NEW YORK, NEW YORK — As battles rage over education reform nationwide, one tiny New York news site reports on New York City’s public school system–the nation’s largest–with coverage that endeavors to be “fact-based, constructive, and non-ideological.” GothamSchools reports on the nitty-gritty of the city’s education system, from explaining how schools shut down to analyzing mayoral policies.
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The site began in 2008 as a project of OpenPlans, a nonprofit organization that develops websites and software to encourage civic engagement and open government.
“We believe that good journalism will help the effort to improve education,” says managing editor Elizabeth Green. “We are trying to build a model of sustainable education reporting that plays a constructive role in the overall education reform movement.”
Green says that education coverage has suffered with the decline of traditional news media, and that GothamSchools has the opportunity to reinvent the model by providing in-depth coverage on complicated, sometimes wonky issues–not hyper-local, but hyper-niche. The question is: “How can we re-imagine covering K-12 education so that it has a bigger impact and is more tailored to issues we find most important?”
One answer is to be aggressive. Green says the site treats education “with the seriousness that other policy debates get, and education often doesn’t.” The site posts short, originally reported news stories and analysis on topics ranging from charter schools to teacher salaries. GothamSchools also covers public meetings and school board meetings through live blogging. “We are the only ones currently doing that for New York City schools,” Green says.
The site, which according to Green receives more than 50,000 unique visitors a month, is structured like a traditional blog, with about four new stories a day that stack upon previous posts. Two mainstays of the site are “Rise and Shine,” and “Remainders,” which are morning and evening aggregations of important education news culled from news sources across the country, including the local New York papers. Between these daily digests come a couple of independently reported stories from the site’s small editorial staff of four.
GothamSchools partners with the radio station WNYC, and the site’s investigations have been cited by major media outlets like The New York Times, The New York Post, and Politico. One story, which unveiled teachers union lobbyists handing cue cards to city council members during a hearing, caused the union’s political director to lose his job and forced the union president to publicly apologize. Stories like this are of national importance.
“We have readers from around the country and even international readers because what’s going on in New York City’s education efforts are national and international issues,” says Green.
One of the site’s major achievements is its inclusion of teachers and educators in the debate. Oftentimes these voices are drowned out by policymakers, politicians, and pundits. The “Community” section offers educators a chance to write about their experiences within schools. Anyone can submit to the site, though some contributors are recruited, and all posts are selected and edited. They blog about anything from classroom reflections to policy debates in an op-ed format. “We try to get a teacher in a classroom to explain how policies are affecting life on the ground,” Green says.
GothamSchools is still owned by OpenPlans, but operates independently and is no longer funded by its parent. Funding comes from several major individual donors, and a slew of smaller contributors. One of the site’s innovations is an education jobs board that provides a modest amount of revenue through paid listings. While the site has had three years of philanthropic support from OpenPlans to develop its editorial side, it is now looking to develop its business side by attracting more donors and finding staff dedicated to managing the business.
Green hopes that GothamSchools will be able to become sustainable by diversifying its donors and building a business staff. “Our growing audience suggests we’re on the right track,” she says.
City: New YorkArvin Temkar is a contributor to CJR.