NEW YORK, NY — In September 2011, reporter Jon Marcus wrote a story for The Washington Post which showed that, despite increased enrollment thanks to an expanded G.I. Bill, colleges weren’t doing enough to support the unique needs of veterans pursuing higher education. Shortly after the story was published, colleges in the DC area added coordinators to help veterans with services.
Over eight Sundays in late 2010, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a front-page series about teacher effectiveness in Wisconsin. The stories helped prompt the statewide teachers union to ask for new teacher evaluation and compensation systems.
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In February 2011, 36 news organizations across 27 states came together to produce a series of stories on how the nearly $100 billion in 2009 stimulus money was spent.
The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news website devoted exclusively to coverage of education issues throughout the country, produced or contributed to each of these stories. With a full-time staff of just six, the site–named after former New York Times education editor Fred Hechinger–seeks to reinvigorate a beat weakened by newsroom downsizing.
“Education reporters were something of a disappearing breed,” says editor Liz Willen, who previously covered education for Newsday and Bloomberg. “They were increasingly being asked to also cover the police beat, the fire department, the courts.”
The Report is an independently funded unit of Teachers College, Columbia University. (Disclosure: CJR is published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.) It relies primarily on support from philanthropic foundations and donations from wealthy individuals. These grants, which Willen says average between $100,000 and $500,000, are generally attached to specific reporting projects.
“The foundation issue is tricky,” she says, “because it comes with work you’ve promised in exchange for the grant.” Often, this work is for coverage of a specific state; The Report currently has a “California in Focus” feature, which analyzes how the state approaches teacher evaluations, teacher layoffs, and technology-assisted learning.
Staff writer Sarah Garland, a 2009 Spencer Education Fellow at the Columbia Journalism School, says that The Report works to bolster the efforts of legacy and new media alike. A series on suspicious test scores produced with USA Today and other outlets is an example of the team’s work with regional and national newspapers that sometimes need additional help and incentive to take on complex education stories. “At the same time,” Garland says, “we’re also working with these new forms of publications like The Texas Tribune and Gotham Schools, which are all online.”
The site’s low traffic (30,000 unique monthly visitors) means that advertising isn’t a viable source of revenue yet, though it was part of the initial plan. But traffic, Willen insists, is a very small part of The Report’s influence. This is because The Report encourages other outlets to freely republish its stories. The exceptions are collaborative stories, since The Report lets partners opt out of free republishing for reporting they’ve helped to produce. “We measure our success by impact,” Willen says. “We’re like the AP,” adds Garland. “No one goes to the AP’s site to read stories.”
The Report’s focus on getting as many news outlets as possible to carry it’s content won’t change, but Davin McHenry, the site’s news editor and web producer, still works to increase The Report’s prominence as a destination. Facebook and Twitter each play an important part in his efforts to lure readers to the Hechinger homepage.
It may well be that The Report decides to expand its capabilities in different directions; there’s talk of bulking up the site’s data capabilities to allow users to plug in local data and discover information for themselves. But Willen stresses that any plan for this is in its infancy. In the meantime, the site remains focused on producing the kind of shake-up-the-system, nationally significant journalism made possible through a sustained commitment to an issue the public can’t afford to ignore.
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