taken by the mimicry of our format and our data analysis is far outweighed by the public service of looking deeply at data about civil rights issues in our community."

Stoll said the six-year-old Public Press relies largely on freelance writers and is backed by philanthropies such as the San Francisco Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

As the publication worked on its project on the San Francisco schools last fall, it got wind that the Chronicle was doing its own report. "Our sources were telling us the Chronicle was asking some similar questions," he said, and the Public Press did not know when the daily paper might be ready to publish.

Stoll said that because his publication had "the scoop" on the story, an acknowledgement to that effect by the Chronicle "would have been nice. But they're certainly under no obligation to do that."

Audrey Cooper, the editor-in-chief of the Chronicle, replied to my queries via email, and she was a bit irked for her own reasons.

The Chronicle started reporting its story as early as last September, she stressed. 

"I'm pleased that they also thought this was a story worth pursuing," Cooper said. "Obviously I did. Our work included more original reporting, data and design work, as well as a substantial digital component with video, specially coded pages and interactive graphics. Should we have stopped all this work once [the Public Press] 'Winter 2015' hit (had we seen the story)? Not only is that a ridiculous notion, but more importantly it would have been a disservice to the people of San Francisco."

"This coincidental overlap is pretty common if you're in journalism," the Chronicle editor-in-chief added.

Cooper said she did not even see the Public Press report until this week, though she did not address whether the Chronicle's other editors, reporters, or graphic artists working on its project had seen the competing report earlier. I did press her on the similarities of the school-by-school graphics.

"My staff said it was a coincidence" and that the Chronicle tinkered with its colors to make them distinctive, she said.

"I've been thinking about how else we could have shown that data—there really isn't a better way," Cooper said. "It's a ton of data in that simple chart."

The bottom line seems to be that two publications in the same city—one the established daily paper, the other an upstart quarterly— realized there was an important, complex story about racial diversity in the city's schools that needed to be told. And the flap over the similarities in the two end products may prompt more readers in and out of San Francisco to take the time to read those stories than otherwise would have.

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