Commentary
9:07 pm
Thu June 12, 2014

Editor's Weekly: Searching For Coherence In An Atomized World

Some of St. Louis Public Radio’s best work this week wasn’t breaking news. It was making sense of news that broke days or even months earlier.

It’s been a year since the court ruling that opened the door to student transfers from Normandy and Riverview Gardens to Francis Howell, Mehlville, Kirkwood and other districts. Reporter Dale Singer circled back this week to ask key participants to reflect on their hopes, fears and actual experiences.

Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost
Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost
Credit Mehlville website

While the year went relatively smoothly for students, it ended with certain key policy questions unanswered. “I never really worried much at all about the kids coming and how they would do and whether or not we would be able to give them an appropriate education,” Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost told Dale. But at the policy level, Knost said, “I don’t think we’ve had any success in forging the conversation or the direction of being pro-active about impoverished communities and success with schools in impoverished communities.”

Dale and Jess Jiang reached even further back in time to interview two women who were instrumental in bringing the case, Jane Turner and Gina Breitenfeld. Both lived in St. Louis, where the district was unaccredited at the time, and wanted to send their children to Clayton without their families paying tuition.

Turner did not foresee that her efforts would primarily affect families in other districts. Yet she’s come to identify with parents who share her commitment to do what it takes to secure the best education for their children. How interesting to see this issue connect people across jurisdiction, circumstance and time.

Breitenfeld, who continued the case after Turner’s kids graduated, now faces bankruptcy. Clayton is suing her to recover more than $24,000 in back tuition. She’s homeschooling her children. Despite these unforeseen consequences, she has no regrets and is proud of the impact of the case that carries her name.

On a different matter, reporter Jason Rosenbaum took a second look this week at the proposed transportation sales tax. The new funds could theoretically be used for bike, pedestrian and mass transit projects as well as roads – and that theoretically makes the proposal more attractive to more people. But roads by far dominate the list of projects local officials have identified as possible recipients of the funds, Jason found. That’s an important reality check.

On a third topic, Jason and Veronique LaCapra explored the potential local impact of the recent federal proposal to cut carbon emissions. Supporters say the 30-year plan would clean the air without damaging the economy; opponents call it a job killer. Rather than leave you adrift in the spin, we’re taking a hard look at what’s behind these and other claims so that you can decide for yourself whether the proposal makes sense.

Coincidentally this week, the American Press Institute took note of a tech trend that could have a big impact on analytical reporting such as these examples. “People are shifting so rapidly to smartphones and tablets, various data suggest, that mobile devices in the last year became the primary platforms for news,” the report said.

To serve mobile users well, news must be delivered in ways that suit the small screen. Some journalists, the report said, are “reimagining the ‘atomic unit’ of mobile news, or the smallest component that can stand alone.

“Traditionally that unit has been an article. But new mobile publishers are imagining news chunks as simple as a paragraph, image, sentence or fact, which can be chained together with others or consumed by itself.”

This new challenge in how to use technology well is important. But so is the old challenge: how to connect the dots of complex developments and issues. In a mobile-first world, how do we look at a year’s worth of experience with student transfers? How do we explore the reality behind the rhetoric of the transportation tax? How do we see through the spin around a massive environmental policy proposal?

These are urgent questions not only for news organizations but also for the citizens we serve. Technology has its own powerful momentum, and this is no rant against it. Rather, it’s a reminder that we must do more than get caught up in that momentum. We must figure out how to find coherence in an increasingly atomized world.

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