the grade hed

Good things can happen when reporters focus more on in-depth projects. But getting off the hamster wheel of breaking news is not something every newsroom can pull off. 

By Alexander Russo

At a Chicago event put on by the Education Writers Association a few weeks ago, a trio of education reporters lamented how much time they are made to spend covering breaking news that doesn’t seem all that consequential. There are so many other, more interesting and meaningful things they could be doing, they said, if only they had the time.

There have always been reporters clamoring about the great stories they could do if only they weren’t tied down by daily coverage demands. Covering breaking stories has been one of journalism’s longtime priorities. People need to know what’s happening, right?

Most of the time, newsrooms just ask reporters to do more – breaking news and in-depth features, plus additional duties like shooting video, updating social media, and writing headlines.

What it feels like to many reporters covering breaking news all day, every day.

But a handful of education outlets and education beat teams have made substantial adjustments in how they define the beat and pick which stories they’re going to cover – part of a larger trend towards in-depth coverage in journalism over all.

Education teams at NPR and WNYC have moved away from breaking news coverage in recent years. In addition, there are a host of publications like Vox, The Intercept, and the Hechinger Report, which do only in-depth stories.

One particularly notable example is the education team at WBEZ, the Chicago public radio station, where a recently-expanded team of three reporters and a dedicated editor are trying to keep their focus on core priorities and still meet demands for short-term coverage.

“There [has been] a very deliberate decision at the station to go deep,” says longtime education writer Kate Grossman, who has been editing the team for the past year. “We let the papers do some of the stuff that we don’t do.”

wbez education team pictures square 2017

WBEZ’s four-person education team: Linda Lutton (top left), Kate Grossman (top right), Sarah Karp (bottom right) and Becky Vevea (since moved to another beat at the station).

By and large, the WBEZ model is perceived to be a big success. However, there are some potential downsides to the approach. The station’s experience might offer some insights and lessons for other newsrooms undertaking or considering similar strategies – and for educators and advocates who work with them.

Once limited to a single education reporter, WBEZ’s investment in education coverage has grown dramatically in the last two years, during which the station has made what reporter Linda Lutton describes as a “radical” move to invest heavily in education news.

Now, three out of 14 reporter spots at the station are dedicated to education, she says. There is no arts or business reporter.

“The bet is that we will really be able to lead in this area,” says Lutton — both in the city and suburbs.

The coverage priorities set up by the team include topics such as teaching and learning, equity, and funding. The current team includes Grossman, Lutton, Sarah Karp, and Susie An. (An has been filling in while the station searches for a permanent replacement. After five years on the beat, Becky Vevea recently left for another job within WBEZ.)

Karp and An generally cover the city (including Chicago Public Schools). That leaves Linda Lutton to cover trend and issue stories, as well as stories affecting the suburbs and the rest of the state. Grossman is the editor.

There [has been] a very deliberate decision at the station to go deep… We let the papers do some of the stuff that we don’t do. – Education editor Kate Grossman

There have been several instances where the team’s go-deep approach has come into play, according to Grossman.

Last summer, the team “opted against covering every twist and turn in the buildup to passage of state funding reform,” she says. Doing so left time for a big story about how – contrary to what many think — Chicago students actually outperform kids in the rest of the state on some important measures.

This past fall, the education desk also decided against contributing to the ritual glut of “back to school” stories that many outlets produce each September. The team did put out a story about changing demographics in Chicago.

But the team “passed on a bunch of stuff, which was fine,” Grossman said. The decision gave reporter Karp the time complete her investigation of special education, which resulted in a three-part series that came out in mid-October.

“If we already know the Tribune and Sun-Times are going to do a story, we’ll do something else,” says Grossman.

Perhaps most notably, the model allowed Lutton to spend the time to report and write an hour-long radio documentary, The View from Room 205, which came out last winter.

The shift has not been drastic, notes Grossman. “We still do A LOT of daily stories for radio and our web site…we don’t skip that much.”

You wouldn’t know it from looking at the website archive, which does not generally include 45-second newscast spots that are broadcast on air.

wbez education page

There are a few obvious factors that favor this approach for WBEZ in particular.

The station has never been particularly known for breaking news, or even spot news coverage. So the shift towards more in-depth coverage by the education team was an adjustment, not a revolution.

WBEZ benefits from Chicago’s relatively strong array of news outlets covering education issues. The Chicago Sun-Times, the Tribune, WTTW Chicago Public Television, and ProPublica Illinois (which focuses on deep, investigative pieces) all cover education. A Chicago bureau of Chalkbeat, the nonprofit network of education-focused news sites, is slated to open next year.

And — perhaps most notably — WBEZ has been able to grow its education desk from as few as one or two to the current four full-timers.

That’s right. Three fulltime education reporters, plus a dedicated editor. Not including occasional help from general assignment reporters that the team also gets.

It’s not just how many education reporters the station has been able to assemble. The members of the education team at WBEZ are by and large enormously experienced education journalists.

[For more columns about Grossman’s work, go here and here]

lutton vevea wbez 2013

WBEZ education reporters Lutton and Vevea at a CPS press event

Grossman points out that having the additional reporting firepower is “75 percent of the battle.”

“If you have more bodies, you can do more,” says Grossman.

Despite these advantages, there remain challenges:

The most immediate challenge involves responding to internal pressures from the station’s broadcast team, which is responsible for keeping a steady flow of information going out over the air and online via streaming.

“We’re team players and contribute when asked,” says Grossman. But usually not just to fill hole in the broadcast. “We figure out a way to fill the need with someone thing we feel is worth reporting.”

Another part of the job is “trying to say no a lot” to pitches and press releases, says Grossman. “That’s one of my big jobs, and it’s not always so easy.”

Every day, reporters are inundated with notices, events, and pleas to cover things that are going on around them. Not sending someone to an event, or chasing coverage being led by the papers, is an exercise in self-control.

“It’s hard on us as a team, we want to be in the hunt, we want to be players,” says Grossman. There’s the ever-present possibility that covering a breaking story will lead to something else. “If you don’t go, you might wonder what are you going to miss? If you go, you might run into someone, get another idea, build a source.”

The WBEZ strategy was something of a challenge to get used to – but ultimately a good thing, says Grossman, who had been both a beat reporter and editorial page writer at the Sun-Times.

“It’s definitely different, but I really like it,” says Grossman. “We do a lot of breaking news, which I really like, but we also get to deeper stories that are more impactful in the end, which feels more important. I feel like we’re doing both, which feels good.”

They still turn up at the big events. They haven’t dropped off the daily scene. And by and large their in-depth projects have been timely, not pet dream projects.

“The special education series, that was a beautiful thing,” says another Chicago-area education reporter who did not want to be named. Problems with the special education program in Chicago Public Schools had been generally known, but the WBEZ got to the bottom of the matter in a clear, definitive way.

The focus on depth has won a number of admirers.

WBEZ goes “far deeper” than other outlets, and produces coverage that’s far more nuanced and informed than anyone else in town, says Tim Knowles, former University of Chicago Urban Education Institute head. At roughly the same time, daily papers have been eviscerated and — according to Knowles — grown increasingly partisan in their coverage. The WBEZ education team is making a good call in “ignoring some of the daily thrum that in the past they may have investigated.”

“I think the difference people are noticing is more enterprise work,” says Grossman. “The daily stuff hasn’t changed – we’ve just added more enterprise.”

breaking news red

The advantages are obvious: Less time spent covering stories that everyone else is covering, writing incremental updates, chasing each other’s tails, and more time spent examining the important realities of public schooling, or investigating the stories that PR offices would rather keep hidden.

However, even with an education team so large as this one, there are bound to be tradeoffs and concerns.

For example, the strategy WBEZ has adopted leaves a substantial chunk of breaking news and daily coverage to ever-shrinking dailies, Social media seems like a precarious solution. Readers need depth and nuance and accuracy, none of which are in abundant supply on Twitter and Facebook – or, some argue, in the city’s remaining dailies.

The “less is more” approach also limits WBEZ’s potential impact on the education discussion going on in the city, says a longtime observer who did not wish to be named.

“They’ve got the largest staff of education reporters out there, but they’re not driving the dialogue.”

Part of this is the relative infrequency of the station’s stories, according to the observer. (WBEZ has allocated large chunks of staff time to in-depth projects, most notably “The View from Room 205.”) Another is that the selection of stories doesn’t differ substantially from those covered by the dailies.

There’s also a danger to teams that take such an approach of becoming over-reliant on other outlets, losing touch with what’s going on in, or falling into a default narrative rather than taking an independent look.

“I think you have to be there to see what the news is,” says longtime Chicago journalist Linda Lenz, speaking generally about the tensions between breaking news and enterprise stories rather than about WBEZ in particular. “Being there feeds your reporting. You can’t just disappear.”

“I think you have to be there to see what the news is…Being there feeds your reporting. You can’t just disappear.” — Linda Lenz

Nobody wants education reporters mindlessly covering the same, often meaningless, daily stories when they could be out there covering something important and big. And WBEZ’s deeper stories are a welcome addition to the mix. But decisions not to cover news events and provide daily coverage need to be made carefully.

Taken to an extreme, handing breaking news over to daily outlets and social media could erode news outlets’ rapid response reflex, train readers to look elsewhere for fast-moving stories, and exacerbate the spread of false information.

For now at least, Grossman doesn’t feel like that’s a concern.

“I feel like we keep our hand deep enough in daily work to keep our audience informed and to keep our reporters in the know,” she says. “I actually think we do a good job of staying current on the daily stuff while not letting it consume us.”

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Disclosure: I used to run a news blog about education in Chicago called District 299, and I was an occasional education commentator on WBEZ’s morning news programming.