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Harness the story of a generation with a master narrative

Photo of Nicole Avery Nichols
Nicole Avery Nichols

Nicole is Chalkbeat’s Editor-in-Chief. She oversees the newsroom and led the development of 'The Comeback,' Chalkbeat’s master narrative for the 2021-2022 school year.

Why this?

During volatile or uncertain times – public health crises, political strife, civil unrest – it’s vital for news organizations to establish clear coverage priorities that balance audience needs, newsroom expertise, and organizational bandwidth. To ignore this imperative jeopardizes the quality of our work, has the potential to alienate audiences with inconsistent and out-of-context coverage, and risks the mental and physical health of the team. At Chalkbeat, where impact is a fundamental coverage-driver, clearly establishing the network’s major coverage theme or master narrative helps to elevate the most important story that our journalists have to tell.

The common mistake

Newsrooms have historically grappled with establishing and communicating clear coverage priorities for their staffs, especially over the last decade when financial constraints have diminished the ranks of working journalists. But when the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest story of a generation, exploded – igniting fear, confusion, and a torrent of misinformation – many newsrooms have continued trying to do more with less, while audiences have suffered from information gaps and journalists have endured untenable, nonstop work environments.

Our approach

To clarify newsroom priorities, we decided on a scalable, flexible, and timely master narrative, or major coverage theme.

In order for a master narrative to be truly effective, it must strike the right balance between specificity and generality. Choose something too narrow, and you risk losing the ability to write a wide range of stories, like breaking news and enterprise coverage. Choose something too broad, and your newsroom won’t be sufficiently focused. A master narrative must also be adaptable; it’s critical that your newsroom remains nimble enough to shift priorities and try new angles to respond to the context in which news is occurring.

At Chalkbeat, we started the master narrative brainstorming process with broad storylines that were timely and had the potential to connect with audiences in the diverse communities across our network of eight bureaus. Some of the ideas we initially explored included how the critical race theory debate is increasingly playing out within K-12 school districts; dramatic dips in school enrollment brought on by the pandemic; an exploration of K-12 curriculum; and the pandemic’s harsh impact on female educators (particularly, women of color).

After several small and large-group brainstorming sessions, here’s what we finally decided on as our master narrative for the 2020 school year:

Chalkbeat’s master narrative: “The Comeback:” The fight to ignite passion and rebuild school communities after two disrupted school years marked by student disengagement, learning loss, shrinking enrollment, and uncertainty.

Informed by our reporting prior to "The Comeback" school year (2021-2022), we also decided to dedicate extra attention within the master narrative framework to vulnerable students, including students who receive special education services, students who have experienced homelessness, English language learners, and students from historically vulnerable communities.

We included the entire newsroom in the ideation process.

In many newsrooms, the rank-and-file journalists are not always included in high-level discussions about coverage strategy and priorities. But we recognized that in order for these types of initiatives to be fully supported, especially during these super-stressful times, it was critical for the full newsroom staff to have a part in charting the path forward. After rolling out the master narrative process and methodology to newsroom leaders, we developed a schedule that included time for individual team meetings, broader brainstorming, and informational office hours. We made sure to ground the master narrative process in the collaborative culture of our newsroom and the wealth of reporting and sourcing that our journalists had done.

We said it loud.

We reinforced the importance of the master narrative by building it into our goal setting process; each newsroom team created a coverage plan related to the master narrative. We announced it for the full organization at our staff retreat, and we shared the newsroom’s intentions with our board, funders, and supporters. We made a video, which was created for internal purposes; however, due to positive feedback from our staff, we ultimately shared it publicly. From the start of the school year, “The Comeback” has aligned our newsroom thinking and set us in the direction of impactful, community-focused journalism. We also tied our major event series to a coverage theme uncovered during our pursuit of The Comeback.

We've made tough choices.

Creating a master narrative is all about setting priorities for your newsroom. This entails making tough choices, both in terms of the narrative you initially choose and how your newsroom operates on a daily basis.

When we decided on our master narrative, we built on our past successes and strengths to prioritize the storylines we felt best equipped to tackle. Coming off a record year of award-winning coverage and impactful projects, we looked for ways to incorporate ideas and ways of working that served us well. We knew our strengths included breaking news and revelatory enterprise coverage, as well as putting those local stories in a broad context in order to capture the story of education in the United States at this critical time. We leaned into these strengths when we created our master narrative, but this means vigorous evaluation of story choice and the painful process of trying to build a more finite story selection process.

A master narrative does not supplant strategic thinking and active communication with newsroom staffers. Editors and reporters must continuously monitor the news climate in search of the information their communities need most. Within those newsroom discussions, the master narrative becomes the filter or framework (angle) through which we evaluate and present the news. For example, when the Detroit Public Schools Community District announced plans to extend Thanksgiving break and go remote for several days in December due to COVID outbreaks, staffing shortages, and complex pandemic-related issues, we broadened the scope of this announcement and presented it in the context of similar moves by dozens of districts in Michigan. As Kevin Polston, who led a council appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to develop Michigan’s educational comeback, put it "This year is harder for kids and educators than last year."

After sprinting to keep up with the pandemic for nearly two full school years, the Chalkbeat newsroom needed to tap the brakes. The coronavirus crisis has lasted longer than anyone could have imagined, and even though our journalists kept audiences informed and engaged with vital education news for months, a third year of intense breakneck coverage demanded that we streamline the pool of stories on which we spent our time. Covering and writing about every school board meeting and press conference was not automatically at the top of our priority list, but providing news-to-use for readers and staying connected with the complex challenges school communities face is of greater importance. ​​

As a newsroom, we acknowledged that the topsy-turvy environment of the pandemic would demand our attention when the majority of students across the country returned to school buildings for the first time in months. At the same time, we also acknowledged that we would need to consistently evaluate and then re-evaluate our coverage plans in order to pinpoint the most important stories of our time. The master narrative required that we frequently ask ourselves: What is “The Comeback” story? Are the stories we are working on going to have an impact on our audiences? How are students, teachers and families experiencing The Comeback? What is the effect of the news on the most vulnerable students?

With every pandemic-related development, the process of managing newsroom priorities has grown increasingly complex. But the master narrative provides our journalists with a common goal and a common language, which has resulted in a body of work that centers real people, the questions they have, and the challenges they face.

Consider the many stories that we have written about the increase in disruptive behavior and mental health challenges seen in schools across the country. As we reported in September in a comprehensive national story, experts have said that the behavior issues experienced this year are a reflection of pandemic stress and school disruption. That well-read story -- which was evidenced in every Chalkbeat bureau -- formed as editors compared anecdotal reports from inside the schools we cover.

That story was quickly followed by similar stories in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. The national team followed up with a report about how an unprecedented influx of federal pandemic relief money enabled schools across the country to address the needs of students struggling with mental health. This story, published in November, was a partnership with the Associated Press. This spring, Chalkbeat will explore this coverage thread even further during a four-month event series that will address local and national mental health issues and needs.

Key Takeaways
  • Get real.

    Newsrooms must be realistic about the bandwidth of their staff, especially during times of intensity. Ignoring or stretching staff limitations leads to weak coverage, and the erosion of internal and external trust. Setting newsroom teams up for success depends heavily on clear and effective management strategies.

  • Make it memorable.

    Look for ways to connect the dots for readers. By providing stories with context, scope, and relevance, audiences can better understand the issues and identify how the news impacts their lives.

  • Make it collaborative and iterative.

    Providing journalists with time to strategize and brainstorm helps infuse news organizations with a spirit of teamwork. A tremendous news environment, like the pandemic, demands a tremendous level of communication and information-sharing. And as the news continues to develop, build in time to pose familiar questions: Does this story fit into the master narrative? Is this something that has relevance right now? Is this story going to have an impact for our audience?

What is the Local News Field Guide?

The Local News Field Guide is a resource for journalists and news entrepreneurs tackling the ever-changing landscape of news. The guide is written by staff members of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization that provides essential local education reporting.

The Local News Field Guide is supported by Chalkbeat's partnership with the Google News Initiative (GNI).

Learn More