Psst! Don’t let my editor read this! I’m a national education reporter, and I’m about to make a case that educators should care deeply about their local media.
You could be forgiven if you think all of the important news is happening on the national level lately. If you have a news app on your smartphone, you’ve likely had few mornings over the last several years when you didn’t wake up to a screen of alerts about big, national stories happening in Washington: scandals, investigations, bombastic tweets from the president.
It’s easy to get caught up in it. These people—who are hundreds or thousands of miles away from many of us—are holding the future of our democracy in their hands. And we are all trying to keep up.
But I’m here to tell you our nation’s future is also being written in rooms that are often not covered at all: classrooms, school board meeting rooms, principals’ offices, and state capitols where lawmakers hammer out the details of education spending that affect millions of children.
The people who should be in these rooms—the education reporters and statehouse reporters who toil away at local papers, connecting threads of ideas to give readers context and clarity—are dwindling in numbers.
Education and journalism are both crucial to democracy, and they need each other.
The public, increasingly prone to surfing between isolated stories on social media and less loyal to particular news outlets, may not understand just how urgent the erosion of local news has become.
In 2018, U.S. newspaper circulation reached its lowest level since 1940, according to an annual Pew Research Center report released last summer. Weekday newspaper circulation—in print and digital—was an estimated 28.6 million, down 8 percent from the previous year.
Employment of journalists at U.S. newspapers dropped by 47 percent from 2008 to 2018, Pew found. Where there were once 71,000 photographers, editors, commentators, and reporters, there are now only 38,000.
Education journalists are most likely to work at newspapers, the Education Writers Association has found. But they also work at specialized online outlets, radio stations, and, rarely, local TV stations. Reporters on other beats also play a crucial role in holding schools accountable. They include investigative reporters, statehouse reporters, and journalists who cover issues like crime and public health.
The number of newsroom employees at U.S. newspapers dropped by 47% between 2008 and 2018.
There’s little national data that show the deterioration of those specific beats in local newsrooms over time. But, in a 2016 survey of education reporters conducted by the EdWeek Research Center on behalf of the Education Writers Association, 65 percent of respondents said they had too much on their plates to do in-depth reporting projects. Among the subjects they identified as the most severely undercovered: inequality. Thirty-two percent said the size of their outlets’ staff had declined in the last two years.
Meanwhile, in Washington, there are so many reporters clamoring to cover the tensions between Congress and the White House that U.S. Capitol Police have fretted that there’s not enough physical space in the hallways for all of those people to move about.
What do we risk losing without education coverage at strong local news organizations? Here are a few examples.
• A 2016 investigation by Brian Rosenthal, then a reporter at the Houston Chronicle who now works at the New York Times, found that Texas state officials had arbitrarily capped special education enrollment, pressuring districts to identify no more than 8.5 percent of all students. As a result, thousands of students with disabilities didn’t get the services they needed. His investigation resulted in widespread changes. The Chronicle recently followed up on that reporting, detailing the work that remains to be done to fix the problem.
• After a former student killed 17 people in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., reporters for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel pieced together court documents, leaked education records, and district policies to determine what went wrong that day. State and local lawmakers have cited that work as they consider policies to make schools safer.
• Nevada Independent reporter Jackie Valley spent a whole year in classrooms at a Las Vegas elementary school to follow the complicated work of improving outcomes for its students, many from low-income families. Editor Jon Ralston praised the series as “an unvarnished portrait of life at a school that struggles but that has surmounted so many obstacles because of the dedication of a remarkable principal, an indomitable staff, and resilient students.” As school leaders navigate through new academic standards, changing federal policies, and growing challenges, it’s a valuable thing for the public to have such a window into their work.
There’s plenty for educators to value in the work journalists do.
States are wrestling to dole out limited education dollars, often relying on complicated, decades-old formulas that may be more familiar to the experienced reporters covering them than to brand new legislators. We need someone to pay attention to that.
School boards channel massive amounts of local tax dollars and control the largest employers many cities have. We need someone to pay attention to that.
Surveys show distrust of institutions, including public schools. And a new federal education law has led states and districts to change the way they define school success, how they teach students, and even how they treat students who struggle with absences. We need someone to pay attention to that.
We need reporters to help their communities understand these changes. And we need them to be part of comprehensive newsrooms where they work with colleagues who cover crime, public health, and state government to paint a full picture of the issues that affect students.
The specialized, national journalism we do at Education Week also matters, and we value the readers who value our work. It’s important to look for trends across state and district lines, to ask skeptical questions about the big ideas that shape policy, and to cover the U.S. Department of Education through a tumultuous administration. But I’m so grateful for my colleagues at local outlets across the country, and I hope you are, too.
What can you do to support local education journalism?
Subscribe to a paper or general interest news outlet, and commit to reading it. Journalism isn’t merely struggling for a lack of readers; hedge-fund takeovers and a changing environment for advertising revenue have been massively destabilizing. But your local outlet won’t get better—or sustain the work it is already doing—if the community doesn’t commit to it.
Encourage your school and your district to let reporters into classrooms and see the hard work of teaching, warts and all, so they can help the public understand it, too. It’s a common complaint that the news media focuses too much on school board politics, power struggles, and bad news. The best way to address that is to give them exposure to a more complete picture. But 33 percent of education reporters in the 2016 Education Writers Association survey said they find it difficult to access classrooms and campuses. And 23 percent said education leaders were “uncooperative and hostile” with them.
Teach your students the value of journalism, how to read it critically, how to process complicated ideas, and how those ideas affect the experiences they have at school every day.
The work they do in your classroom could inspire them to become citizens who live (and read) in a thoughtful, engaged manner. The future of journalism—and of healthy, publicly accountable schools—may depend on it.
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A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2020 edition of Education Week as Why Does Local Journalism Matter for Schools?