By Chris Adams

Imagine discovering that out of more than 1,600 elementary schools in your state, five from one area of your town were among the worst. How would you go about reporting such a story?

For a team of journalists at the Tampa Bay Times in Florida, the startling discovery was the start of more than a year’s worth of reporting that showed how one school district had allowed five schools to fall into persistent failure – and to do so rather rapidly.

The local school board, the paper concluded, “stood by and did nothing” as the schools deteriorated. “Today thousands of children are paying the price… They are trapped at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — five neighborhood elementary schools that the board has transformed into failure factories.”

That was the name of the series -- “Failure Factories” – and it recently won the National Press Foundation’s Innovation in Journalism Award. This new award is designed to celebrate news organizations that transform journalism through new storytelling techniques.

A key player in the project was Nathaniel Lash, a Times data reporter who discussed his team’s methods during a nuts-and-bolts tutorial webinar. Lash worked with a team of education reporters, visual journalists, and data specialists to execute the project.

In the webinar, Lash discusses the range of data sources used by the team; much of it was obtained after lengthy freedom-of-information battles.

Among the sources he detailed:

  • Ten years of standardized testing data, compiled in way that allowed for year-over-year comparisons;
  • Teacher personnel records, including complaints about teachers and subsequent investigations into teaching licenses;
  • School demographic data;
  • Two decades worth of teacher certification tests;
  • Student discipline referrals; and
  • A unique dataset, created by the state at the Times’ request, detailing the number of students who passed both math and reading exams in 2014 at every school in the state.

The story also used a compelling slideshow that incorporated photography and video, allowing readers to see and hear from students and their families.