SchoolBook is an ambitious new web offering from WNYC and the New York Times that provides news, data and conversation about New York City’s
schools. The site, which launched just before the start of the school year, has been lauded by members of the education establishment, parents and journalists, and provides an interesting model for other public media stations to consider.

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John Keefe

The site includes news coverage, data, and a host of interactive and social features, like wiki-esque pages for individual schools and the ability for users to “follow” individual schools. “SchoolBook was invented by The New York Times and WNYC, but it is your site to shape, define and grow,” reads the site’s About page, which goes on to clarify that the site is exempt from NYTimes.com’s digital subscriptions, and is therefore free to access. 

I feel compelled to note that this is the second public media project I’ve profiled recently that was born from a hackathon. (The last one was the Living Docs Series from ITVS and Mozilla.) At a Hacks and Hackers meet-up last year, John Keefe, WNYC’s senior editor of Data News & Journalism Technology, met Aron Pilhofer, who heads the news application team at the Times, and the two started talking about creative ways to present data about schools. That conversation continued (including at a Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference in Raleigh, N.C.), and ultimately, they reached out to the higher-ups at each organization for buy-in; soon, SchoolBook was born. (The two orgs have worked together before — the Times is a partner on The Takeaway.)

The site’s editor, the Times’ Mary Ann Giordano, said WNYC’s leadership in interactive journalism and community outreach made them a compelling partner. “WNYC and its various programs are real pros at doing what we are still learning to do at the Times, which is interactive journalism,” she wrote in an email, going onto compliment the station — and public radio in general — for having community interaction “down pat.” To wit, WNYC is hatching a strategy for engaging members of their Public Insight Network (PIN); they’re also rolling out a texting campaign, as well as planning plenty of on-the-ground outreach, like attending school fairs. In addition, the station is planning a series of community forums, debuting this week with an event titled “School Choice: Too Much of a Good Thing?”, at which Brian Lehrer of WNYC will interview Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott and then moderate a panel of principals, teachers and parent advocates.

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Mary Ann Giordano. Photo from Marketwire.

So, what’s the most innovative thing about SchoolBook? For Keefe, it’s bringing all of the available news and data about New York City schools together in a standardized, understandable way, while also facilitating constructive conversation about schools — both citywide, and at the level of an individual school. Giordino put it this way:

The most innovative thing about SchoolBook is journalistic, though our technology is also pretty cool. SchoolBook is the farthest we have gone at the Times — and perhaps in journalism in general — in creating a site that is a balanced blend of news and service around a serious and important subject. (The closest I can see out there is Politifact and other truth-squadding sites, but they don’t have search and compare and social media tools, too.) Of course there are resources for restaurant and travel search, and for real estate, but SchoolBook applies the search and compare philosophy to a subject that is considered ‘hard news,’ and takes a service approach to it. And then, to top it off, we added a social media component to the site, allowing readers to not just generate content for the blog, but putting the power in their hands to ‘build out’ their own school’s pages with helpful information dedicated to both conversation and service. We’re not there yet in fulfilling the potential, but I am confident that we are on the right course, and we are determined to keep our focus on that larger goal.”

Wrestling with Engagement

I haven’t said much about how the editorial partnership behind SchoolBook works. Clearly, both partners bring top-notch education reporters and editors to the table. Editorial decision-making is centered at the Times, but happens in close coordination with WNYC staff. In talking to Keefe and Giordano, it sounded like the news and data aspects of SchoolBook were pretty straightforward; it’s the community engagement piece that requires further “wrestling,” as Keefe puts it, noting that increasing engagement is both a design challenge, and a matter of promotion. Of course, online communities aren’t built overnight, and WNYC’s upcoming outreach blitz (described above) — as well as involving the station’s PIN, a ready network of citizens committed to above-average engagement with the station — should help, as should the combined reach of the two orgs. But SchoolBook’s aims are high, and, as Giordano said, few other sites do what it seeks to do; it will be interesting to see how its community grows, and at what rate.

Keefe declined to share specific traffic numbers, but said that “everybody is happy.” He noted that he hopes to document what WNYC learns from SchoolBook in order to help other stations replicate (or at least riff off of) the project in their own neck of the woods.

While a partnership with The New York Times (whose news applications team Keefe calls “the best in the business”) isn’t necessarily easy to replicate, broadly speaking, Keefe sees no reason why news organizations in any city couldn’t partner to provide news, data and conversation around a hard news topic such as education. I tend to agree — and if neither news org has deep experience in data journalism, or interactive journalism, or online community building … well, other partners in the community can certainly help fill those gaps.

Amanda Hirsch is a writer, online media consultant and performer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com and spends way too much time on Twitter.

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This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Integrated Media Association’s Public Media Innovators Project, a weekly blog series about the people and projects that are helping make public media a relevant and viable media enterprise for the 21st century.

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