Fresno Bee’s Education Lab: A bold move to bring more local coverage to the Valley

Education unlocks doors to careers and livelihoods. And it’s the key pathway to economic mobility. We know this. Our community knows this.

For generations, Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley have lagged the rest of the state in key metrics of educational attainment. We know this because these issues have been the focus of stories in The Fresno Bee for years.

We’ve always covered school boards and government accountability around public education. But to get to change in the Valley, we believe we need to take a new approach.

We also know that there are fewer journalists covering education in local communities. Here in the Valley, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in the numbers – despite the booming growth of digital distribution of news.

The Fresno Bee is making a bold move to flip the script with the launch of Education Lab – a team of four journalists who will dive deep into coverage of education in the central San Joaquin Valley.

This lab will significantly expand reporting resources in The Bee’s newsroom for coverage of and engagement around education issues critical to the advancement of the region.

»» Learn more about the Education Lab here.

And behind this expansion of The Bee’s newsroom is a new funding model for journalism that partners with philanthropy to support important storytelling that the community needs. It’s a concept that will allow us to do meaningful work while we build a bridge to a more sustainable business model. It also opens critical opportunities for engaging stakeholders in new and innovative ways.

New way to pay for news

The idea that philanthropy can support news is not a new one. But the steps we take today constitute a major advancement for our region.

We have been working with community partners for more than a year in an effort to listen, learn and shape our next steps. Along the way we have been assisted by Joaquin Alvarado, who runs a journalism incubator called Studio To Be, and Ashley Swearengin, the former Fresno mayor who now is chief executive of the Central Valley Community Foundation. We’ve also reached out to the regional education community, including Fresno State and State Center Community College District, among others.

What resulted is the Impact Media Fund – a fiscal sponsorship that will manage and fund projects and programs that drive transformation and improve our community through solutions-oriented journalism. We’re now nearly fully funded for the Education Lab’s first year and close to securing enough funds for year two.

The Education Lab concept isn’t entirely new. It’s based on a similar successful model Alvarado has partnered with at The Seattle Times, which pioneered its Education Lab in 2013. That project has been so successful that the Times has added two more journalism labs funded through philanthropy: Traffic Lab (dedicated to covering Seattle’s transportation issues) and Project Homeless.

The Bee’s Education Lab will host four journalists: two reporters (one covering early education through K-12 and another covering higher education), an engagement reporter who will seek to better engage the lab’s journalists with the community, and an editor who will lead the efforts. The editor will report up through The Bee’s newsroom and me.

Education Lab’s funders believe strongly in more solutions-oriented education coverage at The Bee. We will keep funders updated on our work, but their influence ends there. The Bee’s editorial independence is at the center of the lab; funders cannot “buy” stories or decide who’s hired, propose story ideas or edit the work. All of those processes are handled through the framework of The Bee’s newsroom and without outside influence – just like all of our journalism. Funders understand this is essential to our credibility and theirs.

Education Lab will engage in outreach in a far different capacity than what we and you are accustomed to. The lab will be a success if and when we are deeply engaged with our many diverse communities in the central San Joaquin Valley, and the engagement reporter will seek to connect with as many people as possible.

There are other facets of The Bee’s Education Lab that have us excited:

  • All content the lab produces will be translated into Spanish and posted online.

  • Other local media partners can publish Education Lab reporting as we look to share solutions more broadly.

  • An email newsletter will keep subscribers abreast of the lab’s journalism and will ask for feedback.

Next steps

Local journalism has never been more important. No outside news organization is going to write about local education issues at this level. But The Bee can – and will. That’s our commitment to the communities we serve, and it’s one we take seriously.

We plan to expand on the lab model, covering other topics, and we hope you join us in this journey.

As always, I welcome your questions.

Joe Kieta is the editor of The Fresno Bee: 559-441-6307, @josephkieta