Education Opinion

On the Death and Transfiguration of the Education Press

By Marc Tucker — September 22, 2016 8 min read
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Thirty years ago when we thought of the national press, what came to mind were the big national newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. The three big television networks and the most important magazines typically took their lead on education news from the big city papers.

The newspapers—not just the big national papers, but the regional and even many of the local papers, had education reporters whose only beat was education. The big city education reporters were people who had spent a professional lifetime in the field, whose insights and opinions carried considerable weight with the public and policy makers. When something big came along in education, they could get their article on the front page above the fold.

Those journalists adhered to a code that required them to seek out the facts, verify them, weigh a variety of views on important issues, maintain objectivity, disclose any factors that might in the eyes of the reader compromise their independence, and go wherever the facts led him or her, without fear or favor. The papers’ bills were paid by the newspapers’ advertisers, but, for the most part, these advertisers had no interest in weighing in on education issues, so education writers and editorialists were pretty much free to call it as they saw it. Education journalists in the big dailies were expected to be broadly and deeply knowledgeable about their field, to have access to the top people, and to know the ins and outs of the big issues and controversies.

That world—the Golden Age of newspaper journalism—is largely gone. This blog is about what has replaced it—a world in which the reader can no longer be sure who is shaping the education news we read, facts and opinions shade into one another, and the person who is writing the news story or editorial may know very little about the field. It is a world in which a few highly professional media outlets have been replaced by a myriad of voices, most of whom have an ax to grind and few of whom feel any need to obey the canons of good journalism. As in so many other fields, for better or worse, the ranks of independent professional journalists acting as gatekeepers for news and opinion are greatly diminished. The canons of journalism have been replaced by “buyer beware.”

My personal experience of the death and transfiguration of education journalism is rather vivid. NCEE released its first report, the Carnegie report titled A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century in 1986. The release event was held at the Hotel del Coronado, in San Diego, in the evening. Education reporters from the print press and TV were everywhere.

We all got up at the crack of dawn the next morning and gathered in the lobby of the Del to be there when the newspapers arrived. And there they were, the stories, on the front page of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union. We later learned that the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe and many other papers had also done stories on our report that also appeared on the front page above the fold. That morning, the leaders of our commission appeared one by one on all the morning television shows. We had hit a grand slam.

None of this, of course, was an accident. I had asked Al Shanker, then the president of the AFT, to loan us his press person, Scott Widmeyer, two months ahead of the release, to develop and execute a press strategy for the report. Scott took up residence in a little corner of our tiny offices and went to work with his list of education reporters in one hand and his phone in the other. Scott knew most of the people he was calling well and they trusted him when he told them that this would be a big story they would not want to miss. The result was the press coverage I just described.

We released our second report, America’s Choice: high skills or low wages! in the Hyatt above Grand Central Station in New York City in 1990 using pretty much the same strategy and got pretty much the same result. Our next big report came out in 2006. By then everything had changed. There were very few education reporters left at the major papers and few editorial writers who knew or cared much about education. The newspapers themselves were on their knees. The broadcast networks no longer dominated TV and had very little interest in education news of any kind. In their place was a vast welter of cable channels and, of course, the Internet. The world in which a professional press agent could call a couple of dozen key education reporters and get coverage for a major education report that would dominate a whole news cycle was gone. There was no one to call. The handful of key media outlets had fractured into a thousand shards. Few papers had reporters with any time to read education reports, sift through them and sort out what was worth the public’s attention. There was no budget to travel to the education meetings at which the big issues were discussed. And, chances were, there was no longer an education desk staffed by journalists dedicated to the education beat.

Last week, I had the pleasure of hearing Nicholas Lemann explain in a few swift strokes how all of this had happened. Lemann, a pillar of the New Yorker magazine, a former dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of The Big Test, one of the best books written about education in the last 50 years, was among a group of us asked to speak at an event sponsored by the National Academy of Education.

Lemann showed us one graph that displayed total U.S. newspaper advertising revenue from 1950 to 2012, divided into revenue from print advertising and revenue from digital advertising. Print advertising rises from a little less than 20 billion dollars (these numbers are corrected for inflation) in 1950 to a high of more than 60 billion dollars around 2001. And then the total from print advertising plunges in less than ten years to about 20 billion dollars. The hope, of course, is that the revenue from print advertising will be replaced by revenue from digital advertising, but Lemann’s graph provides very little encouragement on this score. The line for digital advertising revenue begins in 2003 at zero and gets up close to 3 billion dollars before the graph ends in 2013. Digital revenue combined with print revenue in the last year for which data is available is only slightly more than one-third the total for print revenue alone at the apogee of the curve for print revenue, and revenue from print advertising is falling much more steeply than the curve for digital revenue is rising.

This chart is matched by another that Lemann showed us, the chart for total newsroom employees. This chart shows a modest decline in newsroom employees from 1990 to 2007, followed by a very steep decline from that point to the present that shows no sign of letting up.

Lemann pointed out that education journalists were never on the high road to managing editor. That route was reserved for journalists writing about politics, international news and business and the economy, not those on the education beat. It is no surprise that education journalists were among the first to get the ax.

As the cuts went on, the beleaguered newspapers looked for ways to report the news they no longer had the in-house resources to cover. Lemann told us that, increasingly, the papers have turned to not-for-profit, mostly foundation-funded partners. This has benefits for both parties. The paper gets well-informed writers who cost them nothing. The not-for-profit gets a megaphone for the information and views it wants to get out. The foundation is assured that the work it is funding is widely disseminated. Everybody wins.

Well—maybe everyone wins—maybe not so much. It is more likely than not that the not-for-profit has a point of view or an active agenda that it is promoting. The same is probably true of the foundation that chose to support that not-for-profit. Neither is bound by the journalist’s code of ethics. Lemann points out that reporting can slip into advocacy without putting up a placard to announce its arrival.

I am writing this blog because we learned the hard way that, if you are a not-for-profit and want press coverage for your news or views on education issues these days, you had better be prepared to do it yourself, and add your voice to a vast welter of voices each of which is working hard to get just a little shelf space in the cacophony. There are no grand slams anymore. Apart from Education Week, a trade publication we are all very lucky to have, there is no front-page-above-the-fold anymore for education news.

Not-for-profits and others who want to reach an audience for education news and views they would have pitched to newspapers in the past have now been forced to become their own newspapers, with blogs like the one you are reading, blast e-mails, podcasts, webinars and so on. It is easy to find outlets with views like your own, but harder to find outlets that have the same respect for the facts, sound analysis, fair treatment of opposing views and congenital skepticism that good journalists have.

All is not lost. Education Week is a national treasure. There are still a few newspapers with professional education reporters on staff. The Education Writers Association has built a redoubt for education writers who are first-rate professionals, the Hechinger Report helps smaller papers publish good education reporting and ProPublica is doing some great work. But because of the broader decline of the U.S. education press, we have all lost a national resource that had the mission, legitimacy and skill to sift through the normal cacophony of education news in the United States and direct our attention to what really matters, with great skill, without fear or favor. That’s too bad.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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