One of the more interesting reactions, for my money, has come from Tom Grubisich, editorial director of Local America, writing at the website Street Fight, which covers news about hyperlocals. Grubisich says the problem with the report is that it thinks too much in terms of old media models involving print and broadcast—in both diagnosis and recommendations—and concludes that its “back-to-the-future prescription for community news in the digital era is a big disappointment.”
To make the point, Grubisich excerpts this piece from the report:
“ to get to the level of accountability journalism [in local reporting] that likely existed in 2000, the media sector would need to hire roughly 5,000 reporters, costing about $265 million . The U.S. spends $560 billion a year on K-12 schools, with increasingly discouraging results. It would cost about $231 million a year to ensure that every school system has at least a half-time reporter covering schools.”
He then argues that thinking about the need to get to 2000-level reporting—and more importantly, 2000-style reporting—is counterproductive. In the digital age, we need to think about how to direct resources to the most efficient and effective coverage possible with digital means. That means data.
These old-model calculations totally ignore what could be achieved if websites, particularly hyperlocals, used their digital resources more imaginatively, and aggressively. Assigning a half-time or even full-time reporter to local schools is no guarantee of accountability. There’s a better and less-expensive way to achieve results: The website, accessing open data from the Web, draws up a list of school performance indicators—“hard” data like test results (both snapshots of how students are currently performing and what they did in earlier grades) and “softer” data like teacher evaluation and improvement and parental engagement. The data is then compared to similar data from schools in neighboring communities and from elsewhere in the metro region, especially localities with similar demographics. Finally, all the data—with chart and map visualizations that make sometimes complex metrics easy to understand—is presented to the community—both experts (including local school system officials) and the “wisdom of the crowd” for an unedited, sustained online discussion, where commenters may present data of their own.
Grubisich concludes by writing, “Balancing data, journalism and community feedback is much more likely to produce accountability than sending a reporter to a six-hour school board hearing and having him/her interview four of five usual suspects for mostly meaningless one-paragraph ‘message’ quotes—the old journalism that the FCC report apparently wants to resuscitate.”
Of course, there are complications with data reporting on schools—see LynNell Hancock’s CJR cover story on the issue here. But it’s worth noting the example that Grubisich supplies of this kind of reporting was not a name-and-shame teacher chart but a nifty contradiction of a press release sent out by then-D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.