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JOURNALISM: The Russo Seminar For Reporters New To The Education Beat

The Hechinger Institute is having a fancy seminar for education reporters New to the Education Beat, complete with a trip to New York City, appearances from fancy East Coast journalists, and ground-level propaganda presentations from reformy types like Charlie Barone, Cornelia Grumman, and Rick Hess. 

230294741_2a03d92debOh, and there will be some actual educators there at the end, too. 

I got nothing like that, but I do have some advice -- serious and otherwise. Maybe you can read it during one of the panels or something. Good luck, and welcome!

*If at all possible, don't go into education journalism or stay there long. It's among the lowest-prestige beats in a newsroom, and will require you to endure your editors' and colleagues' inane stories about their childhood experiences in school (or the experiences of their children). You will be looked down on by your peers, and even your parents. No matter that schools are important, and everywhere, and sometimes what goes down in them is pretty damn amazing. The beat might keep you employed for a few extra months, but it's not worth it. 

*Forget about learning how to interview children. They are usually your least useful sources, and classrooms are your least useful reporting environment. Predictable, boring, sentimental. How to interview clerks, security guards, counselors, teachers, schedulers, and staffers is what you really need to know to get to the bottom of most education stories.  The staff parking lot, the faculty lounge, and Facebook are the best places to hang out.

*Pitch stories about new, innovative things going on in schools, if only to get your stories approved and read. Then once you've grabbed your reader tell them how things really are most of the time in most of the schools -- the real world of now, rather than the maybe world of politicians and wishful reformers or the exceptions to the rule. For every successful dropout prevention program, there are 10 horrible ones. Ditto for preschool, for charters, for star teachers. Do the switcheroo and do your readers a favor.

*Start or pitch an education blog as soon as you get the beat, then make it very very good. This way lies not getting laid off, plus it's fun and might actually inform the public and shame the bureaucracy.  Just make sure that the blog appeals to a broad set of stakeholders (hate that word) and includes discussions about individual schools not just the district as a whole.  Readers love that sh*t.

*The best education blogs out there right now that aren't mine are Politics K12, GothamSchools, Colorado Education News, DetentionSlip, and Jezebel. Joanne Jacobs is still remarkably good as well. Greg Toppo's new Twitter feed is likely to be good, too. Everything Kent Fischer knows about education blogging he learned from me. Best daily news roundups are EdDaily and maybe the ASCD SmartBrief if only it came out earlier. 

*Don't let your sources con you into letting them go off the record, or buy any of that nonsense about it being a way to build trust.  Just say you can't talk to them that way but will do everything you can to get the story right and avoid endangering their jobs.  Then do that.  Don't be friends.  Don't suck up. Don't enable.

*Join the EWA, if only for the listserve, which is a font of wisdom and hilarity that will help you get through the day. 

*Twittering is easy and fun but it's harder to do attachments and pictures (and you only get 140 words). Blogging is so 2005. I'd go with micro-blog software like Tumblr for the best of blogs and Twitter. Or -- seriously -- a Facebook page. Facebook is popular, easy, and unobjectionable.  And the Facebook "share" button is remarkably powerful.

*Do what Uncle Jay at the Washington Post does and, where possible, let your sources hear or even see parts of your stories that you want to be especially sure to get right. It works. You don't have to change anything you don't want to. And it's fun breaking taboos.

*The Spencer Fellowship at Columbia University is what you want to be doing five years from now, if you're still covering the beat (and if the Spencer Foundation is still supporting the program). 

*Read this blog, which covers and comments on education journalism as if it had a right. Gossip, job changes, serious discussions. It's all here. Plus a daily roundup of news stories so you can see what the competition is up to.

I'm out. But maybe others have some good (better?) suggestions to share, or wise disagreements with the above.


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You are right about not interviewing children. You engage them.

Just as you interact with adults in the parking lot, the lounge, and environments where they can be candid, socialize with the kids in their worlds.

And some of their worlds include classes that are not boring, and that feature class discussions that would rival anything in the professional world. EVERYTIME you find yourself in one of those situations, you'll get an insight that just blows you away. Then you can go home and bore everyone by recounting the stories that enthrall educators if not respected professionals.

Which of course, gets back to your first piece of advice ....

What about the book deal?
As an addendum to the "start a blog" advice, I'd add: Get a book deal, pronto.
(See Jay Matthews, Joanne Jacobs, Mr. Russo, et. al.)

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