Classroom Technology

Crowded Field of Online News Sites Focuses on Education Issues

By Mark Walsh — August 04, 2015 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article provided an incorrect name for the journalism arm of the organization EdSource. It is EdSource Today.

Joshua P. Starr considers himself a big consumer of news about education. The veteran educator and former superintendent has had a lot more content available to peruse lately.

The past two years or so have seen a boom in online news outlets covering education. New local and national sites are focusing exclusively on the subject; general-interest sites have education beat reporters or otherwise include K-12 issues in their mix.

“I happen to be a pretty avid reader of a lot of those things,” said Mr. Starr, who was in the news himself in February after he and the Montgomery County, Md., school board failed to come to terms on renewing his contract as district chief.

He rattled off a few news sources he checks regularly, including some that fit the definition of new, some that are decidedly old-school, and others that fall somewhere in the middle: Education Post, The Hechinger Report, Politico Morning Education, The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, and Education Week.

He also checks a number of other blogs, print publications, and news “aggregators,” which are sites such as Real Clear Education that link to articles from a variety of sources.

“I do think that superintendents need to stay abreast of what’s being said about public education, and what the discourse is,” said Mr. Starr, who in June became the chief executive officer of Phi Delta Kappa International, the professional association that publishes the Kappan magazine and the annual PDK/Gallup Poll on education.

Disruption Yields New Titles

The “digital disruption” of the news business—which involves huge financial challenges for “legacy” news organizations but also an explosion of online outlets—has so far “been pretty good for education reporting,” said LynNell Hancock, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“There are far more places now that are doing serious, long-form education reporting,” said Ms. Hancock, who directs the Spencer Fellowship Program for midcareer education journalists and who covered education for Newsweek. “And there are more places for reporters to do this kind of work than ever before.”

The new sites are diverse in scope as well as in business model or funding status. While several are for-profit ventures or part of larger companies, many are nonprofits supported by various philanthropies.

In addition to all the titles on Mr. Starr’s daily reading list, the new online outlets include such education-specific ones as Chalkbeat, which has bureaus covering state and local education news in New York state, Tennessee, Indiana, and Colorado; LA School Report, which covers the Los Angeles district; and IdahoEdNews, a new effort covering school matters in that state.

Some of the newest education-focused sites include Bright, a more feature-oriented outlet; and The Seventy Four, co-founded by the former NBC News and CNN anchor Campbell Brown. That site, whose name refers to the 74 million U.S. children under age 18, builds on Ms. Brown’s more ideologically tinged efforts to challenge teacher tenure in New York state.

“I read the headlines and the daily stories from any of the education sites out there, and I want to go deeper,” Ms. Brown said in an interview.

Meanwhile, general sites devoting resources to education—some new, some launched in recent years—include ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news site; Vox, which specializes in explanatory journalism; and FiveThirtyEight, a numbers- and data-oriented site.

Some general sites that regularly cover education are viewed as quasi-journalistic outlets or ones with a particular ideological bent, such as The Daily Caller, a conservative-leaning news site; ThinkProgress, a site affiliated with the liberal Center for American Progress; and The Daily Signal, a site launched by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The so-called legacy media—general newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets—have had Web versions for many years, and a few major news organizations have recently added education-focused sites. Among them are the education “channel” of The Atlantic magazine’s website and NPR Ed, a website from National Public Radio. Education Week, which began publishing a weekly print edition in 1981, launched in 1996.

Also jostling for spots on the landscape are innumerable blogs, some by local teachers, others by such prominent figures and players in the field as the education historian Diane Ravitch and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, with its Flypaper blog.

“We’re seeing a shift from legacy journalism to new-media journalism” in education coverage, said Rebecca A. Goldstein, an education professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, who is researching a book about media coverage of education.

“I can’t keep up with all of this,” she said. “There is kind of an information overload.”

Aggregators and Social Media

While such titles may or may not have earned a following in their own right, changes in the way the news is consumed are also altering the picture.

Michael Lubelfeld, the superintendent of the 3,000-student Deerfield district in suburban Chicago, also considers himself a news junkie. While he has taken note of some of the new online sites, those sources and others tend to come his way via news-aggregation sites.

Those sites include the ones offered by his professional groups, such as AASA, the School Superintendents Association, which push out daily collections of links to news stories and other content of interest to their members, as well as a few independent aggregators.

“I think it is wonderful that the aggregators are going through picking up the high points,” said Mr. Lubelfeld. “We can then dig deeper if we choose to do so.”

Andrew J. Rotherham, an education consultant and former aide to President Bill Clinton, last year helped found Real Clear Education, a sort of super-aggregator. It aims to pick the top education news and opinion articles, as well as some original content, and is published twice a day under the umbrella of its older sibling, Real Clear Politics.

An editor decides which news outlet has the best story on national test scores on a given day, for example, versus “who just phoned it in,” said Mr. Rotherham, who also writes the Eduwonk blog.

“If you are in the media business, it’s good to get blasted around on aggregation sites,” he said. “The downside is that news consumers can just look for news that confirms their own interests and biases.”

Mr. Lubelfeld of the Deerfield district said he seeks a wide range of sources. And in another trend, he isn’t reading his daily diet of education news in print versions or even while sitting at his desktop computer as often as before.

“I’ve become more prone to reading on the go, on a tablet or other device,” he said.

Few of the new Internet-based outlets covering education have bothered with old-fashioned, dead-tree editions. They tend to have versions optimized for the Web, for tablets, and for mobile phones. Those options point to another trend: Instead of directing their Web browsers to particular sites, or relying on aggregators’ pushing out lists of stories, many news consumers are relying on social media.

Morgan Polikoff, a 30-year-old assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, says he gets most of his education news from a particular social-media site, though it isn’t Facebook.

“My media diet is completely dictated by Twitter,” Mr. Polikoff said. “I don’t have the time or interest to scroll through a bunch of websites. Pretty much if something appears in my Twitter feed, that’s how I find out about it.”

Education news can end up in a feed on the popular micro-blogging site if someone subscribes to a particular news outlet or reporter, or if a story is retweeted by a user. Mr. Polikoff is active in tweeting his own observations and retweeting news articles and other material.

“I think there is more quality journalism about education than when I started doing this a decade ago,” he said.

Local, Regional Focus

Mr. Polikoff has noticed the rise of local or regionally focused education sites. Among them are Chalkbeat’s four-state, four-bureau operation; LA School Report, the site devoted to the Los Angeles school system; and EdSource Today, which covers education throughout California.

EdSource was founded in 1977 as a provider of research and analysis on education issues. Four years ago, Louis Freedberg, a former San Francisco Chronicle education reporter who also had experience with several nonprofit journalism organizations, launched EdSource Today, a more journalistic effort to cover education policy in the most-populous state.

Mr. Freedberg said an older generation of nonprofit news organizations, such as the Pacific News Service and the Center for Investigative Reporting, were seen as “islands of innovation” but also an “add on” to traditional news outlets.

“Some may have viewed them in a condescending way, as not necessarily central to news coverage,” he said. But with a sea change in the traditional media that includes fewer reporters and other resources, he added, “people are now looking to nonprofit media to cover things that the for-profit media are no longer covering, and to do it in an innovative way.”

Is More Better?

The sprouting of so many online education news sites raises an almost philosophical question: Is more better?

That is, if more decent journalism about the schools is being produced—highlighting programs that work or shining a light on problems—does that lead to improvement of the system?

“When it comes to education, I believe, yes, more is better,” said Ms. Brown of The Seventy Four. “In my view, there can’t be enough good coverage of this issue.”

Alexander Russo, a blogger who writes about school policy generally in This Week in Education and media coverage of education in particular in The Grade, said that the growth of education journalism is probably leaving some people overwhelmed.

While policy wonks and other hard-core readers may be taking it all in, “regular educators and parents can’t spend all day hunting and pecking through all these things,” said Mr. Russo.

And Mr. Freedberg of EdSource noted that the recent rise of online education news sites has been counterweighted by the struggles and downsizing of older media.

“Even if there ever was a golden age of journalism,” he said, “was there ever really adequate coverage of education?”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 2015 edition of Education Week as Crowded Field of Online News Sites Focuses on Education


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