In the summer of 2020, kids weren’t taking sides in the raging debates over whether to reopen schools. But as the disruption of education emerged as one of the biggest stories of the coronavirus pandemic, students were the people who had the most at stake.
I was particularly focused on teenagers because my son had just graduated from high school. He was part of the Class of 2020 that wrapped up senior year on laptops and picked up diplomas in waves, one-at-a-socially-distant time. His class had been able to experience at least some of what makes the last year of high school seminal.
I kept thinking about the rising seniors of 2021 who were heading into a year with no guarantees. That last chance to do everything from competing on a team to playing in the band or serving on the student council was up in the air, as was the camaraderie of being with classmates and connecting in-person with teachers. These kids were losing out, and it was going to have an impact.
I shared an idea with colleagues: What if we followed three high school seniors from the first day of school through graduation to give our audience a student-focused view of this unprecedented school year?
GBH News Senior Producer Emily Judem had been thinking along the same lines. We liked the idea of focusing on high school seniors because they would be old enough to share their experiences and, hopefully, would stick with us for the year. As the country braced for a second wave of COVID, Judem suggested leveraging a quintessential teen communication tool — smartphones. The students could send us video diaries and texts, providing windows into their lives even if in-person interviews and close-up photography weren’t safe.
Make it big
We weren’t sure where our brainstorming would lead until our new boss, GBH News General Manager Pam Johnston, told us she wanted a story about COVID and education. She wanted it to be distinctive, she wanted it to be big.
She liked our ideas for a series focusing on high school seniors. We agreed not to limit our reporting to the kids’ experiences and to look at their schools and communities for stories. The project would be iterative — one story would lead to another. We would take the audience on a yearlong character-centered journey and provide perspectives they would find nowhere else.
Another key decision: We would meet audiences where they’re increasingly turning for information — the digital space. This would mean disrupting the newsroom’s editorial workflow.
Instead of thinking about the broadcast story first and the digital piece as an afterthought, we would reverse the order.
We would have to break down the silos that separated our newsroom into three teams feeding our website, our NPR News station and the nightly news program on our PBS television station. We would create a new workflow to produce stories tailored for each of these platforms.
Our newsroom was moving beyond broadcast to a digital-first operation in tandem with our larger organization, the GBH Educational Foundation. We launched “COVID and the Classroom” at the same time that GBH, known for decades by its call letters WGBH, updated its name and logo to drop the broadcast-centric W. Departments across the foundation were striving to make content accessible wherever and whenever people wanted to consume it — not just on our television and radio stations. With its digital-first focus, “COVID and the Classroom” would be a template as the newsroom morphed to meet audiences of the future.
Forging new connections
We chose the title “COVID and the Classroom” because it was simple, memorable and optimized for web-search discoverability. Anyone interested in the pandemic’s impact on education would be likely to use the title’s keywords in their searches.
The next step required us to do two things at once — find our students and lay the groundwork to meet the audience in the digital space. We needed a landing page for the series that would feature reported stories and digital timelines with the students’ texts, photos and video diaries. We also needed a signature image to use on social media and other platforms as we let people, especially students and educators, know about the project. And we needed to announce we were launching this yearlong effort.
Reporters, producers, photographers, designers, digital strategists and audience experts came together to think through the entire project — from the ways we would connect with students to how the audience would find stories. We were all working from home, but we were coming out of our silos, forging new connections and cross-pollinating ideas across our newsroom and our larger organization. It was an exciting and nerve-wracking time. We were planning a September launch, but as we moved into the final days of August, we still hadn’t identified the three students we would follow all year.
Our weeks-long search started with a Google form shared on social media and via newsroom contacts. We also reached out directly to educators and leaders in communities where COVID rates were highest and students were likely to be most deeply impacted by the pandemic.
More than 40 high school seniors from communities across Greater Boston responded. We followed up with all of them via texts, emails and calls. We also invited them to submit a sample video diary describing their hopes and fears about the upcoming school year. We received 12 videos, and all of the students were compelling.
Choosing just three was difficult. We wanted a group who would reflect a diverse range of experiences and interests. They needed to be from different communities. And we needed to be convinced they would be with us for the long haul, willing to send in regular smartphone updates and make themselves available for interviews throughout the year.
In mid-September, shortly before the school year started, we chose three students who would be the center of the project. We decided to also stay in touch with the nine others who had submitted video diaries. We checked in with students in that larger group throughout the year and included their perspectives in stories about the emotional toll of remote school; the difficulties of applying to college during a pandemic, especially for those aiming to be the first in their families to go to college; and their thoughts on going back into classrooms when schools finally reopened in the spring.
We assigned one reporter to each of the three main students. They built relationships, served as the primary points of contact and helped to source stories. Despite the challenges the students faced, those reporter-source relationships flourished throughout the year. The students checked in on a near-weekly basis with video diaries, texts and interviews via Zoom. We curated student-generated content on their digital timelines, providing audiences with a deeply personal, real-time chronicle of a school year shaped by COVID.
Months later, about midway through the school year when “COVID and the Classroom” was well underway, a colleague remarked on how compelling he found our students. The behind-the-scenes work of finding and vetting our students was invisible, but its success was obvious.
“Where did you find them, central casting?” he asked.
Building on student-generated content
The kids’ dispatches served as a jumping-off point to tell broader stories of how remote school was affecting students and their communities. Throughout the year, we produced 22 digital-first feature stories. Many were formatted for radio and television. We also experimented with different ways of storytelling.
One story focused on Bridget Donovan, a high school senior from Framingham, Mass., who candidly discussed how the isolation of remote school exacerbated her mental health problems. We drew from her video diaries and brought in expert voices for a radio story and text-based web feature exploring the wider problem of young people dealing with mental health issues during COVID. We used those same video diaries to create a digital video. Donovan was open to our direction and captured most of the scenes we needed on her iPhone. It was the safest option at a time when COVID case numbers were high and enabled us to give our audience an intimate look at the toll of remote school.
One of our video producers combined GoPro footage of Boston Latin High senior Thomas White on his weekly 12-mile run through the streets of Boston with an audio recording of White reading his college essay about the importance of running in his life. It was a visually stunning piece and offered insights into a student who had started out the year hoping to prove himself as a top runner, only to have his track seasons cancelled.
GBH Director of Photography Meredith Nierman set out to capture a week in the life of Anne Laurie Pierre, a high school student from Everett, Mass. Instead, she discovered a more interesting story angle about the student’s spirituality. The photographs told the story of the devastating toll COVID had taken on Pierre’s family and how her faith helped her manage the many challenges she faced.
Student-generated content formed the heart of our final project, a half-hour documentary that wove together the students’ individual experiences to tell a larger story of a generation’s loss and resilience. Class of COVID premiered in late June on GBH TV and GBH News’ Facebook and YouTube channels. The premiere was immediately followed by a virtual live event on Facebook that, for the first time, brought the students together.
“COVID and the Classroom” was the first time our newsroom invested in a yearlong multiplatform reporting project. It was an experiment that we had to figure out as we went along, or as one team member put it, “fly the airplane as we build it.” We stayed in the air, but at times it was a bumpy ride. Among the key lessons we learned:
- Collaborate: From the outset, journalists worked with digital and audience strategists, and our collaboration strengthened as the project took flight. We brought in our social team as a story developed, rather than waiting until it had completed production; this enabled us to begin planning how to leverage the media assets we were collecting. We also put a lot of thought into how to craft our content for platforms where it would most likely connect with an interested audience. We would measure audience engagement and pivot as needed.
- Create content for social media: We generated a great deal of video content, and our team leveraged it in new ways, including cutting stories on the vertical for social platforms and, for the first time, creating stories specifically for IGTV. We crafted IGTV content from student video diaries, bits of footage used in longer pieces, and in one instance by adding photographs to a radio story.
- Consider YouTube: Before “COVID and the Classroom,” GBH News posted content on YouTube to generate video links for our website and social media channels. With this project we began thinking about how to reach YouTube’s vast audience. We developed a new workflow that included creating custom thumbnails along with search-optimized descriptions and titles. That workflow is now used for all newsroom content posted on YouTube, including from our television programs, as we continue to develop our YouTube presence.
- Create a production schedule: While we were always productive, initially we did not follow a schedule. Creating one helped make expectations clear for the people creating content, our newsroom colleagues and audiences.
- Change the workflow: Moving from a broadcast-centered to a digital-first workflow was straightforward. Whether or not we planned a broadcast version of the story, we simply prioritized creating the digital version. Most of the stories were also produced for radio and generally released the same day as the digital piece. That workflow is now standard across our newsroom. We also experimented with airing non-narrated videos on TV and posting more traditional narrated pieces on digital platforms.
- Visuals are key: Compelling photography is essential for the digital space. We featured arresting images of our students’ faces on the project’s landing page, in stories and promotional materials. That may be one reason why my colleague thought we had found students through central casting.
“COVID and the Classroom” resonated in ways that were measurable. More than two-thirds of the web visitors who accessed the content were new to our website. The stories were also meaningful to people who listened and watched. A school vice principal told us he appreciated that our stories shed light on the inequities COVID exacerbated. We brought people into the students’ lives, he pointed out, and allowed our audience to actually witness the challenges they faced.
The project’s biggest success, however, is arguably internal. We created new relationships, new workflows and a new sense that GBH News will deliver to our audiences one-of-kind perspectives on the most important stories impacting our community.
Stephanie Leydon is the director of special projects at GBH News. She worked for many years as a television news reporter and anchor before joining GBH News as a reporter in 2014. Her feature stories have aired nationally on NPR, The World and PBS Newshour. She’ll share lessons learned from “COVID and the Classroom” Monday during a PBS Technology Conference breakout session, “Steal Our Playbook! How One Ambitious Journalism Project Completely Transformed Our Newsroom.”