On Thursday night about 50 Crosscut readers, members, writers and editors gathered in the newsroom to discuss our new series, Kids@Risk. The event coincided with Pioneer Square’s First Thursday Art Walk and so music and voices filled the summer air outside and found their way through the large windows above First Avenue.
Publisher Greg Shaw moderated a panel consisting of editor-in-chief Mary Bruno, writer Judy Lightfoot and Crosscut board member Tonya Dressel, who also works for Ballmer Family Giving, funder of this initial series on children in foster care.
For those unable to attend, we're publishing the editorial team's remarks to add context to the series, which you can find here.
Kicking things off, we define at-risk youth as young people with a concentration of risk factors, poverty being the most common. I noted that our region has been generous and concerned with respect to at-risk youth. Seattle’s Family and Education Levy helps to fund youth programs, and our region’s considerable philanthropic foundations focus on various risk factors for kids: foster care, homelessness, education and other areas. We are working to raise funds so that we can continue to explore these other at-risk areas.
At-risk children and youth — broadly defined — are concerns of almost every philanthropist in the Puget Sound region. But what role has journalism played in raising awareness? The news media, for a variety reasons, have tended to focus on some criminal incident or program that needs to be exposed. My search of recent news reporting on at-risk youth returned three categories of stories:
1. An alphabet soup of programs and initiatives
2. Think tanks battling it out over ideas and ideological programs
3. News coverage of programs being cut or tragic crimes involving at-risk kids.
Mostly absent in the news coverage is data, evidence, best practices and feature articles about young people or groups of young people who are succeeding. This is not true in reporting about business, politics, sports and culture. It is easy to find reams of illuminating news coverage, commentary, analysis, videos, podcasts and other information on these subject. That is because there is a much larger market for information on these topic areas.
In the development of this series, we wanted to look at how other news organizations have focused on these issues. The Voice of San Diego, a similar nonprofit online news organization, has made a commitment to insightful reporting on youth homelessness in their southern California community. Readers of the Voice, which include business and elected leaders as well as other media, find a steady diet of engaging articles that keep the issue of homelessness front and center. “Sizing Up Our Homelessness Quest” and “The City’s Rising Homelessness Spending, in Six Graphs” are all recent examples of the quality journalism the Voice has produced on the subject of homelessness. In an email on June 3rd, the Voice urged all its readers to take a survey, which asked: “What do you think about homelessness in San Diego?” Their online discussion board, The Plaza, has kept the community engaged in between articles.
I spoke recently with the articles’ author, Kelly Bennett, about her work. She and her editor became aware that San Diego has one of the highest homeless populations in the U.S. But coverage was relegated to daily news, a steady “drip, drip, drip,” as her editor liked to say. The coverage washed over readers like water over a beach. One nonprofit was having a meeting, another a fundraiser and so on. The Voice decided to deepen and concentrate its coverage, and so they launched a focused news “quest.”
Kelly understood homeless coverage was not among the general readership’s daily priorities. But Voice editors said, hey, pay attention to this, not forever, but for a while.
Kelly began by having coffees with a number of knowledgeable experts to better understand the landscape. Her colleagues in the newsroom began to hone the questions they wanted their coverage to examine. And then she launched her reporting. She said there was a lot of reader interest. “There was a deep level of community engagement,” she told me one afternoon over the phone. The articles eventually led to a large gathering at an emergency shelter downtown where the community, leadership, readers and sources for the stories all got together to discuss and further explore the issue.
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