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Media: Recollections, Controversy, & Advice From Departing PK-12 Blogger

Politics K-12 founder Michele McNeil announced earlier this week that she was leaving for a College Board policy position, but she agreed to sit down and answer some hard questions for us before she walked out the door.  

When it first appeared in 2007, I considered the site -- then called Campaign K-12 -- as a straight-laced newcomer, a bland version of what I and others were already doing.  In fact, I'd been hosted by EdWeek for a year or so before moving to Scholastic.  But over the years I've come to enjoy and appreciate the site's prolific and detailed coverage, occasional snark, and generous credit-sharing.

image from scholasticadministrator.typepad.com

In any case, check out McNeil's answers below to find out where the idea for the site came from, what it's biggest and most controversial items have been, what McNeil wished she'd known from the start (good advice!), and what advice she'd give those of us still blogging.

Where'd the idea for PK12 come from in the first place (the name, the focus)?

MM: Leading up to the launch of Campaign K-12, there was growing interest in the newsroom for developing more newsy, reporter-driven blogs. Education Week is a weekly publication, so the blogs gave us an important tool to help transition to more of a 24/7 news outlet. With the presidential election looming in 2008  -- one in which we would end up with a new face and new ideas in the White House -- it seemed the ideal time to launch a blog focused on national-- and state and local campaigns. So in September 2007, I launched "Campaign K-12" while I was doing a stint on EdWeek's web team and still a state policy reporter. A few months later, Alyson Klein came on board as a full-time blogger. With the name Campaign K-12, we wanted something simple and straightforward that conveyed exactly what we were going to be writing about. When the campaign was over, we realized that there was plenty of material to cover, and a hungry audience, so we rebranded and renamed it Politics K-12. It was through this vehicle that we covered the start of the Obama administration, the stimulus, and all of the competitive grant programs, such as Race to the Top. One day, when (or if?) ESEA is reauthorized, Politics K-12 will be the home for that coverage.

Is PK12 best described as a straight news blog, commentary, or somewhere in between?

MM: I would call it a blog that combines breaking news and analysis--with a dash of spunk.

What's been the site's most widely-read post of all time?

MM: We don't have data going back to 2007, only as far as 2011. Our most-read post since then is a cheat sheet Alyson did on the government shutdown. Second place was an item I did when the Education Department announced the 16 winners of the first Race to the Top district competition

Generally speaking, and without data to back it up, our political convention coverage also has been a huge traffic driver. I would also bet the initial blog items announcing the original Race to the Top winners were very popular.

What was the site's most controversial post of all time?

MM: Wow. That's a tough one. I've written about 1,000 posts, and I went back through all of them to figure this out. Alyson I'm sure has a few war stories to share, too. I'm not sure these fit the definition of most "controversial", but I'll offer up these two:

*Scoring Outliers' Effect on Race to Top: During the second round of the Race to the Top competition, when everyone was surprised when Hawaii won and states such as Louisiana and Colorado lost, colleague Stephen Sawchuk and I did a quick analysis that sparked a lot of discussion. We analyzed the scores, threw out the scoring outliers (the highest and lowest scores for each state) and came out with a  different list of winners. This generated a lot of conversation.  

*John McCain on Education: Where Art Thou? I wrote  this in January 2008 about McCain's apparent lack of an education agenda. It got incorporated into stories and fact-checking items from major media outlets, including the New York Times.

What do you wish you'd known or done from the start?

MM: That the Holiday Inn across the street from the Education Department has a Starbucks, Wi-Fi, a nice courtyard, and bathrooms off the lobby that don't require a room key. This is crucial to know for anyone spending much time at the department.

How's the site changed over time (time spent, frequency, percent of your job, editing)?

MM: With the debut of the State EdWatch blog, a lot of the focus on state elections and politics has shifted over to that platform. Also, blogging has become a far more central part of our jobs. Alyson and I probably spend between 60 and 75 percent of our time on Politics K-12, which serves as a foundation -- almost a reporter's notebook of sorts -- for our stories for the print edition. We are also far more engaged on Twitter, which wasn't nearly as ubiquitous when the blog launched.

What's your favorite/proudest post (breaking news, exclusive, etc.)?

MM: I did a series of "Transparency Watch" items about how the Education Department needed to disclose the names of the judges for Race to the Top and waivers. They had an impact. For waivers, the Ed. Dept. reversed course after I made the public case on the blog. On Race to the Top, the department eventually revealed their identities, and since then, ESEA renewal legislation passed by the House of Representatives includes language requiring the identities of grant judges to be made public

Do you have any parting words of advice or encouragement to all of us you're leaving behind?

MM: Read Politics K-12 and your blog everyday? Try to get in on an Arne/Obama basketball game before they leave office?  No, in all seriousness, I just hope all of the great bloggers (whether they be of the journalistic or policy wonk variety) keep up the great work. I know Alyson is going to continue doing spectacular coverage on the beat--and will soon have a new beat partner to share the workload. I hope more folks embrace some version of a "transparency watch" to call attention to times when public officials and departments should be disclosing things that they are not.

Previous posts: New Name, New Pic for EdWeek BlogGrading EdWeek's Big Arne Duncan ProfileRick Hess, RevisitedFashion Hits & Misses At The 2010 NSVF Summit.


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