Little that occurs in the St. Paul public schools gets past Paul Tosto. His editors describe him as a meticulous reporter, a disseminator of even the tiniest bits of news that affect the nearly 45,000 students in Minnesota's second-largest school district.
This might seem to be a character trait that would lead to frustration. After all, there's only so much room in the newspaper and even Tosto knows most readers probably could care less about some things, such as the dumping of a snowmobile or gutted deer carcasses behind schools or excruciating historic detail of schools put on academic probation.
How does the St. Paul Pioneer Press fit it all in?
Like all newspapers, Tosto works with his editors to determine which news is suitable for the daily and Sunday editions. Then, usually on Mondays, Tosto shoots an e-letter to about 800 people who have signed up as, essentially, school news junkies.
Tosto, 39, was approached with the idea for an e-letter by Dave Peters, a senior editor in charge of newsroom online efforts.
"Well, I'll try it, but I don't want to take time away from newspapering," the four-year Pioneer Press veteran recalls saying.
Peters got the idea from a successful Minnesota Vikings e-letter sent to diehard fans during football season. The Pioneer Press also e-mails a weekly business newsletter and a daily round-up of columnists' writings to people who have signed up.
Tosto dived headfirst into the project but he pretty much ignored the existing models. None approach the interactivity of his firstname.lastname@example.org, which first went out in April 2001.
In addition to news that doesn't fit, email@example.com become a sounding board for parents and teachers, a forum for discussions and a way Tosto gathers information for future stories. Upcoming meeting dates and deadlines are regular items.
In a feature called "Why I wrote that," he explains his thought processes on stories that were in the paper. He includes paragraphs cut for space reasons.
He adds links to relevant stories in other publications, such as a school board debate about saying the Pledge of Allegiance in district schools. There are links to Supreme Court decisions from around the country. Tosto also finds useful Net-based information. One link is a Hmong-English "Talking Dictionary" because St. Paul has a large and active Hmong community.
Tosto also asks readers for help with stories. "Anyone have thoughts about fundraising?" he queried recently. "It's the season when those of us with kids in school start to see wrapping paper and other fund-raising packages coming home ... Do folks like the current structure? Has anyone ever thought about/seen good alternatives?"
Tosto plans to use the responses to write a story on how much money schools make in this way and better ways to do so.
Tosto estimates the e-letters consume about one-half day a week. Their length depends upon the time of year and what's going on. They usually are comprised of two to three items, each about four paragraphs long. Depending upon the issue, he receives anywhere from four to 10 e-mail responses from every item, he says.
Recently he wrote a story on teacher salaries. Homeroom received lots of e-mails from teachers who weren't happy with the story. Tosto copied and pasted the e-mails into his e-letter along with his own responses to their gripes. (He did not include teachers' names unless they gave him permission.)
Could e-letters like Tosto's work with any beat?
Peters isn't sure. First you need a sense that there's an underground interest or an "inside crowd" who live and breathe the subject.
"Schools seem to be a topic that some newspaper readers have an intense interest in. If your kid is in St. Paul schools, you are interested in far more details than we can provide in the paper," Peters says.
"The other factor for me is that Paul is a very good education reporter. He is authoritative and knowledgeable, great on details. He maintains a good database of telephone numbers. He can track minute news coming out of the school district," Peters adds.
Scott Sands, an active school council parent with four children in the St. Paul schools, long refused to subscribe to the Pioneer Press because he considered its education coverage shallow and slanted. Now, he gets the paper - and the homeroom e-letters, which he credits for being an unbiased "ray of hope" and for stimulating discussion.
Peters knows Tosto derives benefits from the e-letters. "He's gotten a good response. We're not talking about millions, but he gets a good response. It serves him well with decision makers and gives him sources. It gives him another audience with a higher level of feedback. If you measure success that way, it showed up early," he says.
"Some people see civic journalism as a big project thing. I don't see it that way," Tosto says. "The way I practice it is to make sure that readers know how to get hold of me. In hundreds of ways it pays off overwhelmingly even when we disagree."
Gemperlein is a former staff writer for the San Jose Mercury News and The Philadelphia Inquirer.