Education Lab, our first community-funded coverage team, changed laws, policies and the conversation around education and spawned Traffic Lab and Project Homeless.

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The Seattle Times is celebrating a milestone birthday: Education Lab just turned 5 years old.

Our first community-funded journalism project was born Oct. 26, 2013, with the online publication of the team’s initial story. Over five years, Education Lab has changed state laws, school policies and the conversation around education while spawning two other coverage teams funded from outside sources – Traffic Lab and Project Homeless.

“Its impact and results have been so significant,” said Times Publisher Frank Blethen, who had the vision for Ed Lab and spent 18 months cultivating a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund it. “Now we’re in our fourth renewal and going into years six and seven.”

Yet Education Lab was no sure thing when it launched as a one-year project. Outside funding was something new and uncomfortable for a newspaper. The experiment also had two other untested wrinkles – solutions journalism and reader engagement.

“It was a big experiment,” remembers Linda Shaw, a reporter that first year who became the Ed Lab editor and now works closely with the team as Western Region Manager for the Solutions Journalism Network. “There was a lot of skepticism in the newsroom. It was as much about accepting grant funding at all, and certainly on this scale, as it was about our solutions focus.”

Within a year, most of the skeptics were converts. “The stories weren’t fluff. They weren’t advocacy,” Shaw says.  “They were truly an examination of solutions – something going right – in a rigorous way.”

Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that also handles Gates’ funding for The Times, pioneered a new approach to stories, defined as “rigorous, evidence-based reporting on responses to social problems.” Shaw remembers how David Boardman, then The Times’ executive editor, described solutions journalism another way: Using traditional investigative reporting techniques to examine what’s going right instead of what’s going wrong.

Reader engagement – connecting with readers in a variety of ways – was also a relatively new idea for us back then. Ed Lab hired an engagement editor (along with two reporters and the editor) to reach out via reader Q&A’s, public events, community partnerships and a newsletter.

Another key was keeping coverage independent by placing clear guardrails to protect our journalism. Funders can suggest stories just as you can, but they don’t have control over our coverage, aren’t allowed to review stories before publication and don’t have direct access to reporters. We’re also transparent, publishing the list of funders with each story.

The idea of Ed Lab evolved out of an earlier effort, the Greater Good Campaign. Created in 2011, the public-service project highlighted inequities in the state’s education system, focusing on the state’s defunding of higher education. The Times raised money for public-service messages (produced outside the newsroom) that highlighted statistics and problems.

The effort paid off quickly. “Within nine or 10 months, we helped drive legislation that stopped the defunding – to our amazement,” Blethen said.

That convinced Blethen to aim higher. The idea of Ed Lab was born.

“It started with Frank,” said Sharon Pian Chan, who now oversees community-funded journalism projects in her role as Vice President of Product Development and Innovation. ” He makes it clear it’s a priority from the top of the company on down. For Frank, it’s a legacy issue.”

The Gates Foundation renewed for a second year, stretched that commitment to two years in 2016 and recently signed on for two more years through Sept. 30, 2020. Over seven years, Gates will contribute $2.5 million to Ed Lab. The Knight Foundation and Alaska Airlines also helped along the way. City University of Seattle and the Annie E. Casey Foundation became Ed Lab funders this year.

Now we’ve created two other innovative coverage teams using community funding. Traffic Lab, launched in 2017, is about to start its third year. The success of Ed Lab persuaded potential funders to approach us about examining another intractable problem, homelessness. Project Homeless was born in October 2017 and is starting its second year. All told, 19 nonprofits, foundations and private businesses fund three coverage teams totaling 12 staffers. This year we raised $1.4 million.

What’s next?

Now we’re exploring how community funding can expand our storied investigative reporting team. Look for more on that effort soon.

Joy Resmovits, hired last summer as Ed Lab’s editor, has lofty goals to build on the team’s remarkable legacy. “How can we be the region’s guide to understanding education?” she asks. “We have a lot more in store from this partnership.”

Blethen agrees. “The outcomes to date have been fantastic,” he says. “But 50 percent of our children get a substandard education. Until all student outcomes are equitable, Education Lab is not done. We still have a long way to go.”

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