Journalism: Late Arrivals To New Media
Now, in the waning days of the old media, some of its veteran organizations -- the Education Writers Association, the Hechinger Institute -- are hoping that they have the answer to new media. (See the column written by EWA's Whitmire and Hechinger's Colvin below.) These are all good people who have all done good work. But I have reason to be doubtful about whether much will come of these new efforts.Not the least of which is their insistence on linking to a recent Brookings report on education journalism that was criticized for being superficial and narrow (see my post and links to others' commentary here).
Where were these organizations during the past decade when all the new media models were being developed, tested, and adapted? The reaction time has been painfully slow. The response - token panels, mainly -- has been underwhelming. Nearing 2010, EWA has little non-newsroom expertise. It didn't even have a blog until a couple of months ago. (Seriously.) Hechinger says it's going to provide foundation-subsidized education journalism -- all well and good. But where are the commercial (paying) clients for its content, the social media, the opinion journalism? And what's the start date?
Has anyone on the education beat done a good job at figuring out new media (and new media revenue models)? Sure. The LA Times had a full-featured (and staffed) education blog for a year or two. Education Week has been diligently experimenting with blogs, ads, interactivity, and various pay schemes. The Washington Post, with two blogs (Valerie and Uncle Jay) plus a stable of reporters, is doing good things right now. GothamSchools and the Philly Notebook have the content pretty well covered though the revenue part still needs working out.
I'm just saying: The subsidy model isn't a long term solution. There's got to be a strong commercial revenue element. Much as I admire them, EWA and Hechinger don't have a strong track record developing or modeling successful new media ventures.
New Ways to Shine Light on Education Through Journalism
By Richard Colvin and Richard Whitmire
If news events alone drove journalism, we would be living in a golden age of education reporting.
The Obama administration put more than $100-billion for education in the economic-stimulus package. Not only is this far more federal money than ever before, but the ideas it promotes are controversial: factoring students' test scores into teachers' pay; giving private charter organizations a shot at turning around failing public schools; decrying the weakness of most education schools.
Even for harried reporters who think education policy is dull and wonky, the agenda has elements that make for good (and important) stories: money, longstanding norms under attack, power shifts, and a new, more muscular federal role in schooling.
But, of course, news isn't the only factor driving what reporters do. Most news organizations are struggling to stay in business. And the factors that threaten good-quality journalism as it's traditionally been practiced—plunging ad revenues, changes in audience preferences, a lack of innovation, too much debt—hit education reporting just as hard.
A report released last week from the Brookings Institution calculates that education accounted for only 1.4 percent of the national news coverage during the first nine months of this year. That paltry amount is twice as high as the year before, but much of it was devoted to noneducation sideshows, such as President Obama's speech to schoolchildren and the H1N1 virus among students. Teacher training—one of the biggest topics in the national policy debate—got just about as much attention as school meals and hugging.
At a typical newspaper, one or two reporters are handling education coverage that once fell to a team of five. And those one or two reporters cover many school districts. Local colleges—including community colleges, which many policy makers consider key to making the nation's work force more skilled and competitive—get little notice from journalists. At scores of papers, inexperienced education reporters answer to harried city editors who have no background in education issues.
In 2005, The Ann Arbor News, for example, fielded two full-time reporters and one part-timer to cover 10 school districts, charter schools, the University of Michigan, and Eastern Michigan University. Now, with the newspaper replaced by an online-only news operation, one "digital journalist" watches over everything education-related. The county's lowest-performing district gets almost no attention. Parents complain, but there's little that David Jesse, the reporter, can do.
The Dallas Morning News, which once had two dozen education reporters, editors, and freelancers producing award-winning coverage, now just swoops in from time to time to catch up on scandals. The education reporting staffs of the Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and even The New York Times all have shrunk.
But, as is often the case, the reduction in resources is forcing innovation.
With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation for Education, and others, the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, at Teachers College of Columbia University, is building a small staff to report on education. The Hechinger Report, as the venture is known, will deploy its own reporters and editors as well as a national network of experienced freelancers to collaborate with newspapers, radio programs, magazines, and online sites. For example, the project underwrote an examination of the University of Maryland's efforts to hold down tuition increases that was published online by the Washington Monthly. Other topics will include college attainment, international higher education, community colleges, the high-school-dropout problem, and issues related to the federal government's $4-billion "Race to the Top" fund for K-12 education. The Hechinger Report's coverage will be placed with other news organizations and will appear on a Web site to be started this spring.
The National Education Writers Association also is reinventing itself, as a resource for all sorts of education writers, whether in newsrooms or at home in their pj's, writing blog posts about whether cupcakes should be allowed at class parties. The association also hopes to expand the role of its newly hired public editor, the former Washington Post reporter and book author Linda Perlstein, who is on constant call to help out beleaguered reporters. Her job as public editor, also supported by foundations sensitive to the plight of education writers, ranges from helping new reporters sort out good from bad research to looking over drafts submitted by experienced reporters hungry for the good editing they once had but lost.
Why would such foundations, whose main focus is education rather than journalism, be willing to finance the spread and improvement of education coverage? The answer is simple. They understand the importance of journalism for helping voters, policy makers, educators, business leaders, and other key players understand complex issues. They know that credible, authoritative journalism about issues that matter makes their work easier. And they know that until a new, viable business model emerges to support good journalism, they can't stand on the sidelines.
Richard Colvin is director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media and editor of The Hechinger Report. Richard Whitmire, author of the forthcoming book Why Boys Fail (American Management Association, 2010) is a former president of the National Education Writers Association.