Ok, time to get a bit serious. A great dialogue goes on at Eduwonk, where the important education reform issues of the decade get debated. I maintain, however, that these debates would be greatly diminished absent indirect contributions from the thousands of sentinels out there expending shoe leather at local schools and school board meetings. Those would be our members at EWA.
Our higher education reporters find themselves an endangered species, and yet lacking the protections recently afforded polar bears. See this Chronicle commentary wrote (password required) about that dilemma. At the K-12 level, things are only slightly better. At many papers, one or two reporters now shoulder the burden that was handled by a team. Can bloggers make up that difference? Doubtful.
Let me introduce you to a few of our members, and I’m deliberately profiling some of the best (avoiding the many cases where a rookie oversees multiple districts):
First up, Cathy Grimes from the 87,000-circ Daily Press in Newport News, Va., where three reporters cover nine schools districts, five four-year colleges and two community colleges. Grimes is an education team leader, which means she manages education coverage plus reports on one large district, three colleges and state and national education issues. During the school year, she files as many as six stories a week. Oh, and the paper is asking her to start a blog.
“We hear that readers want education news–it always ranks in the top five things they read both online and in hard copy–but with newsroom cuts or empty slots that take forever to fill (got to keep the bottom line down), good stories and packages, and good watchdog reporting are becoming more difficult to do.”
Next, Scott Elliott from the Dayton Daily News, one of the earliest and most successful education bloggers, with Get on the Bus. Despite the success, Elliott has no illusions about an independent blogger able to substitute for what he does. “My blog certainly could not survive on its own. Even with strong and loyal readership, the blog is a narrow enough niche that it would be hard to sell enough ads to support it. And some of my pageviews are solely as a result from being featured at DDN.com. So I’d probably lose pageviews also, making it even harder to sell to advertisers.”
Here’s Elliott’s workload: 4-5 stories a week plus 5-7 blog posts. There are two full-time education reporters at this 150,000-circ daily, Scott on K-12 and another reporter on higher ed. Things would have to get a lot worse before bloggers could play a role. “I personally do believe that, eventually, there will be opportunities for self-supporting niche websites, especially as newspaper resources continue to erode and more communities are ignored.”
Now Jeff Solochek from the 316,000-circ St. Petersburg Times, regarded as one of the best (and best-staffed) regional papers in the country. His blog, the Gradebook, had about 70,000 readers in July. At times, the blog gets 7,500 page views daily.
The usual eight-person team is now staffed at six. Jeff covers one district with 80 schools, filing three to six stories a week plus a minimum of two daily blog posts; the entire team covers more than 400 schools.
“Could bloggers take up the slack as papers cut education reporters? Not unless the bloggers are education reporters themselves. Sure, there are the policy wonks who like to opine on all the national trends.” (Hmmm…could Jeff be talking about Eduwonk? Naaah) “But more mainstream readers like the ones we write for want to know about the local schools and the state’s policy directives, and these reports don’t just materialize out of thin air. That’s what we as education reporters provide, and blog about.”
Keep in mind, Jeff works for one of the best staffed papers in the country and all three are top-of-the-game reporters. Now try to imagine what life is like as an inexperienced education reporter at a sub-par 40,000 daily. I don’t pretend to have an answer here. I think there may be a model where foundations support national education reporting (written by bought-out education reporters). But what happens at the local level? On the count of three, let’s all shudder together …
–Guestblogger Richard Whitmire