Journalism, Heal Thyself | Teachers College Columbia University

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Journalism, Heal Thyself

At a time when the news media are facing a bleak economic picture, TC's Hechinger Institute is jumping in to fill the void in education news
Call it the new new journalism—the kind that’s cropped up in the age of the Internet and the decline of the broadsheet: Web sites like the Huffington Post or the Daily Beast. Each has turned aggregation of news from other sites into an art form, plugging blogs and some original reporting into the mix and parlaying their journalistic enterprises into recognizable online news brands.
Such is the new media landscape, where it would seem a thousand digital flowers can bloom. But can a thoughtful, analytical news startup focusing on education—never considered the sexiest of subjects—make it in this new and decidedly snarky online world? Richard Lee Colvin and his team at TC’s Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media think so.
The Institute, considered the preeminent resource for journalists on the education beat, has been providing seminars for new and experienced reporters and editors for more than a decade, covering topics like early childhood education, school leadership, school accountability, community colleges and more. Over the past two years, they’ve also published primers on several of these topics that have been widely distributed to the working media. Hechinger also maintains fellowships for journalists to come to TC to research topics they’re working on.
Starting this fall, the Institute intends to become a news content provider, aided by $1 million in funding from Lumina Foundation for Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Newspapers are closing, page count is shrinking at even the biggest papers, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times,” says Colvin. “This is one way foundations are supporting strong, independent journalism at a time when it is being undermined by the economics of the business.” The idea, as conceived and developed by Colvin and Hechinger Associate Director Liz Willen, is to increase the supply of independent, thoughtful and scrupulously reported education news and information by collaborating with major news organizations, commissioning work from freelancers and developing a small news staff to produce it directly. All of the work, as well as blogs and backgrounders on key issues, will appear on line as The Hechinger Report.
“There’s nobody out there doing this kind of thing in education,” says Colvin. “News organizations today just don’t have the resources to cover education or any other topic the way they once did. Our job, as I see it, is to get beyond the surface news and explain what’s at stake in education and do it in a public-spirited, explanatory and investigative way.”
Foundations are investing in a variety of nonprofit news efforts in response to the decline of traditional news media, particularly newspapers. That decline is well chronicled. An advertising base that has been eroding for years as readers increasingly turn to the Web for news (as well as for want ads, real estate pages and other lighter fare) has plunged newspapers into what some believe are their death throes. Even the profession’s standard-bearers have not been immune: In the fourth quarter of 2008, the Washington Post’s profits tumbled 77 percent, and the Gray Lady herself, the New York Times, was forced to mortgage her gleaming new building on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and secure a $250 million loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú. In October, the Times announced it would reduce the size of its newsroom by
100 jobs.
Colvin, watching it all from his vantage point at Hechinger, has come to believe that there’s an opportunity amid the tumult for a credible source of objective and analytical news about the nation’s schools from pre–K to postsecondary in what is shaping up as a major era of education reform. At the same time, he says, the Institute will seek to collaborate with influential news organizations—helping them with ambitious projects, finding great stories and pitching them articles produced by Hechinger contributing writers, freelancers or staff.
“We’re prepared to experiment and to take some chances and risks,” Willen says. “I think there is enormous interest in education issues, from parents to policymakers. It’s a huge issue, but I do think the reporting tends to be quite shallow and quite local. There aren’t a lot of places that provide in-depth reporting. And this is an exciting time in education, especially at the federal level, so for us it’s great timing.”
The first story to be produced by Hechinger’s news shop is in collaboration with the Washington Monthly. Barbara Kantrowitz, who joined Hechinger in March from Newsweek as a contributing editor, worked with a freelance writer, Jon Marcus, on an article that chronicled the University of Maryland system’s efforts to deal with budget cuts and tuition increases. The story, which is posted on the magazine’s new online education site, represents the kind of journalism Hechinger hopes to produce: heavy on perspective, drawing out key lessons from the Maryland experience—all while being a compelling read. Another story in which Hechinger had a hand, an analysis of remedial education in community colleges, is featured in the Washington Monthly’s September-October print edition. Camille Esch, the author, had a fellowship with the Institute to work on the piece. Esch, a fellow at the New America Foundation, was assisted in her story by TC’s Community College Research Center.
Colvin says the research done at Teachers College and TC’s national reputation will be one of the strengths of The Hechinger Report. Several faculty members will serve as advisors, and Hechinger will take advantage of the expertise Professor Gary Natriello, Director of the Gottesman Libraries, has developed with EdLab, the libraries’ creative services group, in convening such groups. The Institute also will create opportunities for TC students.
Although the general contours of Hechinger’s new news operation are set, many of the details are still in the works. The goal, Colvin says, is to generate news coverage starting this fall and to be fully operational with a highly interactive Web site within a year. A key will be forming partnerships with national news organizations. What those partnerships might involve is wide open. The Institute might provide research muscle for a project or collaborate with a radio producer on a text-audio-podcast package. Hechinger also will hire freelance writers and stringers and assign stories to be placed with other news organizations. The partnership could be a one-time affair or an ongoing relationship in which Hechinger routinely pitches stories and helps with the research and reporting.
Nonprofit organizations have been helping newspapers provide news for some time. PBS has teamed with the New York Times, for example, to produce some reports for the documentary series Frontline, and when New York City public radio station WNYC developed a national morning news program called The Takeaway, in 2008, it did so in collaboration with the BBC World Service, the Times and public television station WGBH in Boston. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which produces research and data on health and health care, funds The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer’s domestic health unit. And ProPublica, a “nonprofit newsroom” begun in 2007 that produces investigative news with a staff of more than 30 reporters, struck a deal in June to move stories onto The Associated Press wire accessed by more than 1,500 papers. ProPublica also maintains an active Web site.
Teachers College Trustee John Merrow’s Learning Matters organization also supplies PBS and other outlets with documentaries on the K-12 education system. This past year, Learning Matters aired stories on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on reform efforts by the superintendent of the Washington, D.C., schools and the rebuilding of the school system in New Orleans in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
Colvin says that developing the Hechinger site as an online hub is a priority. The site will be many-layered, with sections devoted to in-depth takes on specific topics, such as community colleges or math education or teachers unions. It will also aggregate education blogs from around the country, include commentaries on the education news of the day and, of course, feature stories Hechinger has generated itself. It’s quite likely, Colvin says, that Hechinger will also build out concomitant social media sites and—like everyone else in the news business these days—Twitter regularly. It may also get involved in crowd-sourcing, or putting out open calls for information from people in the field. It might, for instance, seek input from teachers and administrators on the effects of the federal stimulus package in their schools and districts, collating those varied reports into a story or section of the Web site.
In essence, Hechinger is trying to develop a new model for education news reporting and distribution by melding some of what already is out there (ProPublica et al.) with elements it’s developing on its own. “We do aspire to create new models of what education coverage can look like,” Colvin says. “How do we take advantage of all these new technologies to tell real stories that portray why education is so fundamental to a free, fair and prosperous society?”
If the idea of a site that’s scrupulously researched, analytical in its coverage and authoritative in its aspirations seems a bit old-school, it’s probably because its progenitors are, too. Colvin’s background includes reporting gigs at the Hayward (Calif.) Daily News, the Oakland Tribune and, finally, the Los Angeles Times. Willen is a former education writer for Newsday and Bloomberg News, and was a senior writer at Bloomberg Markets Magazine. Kantrowitz’s vita includes posts at the Hartford (Conn.) Courant, Newsday, the Times, People magazine and Newsweek, where she served as senior editor in the magazine’s Society section, writing and editing stories about education, among other issues.
They’re also old-school in their belief that Hechinger’s new venture should generate revenues. Colvin points out that foundation funding won’t last forever, so he’s exploring various ways in which the enterprise can bring in revenue, from fees for services to advertising to charging for premium content.
“I truly believe that journalism should pay for itself,” he says. “If that’s not happening, then you’re just amusing yourself.”
“The fact is, nobody knows how to do this,” he continues. “That’s why it’s a brilliant time to be doing this, because there are no rules. There are just a million people experimenting. Twenty years from now, people will look back on this time and say this was the dawn of a new age.”  

Published Friday, Dec. 4, 2009