Politico's Education Coverage Turning ‘Pro’

By Mark Walsh — September 17, 2013 5 min read

Politico Pro Education officially launches on Wednesday. That may be news to the many education policy wonks who have been reading the Washington-based morning newsletter since its soft-launch in mid-July. The pilot period has allowed the education news service to gain its footing before it begins charging a premium price for full access.

Politico Pro Education‘s focus is “cradle to career,” reporter Libby A. Nelson said in the first morning newsletter on July 22. “Our promise here at Morning Education is to cut through the clutter and the rhetoric and offer you exclusive reporting and incisive analysis on education policy,” she said that day.

Since that time, the newsletter has been fine-tuning its offerings and its tone. By Aug. 22, that day’s Morning Education had a nice mix of items about No Child Left Behind Act waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, President Barack Obama’s higher education policies, and the backlash against the Common Core State Standards, among others. “We’re counting down the hours to the end of another crazy week in education news,” Nelson wrote that Friday morning. “I’m heading to California for a half-marathon in wine country and weeklong reporting trip in the Bay Area.”

Meanwhile, the advent of Politico Pro Education, which joins other specialized Politico Pro “verticals” for policy areas such as defense, energy, health care, and transportation, corresponds with the main Politico newspaper and website showing a keener interest in federal and national education policy.

“Sequestration means a herky-jerky start to the school year for about 84,000 kids on military bases,” education editor Nirvi Shah wrote in a front-page Politico story on July 30. (Shah joined Politico Pro Education from Education Week, where she was a reporter.) An Aug. 1 story by reporter Kyle Cheney discussed how the Obama administration did not plan to use schools in its push to promote the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act that come online this fall.

An Aug. 7 story by reporter Stephanie Simon about New York state students’ disappointing results on common-core-tied tests prompted some mild criticism. Andrew J. Rotherham, co-founder of Washington education consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners, suggested that the story was overblown. “I haven’t heard that much heavy breathing since I chaperoned prom!” Rotherham tweeted.

The official unveiling of Politico Pro Education this week means the beginning of premium access to subscribers to the service. While the daily newsletter will remain free, subscribers of the premium Pro service will get “early-bird access” plus exclusive afternoon briefings, breaking news text messages, “whiteboard” alerts, and more.

To quote the noted business analyst Homer J. Simpson when he was offered free cookie samples at the mall and then invited to buy the whole cookie at full price: “Oh, so that’s your little game—get us addicted and jack up the price. Well, you win.”

Politico Pro doesn’t say on its website what the premium price is. But in a story about the Politico Pro verticals last year, the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University reported that an individual subscription to one of the services (such as defense or energy) started at $3,295 per year, but that most subscribers were part of a group subscription that started at $8,000 per year for a license covering as many as five people.

Politico declined to make anyone available for an interview about the launch of Politico Pro Education or its pricing. Martin Kady II, the editor of all the Politico Pro verticals, did respond to some of my questions with an e-mail earlier this month.

“Morning Education will be just one component of the larger subscription-based Pro Education vertical that will launch later this month with a team of journalists, led by editor Nirvi Shah, offering minute-by-minute coverage of education policy news, including K-12, higher education, state-level policy issues, and much more,” Kady said in the e-mail. “Pro Education subscribers will receive early-bird access to Morning Education along with other exclusive and customizable features.”

Politico Pro Education is certainly entering a competitive environment for education policy news. Besides stalwarts such as Education Week and The Chronicle of Higher Education, there are upstarts such as Inside Higher Ed and several specialized subscription newsletters. The Atlantic magazine’s website just launched an education “channel,” and similar enterprises from others are in the works.

Of course, the main Politico operation knows something about shaking up the status quo. It was founded in 2007 by two Washington Post journalists, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei. For a brief time, it was just one more political newspaper covering Capitol Hill alongside somewhat moribund competitors such as Roll Call and The Hill.

But it quickly broke from the pack and attracted a huge online audience. (It still publishes a print edition in Washington, where policy ads aimed at Congress from defense contractors and others are a lucrative staple. And someone on Capitol Hill was once quoted to the effect that it was somehow more appropriate for a member of Congress to read a print newspaper during a hearing than to be reading the same thing on a handheld device. We now know that lawmakers rely on their handheld devices during hearings for important pursuits like online poker.)

Politico recently announced an expansion of its empire to New York City with the purchase of a Web publication, Capital New York.

The free bite of the cookie from Politico Pro Education over the last two months has attracted admirers. But some wonder how many readers will be willing to buy the whole cookie.

“I enjoy the morning newsletter, but it’s hard to compete with free,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington. “The question is, is this business model going to work? In other [policy] areas, this kind of information moves markets, so having it early makes sense. But I don’t see that in education.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.

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