Michigan State University

Michigan State University

Can Transmedia Journalism Help Explain How School of Choice Affects Rural and Urban Communities?

Michigan State University is one of the 2017 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 10 winners.


  • Dr. Rachel Mourão, Assistant Professor, Michigan State University
  • Joe Grimm, Visiting Editor in Residence, Michigan State University
  • Rick Epps, Professor of Practice, Michigan State University
  • R.J. Wolcott, Reporter, Lansing State Journal
  • Matthew Miller, Editor and Storytelling Coach, Lansing State Journal
  • Stephanie Angel, Managing Editor, Lansing State Journal
  • Soo Young Shin, Doctoral Student, Michigan State University
  • Carin Tunney, Doctoral Student, Michigan State University

Additional members of our collaboration as outside advisors:

  • Erin Einhorn, Reporter, Chalkbeat
  • Emily Richmond, Public Editor, Education Writers Association
  • Rebecca Sibilia, Founder/CEO, EdBuild
  • Dr. Rebecca Goldin, Director, STATS; Professor, Mathematical Sciences, George Mason University
  • Dr. Denise Marie-Ordway, Journalist and Managing Editor, Journalist’s Resource, Shorenstein Center at Harvard University
  • Cody Harrell, Journalism/English educator and adviser, East Lansing High School

To view the School of Choice series, click here.

Describe your project

School of choice is at the forefront of national conversations about the U.S. education system, with new directives proposing an expansion of this policy across the nation. Michigan approved its first school of choice law in 1994 and, after two decades, winners and losers have emerged in rural, urban and suburban areas. Our experiment will look at social disparity and education inequality through the lens of schools of choice. Using transmedia storytelling, we will test how families’ stories and data trends reflect deeper issues of racial and economic diversity and inequality affecting millions of American families.

What is your live news experiment?

Our experiment will focus on Ingham County, Michigan, which is the perfect test tube for an analysis of the school of choice policy and its impact on vastly different school districts. We are in the center of a county that has 12 school districts, including some that are urban, suburban and rural. All allow district-to-district transfers. In the 2017-2018 school year, as many as 500 transfers will be allowed. Our district is diverse in both terms of race and income, and includes poor and rich urban areas, as well as poor and rich rural areas. An urban district and a suburban district are the strongest “magnets.” The biggest losers are the other urban district and some of the rural districts.

We plan on telling these stories using transmedia storytelling, with narratives that expand through multiple platforms and formats. They are complete in themselves, but together expand our understanding of the larger subject. We will start with quantitative and qualitative analyses of data, identifying key issues and historic trends and describe those in words and graphics including charts, motion graphics and GIFs. Simultaneously, our students will learn how to become beat reporters, developing relationships with key sources in each school district. Our goal is for them to integrate data journalism with shoe-leather reporting interviewing teachers, parents, students, administrators and official sources. Students will be assigned different school districts and cross-community collaborations will be endorsed.

If the experiment works, what do you think might happen?

We will humanize a largely statistical phenomenon that rarely has a human face, even though it is the most important decision of the year for many families. Our goal is to teach students how to tell stories that answer two big questions about our educational system:

  • Why and how families are choosing school districts?
  • What are the consequences of those choices on a micro and macro level?

We hope to show families’ perspectives about what they believe is best for their children’s education. From a macro perspective, we will see whether these individual decisions to leave one district for another contribute larger problems of social disparity.

Our students will learn how to combine data journalism with traditional reporting practices. Most importantly, they will learn how to engage with the communities to produce in-depth issue-oriented stories on a topic that deeply affects the area.

How is this project unique and innovative?

We are innovative in three ways. First, we will apply technology and transmedia storytelling to an issue that affects millions of parents, but has largely been dehumanized. Second, we will teach students how to combine multimedia and data journalism with shoe-leather reporting while maintaining our tradition of engagement with the local communities. Third, we will use school of choice as a framework for understanding deeper issues of inequality, moving toward issue-oriented community reporting. Our “big picture” goal is for our experiences to transform this core course and for it to serve as a framework for journalism educators in other states.

Our experiment will elevate the curriculum for Michigan State University’s 300-level multimedia reporting class on public affairs using transmedia storytelling. We will tell multiple different stories in varying forms and place them on more channels. These stories work fine by themselves, but could now complement and build on each other, better satisfying audiences. These are not repeated stories: transmedia storytelling aims to lengthen engagement with an issue by not repeating itself. The big “storyworld” of our experiment is the issue of school of choice. By adding transmedia storytelling and school of choice issue-oriented reporting, we are turning our 300-level class upside down. No one has done this before at MSU, and we hope to be able to push this course outside the traditional boundaries of the classroom and revamp our curriculum.

What technology platforms will you use?

Lansing State Journal has been publishing on the web since 2009 and has improved the organization and reach of the content every year. The latest iteration of our website brings our communities under one umbrella, adding thematic sections and allowing cross-posting stories that have a reach beyond one community or theme.

In this case, we would create a schools-only landing page and take a leap forward in acquiring, analyzing and displaying data, especially at the local and state levels. This data will be presented in charts and in motion graphics and animated .gifs.

With transmedia storytelling, we will produce writing and photo stories for our website, embed videos from our YouTube channel and use our social media channels. Our content will also be shared on our partner’s print, digital and social channels. Braided into a single larger narrative, this will provide a comprehensive picture of the dynamics of schools of choice.

If it works, how might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

One of our recent innovations has been to move students in this class’ (3-4 sections in the fall, 4-6 in the spring) toward more issues and project reporting rather than just events coverage. Two sections in the spring went totally into issues coverage (the five freedoms in the First Amendment during the first 100 days of the Trump Administration being one of them). We are looking for big ways to advance our students’ journalism education by adding new technologies and formats of storytelling without losing our current community focus.

The other big change is that this would get us moving on more local partnerships, something along the lines of teaching hospitals. Barriers have been our own egos, which keep us focused on providing content for our own channels rather than sharing it, and low staffing at traditional media that has made them time-starved. This project could be a breakthrough.

The Michigan State University team provided an update on its project in a March 2018 report.

Update: What have you discovered?

We have been very fortunate in the class in that, simply by attending school board and PTO meetings and saying that we are interested in schools of choice, people are volunteering that they have experience with this. Students are also excited about being part of larger national conversations about education:

1. Michigan was recently in the news for their schools of choice program and the policies implemented by Betsy DeVos, and we used these stories as examples of professional news reporting on the topic at a macro level.

2. Another unexpected benefit is that, although we have changed our usual pattern of geographic coverage to focus on a single subject – schools – we were very well-positioned when student walkouts across the country erupted over the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre on Feb. 14 in Florida. We had two students at a local school board meeting when a student and staff walkout was announced and were able to cover the march with many student reporters. This gave us our first crack at transmedia teamwork. While our student journalists were covering the marches, they tweeted some photos and quotes, which we flagged for the Lansing State Journal with a hashtag.

The Journal walked us through their “work-for-hire agreement.” We explained the form, had students sign it and emailed photos of the signed forms to the newspaper. We had two principle teams, one for text and one for video. After consulting with the graduate student, the class uploaded their best photos with captions to the WordPress media library. Another team began writing the story, taking text and email feeds from the others. Those who had not been at the schools took on roles as editors or mined social media.

By 2:30 p.m., they had produced a story, a gallery of 15 photos, a collaborative video and a link to an interactive NBC map of the walkouts nationwide. It was a good step toward the collaboration we want to see on final projects.