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HotSeat Interview: Citizen Journalist Extraordinaire Seth Lavin

ILstatemapThere are lots of so-called citizen journalists out there these days, toiling away on their own or for Patch or Huffington Post, but few have taken the job as seriously or gotten as far as the Chicago Schools Wonks' Seth Lavin.

In lenghty weekly emails,, Lavin aggregated the news, picked up additional key tidbits, and provided some heartfelt reactions to what was going on during Mayor Emanuel and Jean-Claude Brizard's first tumultuous year.  

It's been fascinating and somewhat disheartening to chronicle his slow loss of enthusaism for reform (In Praise Of Moderately Successful SchoolsLost In ChicagoYoung Reformer Loses Faith, Returns To Teaching).   At times he seemed to be doing a better job at covering Chicago education news than everyone else. 

Alas, it was over too soon.  Lavin recently announced his decision to quit the newsletter business and re-enter the classroom.  ("So how much did you pay Seth to stop publishing?" a friend asked me.)

Under intense email questioning (below), the relentlessly nice- and decent-seeming Lavin tells the story of the long dark night he started his newsletter last spring, how he came up with the impressively awful name, why he made it an email newsletter rather than an online social site, what his goal was and whether he thinks he accomplished it. His dark (private, really) side comes out only here and there when he declines to answer some probing questions (as he's obviously entitled to do). Asking questions is much more fun than answering them -- every journalist knows this.

IN THE BEGINNING

What was the moment or event that got you to decide to start CSW?

I decided to create Chicago Schools Wonks and wrote the first edition all in the same sitting—very late on a Thursday night at the end of May, right as my 2nd school year was finishing. I don’t think there was any specific event that prompted it. There are a lot of journalists or sometimes-journalists in my family and we’d been having a running conversation for a few weeks about the power of newsletters. Both of my brothers had started small, internal newsletters for the companies they worked for. We’d been talking about how that can be a powerful way to create a shared reading list for a group of people or to bring different points of view, arguments or discussion topics into people’s minds. A lot of my friends are teachers, reformy workers or policy/political people. My viewpoint was changing. My job was changing. Chicago’s leadership was changing. I was wrestling with a ton of school reform questions. I decided to create Wonks and send it to my friends for a lot of the same reasons my brothers built their newsletters. I never thought it would end up going to so many strangers each week. If I did or if I’d spent more time planning it I would have definitely given it a more melodic name.

Where'd you get your first public media shout out (it was Rotherham, right)?

Yup, unless you count some twitter shout-outs. Rotherham posted “100 days of Brizard” early on: http://www.eduwonk.com/2011/09/100-days-of-brizzard.html. That was very cool.I’ve been a big fan of Eduwonk for a long time. Jay Mathews is a family friend and when I was in college in DC Jay invited me to a PPI event on ed reform, where I met Andy. I doubt he remembers. The event was sort of a debate. One person made the argument that poverty would always drive weak academic achievement. His point was that we shouldn’t expect schools alone to make up for the academic achievement differences caused by poverty. The other debater projected a scatter plot for a set of public schools showing student poverty on one axis and academic achievement on the other. There was a very clear trend line, but the guy speaking pointed out a big cluster of schools at the high-achievement end that broke the trend. High poverty, high achievement. His point was that, while the relationship between poverty and academic performance definitely exists, it can be conquered. That had a big effect on me at the time.

GETTING IT DONE

Why an email, not a blog or tumblr, and how many readers to you end up with?

Email is a very intimate form of communication. I like that. Wonks wasn’t something I threw onto the internet for people to search for or browse through. It was an email I wrote directly to people who asked for it.  Every week it showed up right in your inbox as a note from me. In the beginning I knew everyone that got it. Even when people I didn’t know started signing up I usually knew their name, where they worked, how they’d found me. That kept it feeling sort of like a big conversation among friends, which is what I always wanted it to be.

How did you keep track of what was going on during the week, and assemble the email? how long did it take?

For a long time I could do the whole thing in 4 hours. Sometimes that was 4 hours in a sitting Friday morning or Thursday night. Sometimes when I was more disciplined it’d be 2 hours in chunks throughout the week and 2 hours when I actually sat down to write. My process was always the same. I read a lot. Throughout the week I’d keep links to articles I thought were important in a draft email. I general I favorite a lot of things I see on twitter and get to stories that way. I read 100% of education stories in the Tribune, Sun-Times, WBEZ, District299, Catalyst and, when it existed, the Chicago News Coop. I also read a lot of teacher blogs and will occasionally scan other local news sources—the TV station websites; neighborhood sites like Austin Talks, Roscoe Village Journal, etc. Once I had all the links I wanted I’d start to write the actual newsletter, adding context and commentary. Sometimes in that stage the note ballooned to a million pages. I spent a lot of time rewriting, cutting down, rewriting, cutting down. Toward the end of CSW the whole process took longer because I had a lot of people signed up and I had to send multiple email copies because of Gmail limits and it was a logistical headache.

What's your view on allowing people to talk to you off the record?

This is such a difficult issue for anyone doing journalism, citizen or professional. Certainly I’ve talked to people off the record and quoted people anonymously. I feel okay about that for now, though I could see maybe myself changing my mind on that. The challenge is to strike a balance between being informative, being fair and being credible. If I’m relaying information that’s only given to me under condition of anonymity I can, in the moment, get more information out to my readers. Information they wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s a good thing. But then I’m also creating a safe space for people to say things they don’t want to have to defend or own up to in public. That’s a bad thing. And I’m potentially straining people’s trust in me. I’m not a professional. I have no formal document of standards. There’s pretty limited recourse for anyone to hold me accountable. I’m asking people to believe I’m not just making stuff up or mischaracterizing who I’ve talked to. I trust my own standards enough that I took that credibility risk and used anonymous sources, background conversations, etc., but I think it’s a risky thing for any journalist, citizen or professional, to do.

MAKING AN IMPACT

What do you feel were your biggest accomplishments or contributions?

School reform is so divisive and political right now. So many of the loudest voices are strident, unwavering. So many of the people holding microphones are pushing one side or the other, looking for ways to spin their team’s work as wonderful and the other team’s work as destructive. Those people—politicians, reform spokespeople, union leaders—many are very afraid to say things publicly that suggest they’re not certain of their own side’s righteousness.Separately, there’s a huge, thoughtful discussion happening at the level of the people on all sides actually doing the work. Talk to teachers—TFA teachers, new traditionally certified teachers, 30-year-veterans— there’s so much questioning and wondering and doubting going on. It’s muddled and complicated and wonderful. Politicians and journalists—not all of them but a lot of them—don’t operate well where things can’t be easily simplified. School reform can’t be easily simplified and I think a lot of politicians and journalists end up getting it wrong by trying to make it simple. The goal for Wonks was to foster a more thoughtful school reform conversation that gave a bigger microphone to the less dogmatic voices. I can’t say whether or not I pulled it off but I definitely had people on very different sides of school reform issues reading, engaging, and valuing as a kind of) middle-ground. I was really proud of that.

What was the high point in terms of public recognition for your work, or rubbing elbows with the famous?

I don’t think “rubbing elbows with the famous” ever exactly happened. That said I’ve been really humbled and honored by some of the people that signed up for Wonks, read what I was writing, engaged, questioned, challenged, prodded. School leaders. District leaders. Journalists. Some of the people with the bigger microphones I mentioned above. It was always exciting for me to be producing something they thought was important.

Where were you quoted or booked in terms of other media?

No comment.

What's the most fun or unexpected place you've been recognized  in person (at a board meeting, on the street, in a school)?

I write emails! How would anyone recognize me?

BIGGER AND BIGGER

How big did the CSW get in terms of email subscribers?

No comment.

What if any mistakes did you make, lessons did you learn?

Oy. I made plenty of mistakes. Small ones: spelling names wrong, confusing ‘buses’ and ‘busses,’ sending out bad links. That drove me crazy. I also made bigger mistakes, particularly the ones you see a lot in aggregation. Sometimes I’d misinterpret something a reporter wrote in a story. Sometimes a reporter wrote something that was wrong and I shared that without checking it out first. I definitely got a lot better with that second kind of mistake. Checking multiple stories on the same topic and highlighting things one reporter said that another reporter contradicted; presenting a point as a reporter’s point rather than just the truth. I also put a lot of my opinion into Wonks and I’m sure over time we’ll see plenty of what I argued proved wrong.

WRAPPING IT UP

Why didn't you take me or anyone else up on joining their team or being paid for your work?

Professional journalism is powerful in a way citizen journalism can’t be but I also think citizen journalism is powerful in a way professional journalism can’t be. I’m definitely not saying we should have entirely one or entirely the other—we should have both. And I wanted to be a citizen journalist, not a professional one. I felt very free and powerful being able to write what I thought was interesting and important, with my own perspective, my own opinions, and without being part of someone else’s brand or schedule or business plan. I also wasn’t asking anyone for anything. As soon as you’re a professional you start needing things—sign-ups, clicks, eyeballs. I didn’t need any of that and that independence gave me a lot of clarity about my purpose.

Did the newsletter come up during [job] interviews?

No comment.

What's the reaction been to your announced shutdown?

People have been so nice. I’ve gotten a lot of thank-you notes and emails saying how much people liked Wonks or that they found it useful or looked forward to it. That means a lot to me. People have also been incredibly encouraging about my going back into teaching. That makes me feel really thankful.

Comments

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I like how he doesn’t comment about the newsletter coming up in job interviews. That’s pretty much a “yes.” Of course it came up, in the age we live in, where your Facebook profile plays a disturbingly large part of any job application process. There's a local police department that even demanded applicants hand over passwords so that the powers that be could decide if the candidate was good enough for the job. It's scary.

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