By Joel Warner
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While the media's rules of engagement aren't set in stone, there is general agreement among journalists that story subjects shouldn't be allowed to see any portion of an article prior to publication. But with "Early Exit: Denver's Graduation Gap," a sprawling series that ran from May 16 to 20, the Rocky Mountain News bent this standard. Without ceding editorial control, the paper worked with Denver Public Schools for months and shared graphics reflecting its findings weeks before the data saw print. Because they were kept in the loop, DPS reps had the chance to distribute a talking-points memo to principals in advance of interviews, complete with tips about how to answer questions they knew Rocky scribes were likely to ask.
To his credit, Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple hasn't tried to hide the arrangement's particulars. Rather, he's touted them. In May 21's "Partnership Was Key to DPS Report," he wrote that he learned "a lesson in journalism" from the way his verbal pact with Superintendent Jerry Wartgow developed, and argued that cooperation helped keep the focus on grim figures the Rocky compiled: Of the 5,633 eighth-graders in DPS circa 1999, only 1,884, or approximately 33 percent, graduated from a system high school five years later. In Temple's view, the community wouldn't have known the breadth of this dilemma "without a public official gutsy enough to believe that what's most important and best for society is for people to know the truth -- and a newspaper willing to try a new approach."
Along the way, Temple acknowledged that letting Wartgow see charts in advance, and study them at leisure, was a tactic "almost unheard of in journalism. I'd never done it before." Yet he was clearly defensive when asked about the potential repercussions of this shift in personal policy. "Only Westword would call to find fault in what I think is the most important piece of public-service journalism this town has seen in a long time," he says. "That's the tenor of your publication. Why won't you write about the actual value that was created for the community by what we did?"
The series represented a large commitment on the Rocky's part -- the tabloid devoted five front pages to the topic -- and even though the 5,633 figure was misprinted as "5,663" on the May 16 cover (d'oh!), the offering as a whole was laudable in numerous respects. The opening article was boosted by graphics that were even more impressive on the Rocky's website, and subsequent segments humanized the info with vivid student vignettes often enhanced by online videos. Granted, the Rocky allowed Wartgow to write two separate columns (one about DPS successes), and profiles of students still in school outpaced dropout portraits by a disproportionate margin. Yet the Rocky was inoculated against most soft-pedaling charges by the dire statistics.
Could these details have been uncovered without the DPS deal? Temple doubts it, but there's some evidence to the contrary. In March 2004, Denver Post columnist Cindy Rodriguez tackled the grad-gap issue, and without forging any treaties, she discovered that only 51 percent of ninth-graders circa 1998 graduated from a DPS high school. This total is in the same ballpark as the 43 percent graduation rate of DPS ninth-graders from 2000 that Temple mentioned in his column. DPS spokesman Mark Stevens thinks other media outlets could have come up with similar results. "If we had said, 'No, you can't have the data,' I believe the News or some other organization would have said, 'We'll find a way to get at that ourselves,'" he maintains. "They'd still be asking the questions, and there would still be an obligation on our part to respond."
Considering the circumstances, Stevens believes the decision to partner "wasn't that hard" from DPS's perspective, and he thinks being non-adversarial aided everyone. "There's a little paradox here: The closer reporters work with us, the farther they get," he says. As proof, Temple notes that the paper was trying to negotiate year-long access at North High School for columnist Tina Griego around the same time conversations about the dropout inquiry began -- and Griego eventually obtained permission.
DPS received regular updates about the direction the Rocky's report was taking. "They said they wanted opinions and comments from all high-school principals," Stevens allows. "So we gave the principals a heads-up. We put out something saying, 'Here's what they told us they're doing, and here are some thoughts for you -- information you can provide so we'll be on the same page.'" Inevitably, this memo came to the attention of folks at the Post, who reacted by assembling a page-one story about statewide dropout data that ran May 13, immediately before the Rocky's big series -- and a couple of related education articles got prominent play in ensuing days. Temple scoffs at this strategy. "That was just pathetic," he says. "A good headline for that would have been 'Post Follows News.' That describes the Denver journalism scene."
Temple stresses that "Early Exit" was motivated by a desire to improve the city, not dominate journalism contests, but it certainly has the look of an entry in the Pulitzer's prestigious public-service category. Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler concedes that methodologies like the ones employed by the Rocky are "uncommon" among public-service champs, but not unprecedented. Comparable, in his opinion, was the victorious 1994 submission by the Akron Beacon Journal called "A Question of Color." Former Post editor Glenn Guzzo, who was the Beacon Journal's managing editor when the paper took the prize, describes the effort as a 25-part series, divided into five sections, that examined Akron race relations from a slew of angles: economic opportunity, crime, etc. Unlike the Rocky, the Beacon Journal didn't join forces with any local institution during this massive undertaking, but it sponsored numerous community forums paid for out of the publisher's budget yet covered extensively by editorial. "Some people will tell you, gee, no civic-journalism project has won a Pulitzer," says Guzzo, "but then they'll remember: 'Oh, Akron.'"