Amid COVID-19 hardships, Pamplin Media Group investigates state Latino education gap


Published Jan. 12, 2021 | Updated June 13, 2021

By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

The pandemic proved to be a perfect time for Oregon-based Pamplin Media Group to dust off a long-anticipated but never-executed investigative project. The community newspaper chain compiled state data confirming education achievement gaps between Latino and white students, and received an investigative reporting stipend from Local Media Foundation to continue their work.

“It was always a project to do next month,” Pamplin Media Group Executive Editor John Schrag said. “I just never made it a priority. When COVID hit, I said, ‘Let’s reach for the stars.’”

Schrag

Pamplin Media Group consists of about two dozen publications mostly in the Portland area, totaling eight newsrooms across six counties. The group includes legacy newspapers, such as the 170-year-old Central Oregonian and the Portland Tribune, which debuted in 1991. While most were founded as print operations, every Pamplin newspaper has embraced the business’s digital side, Schrag said.

The community newspaper chain used a $5,000 Local Media Foundation investigative reporting stipend and other financial relief from industry sources to fund the reporting. The goal is to confirm disparities in Oregon’s high school graduation rates and achievement levels for Latinos and identify school districts working to address the issue.

“We have long wanted to look at what’s causing that gap and also what’s working,” he said. “Let’s find out in Oregon what the successful responses have been and then let’s look outside of Oregon.”

In early June 2021, Pamplin published the first stories in its education package, The Long Division, with fewer than 100 words in print, and more than 20,000 words online. A dedicated, separate no-paywall, ad-free site features more than a dozen original stories and links to others published earlier.

Schrag said they will roll out some of the stories in print over the rest of the summer and update the site with more content, including two solutions-focused stories: One on transgender students’ online learning experience and another on how Colorado has found a way to diversify its enrollment in online charter schools.

The in-depth, collaborative effort came when Pamplin Media Group was reeling from the pandemic. The company laid off some employees and changed the rest to part-time status until advertisement revenue improves, so the LMA reporting stipend was particularly timely — especially as funding from other industry sources was starting to run out.

“For a company like us, that was the bridge we needed,” Schrag said. “In the grand scheme of things, these grants aren’t huge but they hit a really important sweet spot that encourages good work.”

The LMA investigative stipend helped Pamplin Media Group produce reports based on attendance and pass-fail data that’s already been compiled. Schrag was even able to offer more hours to a bilingual staff reporter to analyze the data.

Oregon’s public K-12 school system has not served families of color and low-income families as well as it has served white and higher-income families, and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-21 worsened the problem.

The data-hunting process also helped identify districts that instituted innovative ideas to overcome the problem, including night classes for Latino students who work during the day to support their families.

“It’s not just a bunch of bad-news statistics,” Schrag said.

The effort is also helping Pamplin Media Group solicit reader donations for a Spanish-language podcast, which serves as an extension of the investigative project. In total, Pamplin Media Group raised nearly $70,000 in reader donations this year, representing a new revenue stream for the newspaper group that also sells subscriptions.

The readers aren’t the only ones to benefit. Schrag knows how important this project is to the reporter’s overall morale assigned to analyze the data and the editor who oversees the reporter’s work for this project.

“Our reporters feel like they’re at the center of this business model, which hasn’t always been the case,” Schrag said. “It [was] nice to tell a success story as we [came] to the end of the year.”


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