2 education reporters … for a metro region of nearly 8 million people

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California’s Bay Area shows what it looks like when a region’s education reporting gets whittled down to nearly nothing.

By Joanne Jacobs

“Black students in San Francisco would be better off almost anywhere else in California,” reported Joy Resmovits in the Los Angeles Times in a Jan. 2 story on San Francisco’s “state of emergency” for black student achievement.

The story got national attention, as it deserved. But why was it running in a southern California newspaper and not in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco’s most widely-read news outlet?*

Good question.

Education is vital to the health of the technology-rich San Francisco Bay Area, a nine-county region that includes nearly a quarter of California’s public schools.

Yet education reporting has been downsized in the Bay Area as much as any other metro area in the country.

In fact, there are just two fulltime K-12 education reporters covering the entire region for a major news outlet — and they’re not really full-time.

In October, CALmatters, a Sacramento-based nonprofit news outlet, published its own achievement gap story. In December, The San Francisco Examiner, the smaller competitor to the Chronicle, reported on some district leaders’ concerns about Innovate, a nonprofit group that had publicized data on these same student achievement gaps.

But the Chronicle — the city’s largest and most respected newspaper – didn’t run a story about the achievement gap data.

“Traditional media is contracting,” as Scott Elliott, associate editor of Chalkbeat puts it. “What gets lost is deep-dive stories [and] complex public-interest stories that require a lot of expertise and shoe-leather reporting.”

That’s why it’s potentially a good thing that Chalkbeat, the nonprofit network of regional education bureaus, is actively exploring opening a San Francisco-area bureau.

In the meantime, however, Bay Area readers will have to continue to do with what nearly everyone agrees is too little education coverage.

1024px-Bayarea_map

The Bay Area includes major school districts like Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco.  Image credit 

Covering the K-12 scene in the sprawling Bay Area isn’t easy. The region features a large number of school systems and dramatic variations in student demographics and outcomes.

Some Bay Area districts serve the (mostly) white and Asian children of highly educated Silicon Valley millionaires. San Francisco Unified has the highest test scores of any large city in the state – and also the lowest percentage of children of any major U.S. city.

Other Bay Area districts enroll the (mostly) Latino children of poorly educated immigrants.

Black students make up 6.7 percent of enrollment in the region: They’re a minority even in Oakland, where Latinos now make up 45 percent of enrollment and blacks make up only 25 percent.

All around the Bay Area, education reporters are struggling to do the kinds of work that they know readers want and need.

Sharon Noguchi is the only almost-full-time K-12 education reporter for the Bay Area Newspaper Group (BANG), which includes the San Jose Mercury News, East Bay Times, Marin Independent-Journal and community newspapers.

Noguchi remembers when the Mercury News alone had 10 education reporters, supervised by an education team editor. In addition to Noguchi, BANG currently has one higher education reporter, Emily DeRuy, a recent transplant from the East Coast.

“Local education doesn’t get covered, even though it’s what people really want to read,” says Noguchi. “You want to know what’s going on in your school, your district.”

Noguchi’s beat also includes San Mateo, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties.

When Jill Tucker started at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, she was one of five K-12 education reporters. Now she’s the only one. “It breaks my heart that we don’t have enough people paying attention to the 100 districts in the Bay Area,” says Tucker. “We can’t play the watchdog role.”

noguchi and tucker

Two full-time K-12 education reporters for the Bay Area’s biggest news outlets: BANG’s Sharon Noguchi (left), San Francisco Chronicle’s Jill Tucker (right).

Always pressed for time, Noguchi and Tucker look for local stories with regional, state or national implications. Noguchi focuses on “trends, innovations and political issues.” Many BANG readers don’t have children in school, but she believes some of them still care about education issues.

Tucker also looks for stories of broad interest. “When I started on the Chron, I covered San Francisco schools, process and policies, what the school board was doing,” she says. Now, she rarely attends school board meetings or covers board votes, even in her priority districts, San Francisco Unified and Oakland Unified.

“I’m amazed that [Tucker and Noguchi] can do as much as they have,” says EdSource editor-at-large John Fensterwald. He notes that Tucker has been stretched thin covering the fiscal crisis in Oakland while Noguchi has been covering problems with bond money spending in Alum Rock. ”What are there, 19 districts or so in San Jose, more than 30 in Santa Clara County alone? Add in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Marin and Sonoma — you must get close to 75 uncovered districts.”

In recent years, California has shifted education funding and control to local districts, Fensterwald points out. But local control requires an informed public, which requires “eagle-eyed reporting on spending and decision-making on a local level.”

And as if covering so many school districts wasn’t enough, Tucker and Noguchi also cover children and family issues and may be pulled off their beat for general-assignment reporting. Tucker helped cover fires in the wine country north of San Francisco. Noguchi works two or three weekend days each month covering breaking news.

Editor’s Note: While the number of journalism jobs has plummeted in recent years, there is no beat-specific information about the current number of journalists covering education nationally. Several major metro areas have suffered steep declines in education coverage.

A decade and a half ago, the San Francisco Chronicle still competed fiercely with the San Francisco Examiner. Those days are over, says Tucker. The Examiner focuses on San Francisco and sends reporters to school board meetings. “I want them to cover what I can’t cover any more, but their reporters tend to be inexperienced – they have a lot of turnover – so I see errors in their stories, missing context. I want to go fix it.

“Education used to be a beat for green reporters,” says Tucker. “That was OK when there were more people covering the beat.” Now, reporters have no time to get up to speed. “You need someone who can understand instantly, what’s the context, how to report it.”

When we talked, she was considering pursuing a story that could turn out to be a major scandal – or not. It would take five to 10 days of digging to find out. She had to ask herself: Is it worth it? What else would not get covered?

NBC Bay Area/KNTV has won prestigious awards for Arrested in School, a series that covered the misuse of school police officers to discipline students, especially blacks and those with disabilities, for “childish misbehavior.” The seven-part series ran from 2015 to 2017.

However, TV and radio reporters rarely pursue in-depth local education stories, says Tucker. Most TV education coverage is “rip and read,” says Tucker. “They cover my coverage.”

KQED public television recently lost its education reporter, Ana Tintocalis, to a state education agency. Vanessa Rancaño is now listed as the station’s education reporter. The station ran the CALmatters version of the San Francisco achievement gap story rather than generating one of their own, but has produced helpful pieces about San Francisco Unified’s school lottery and Oakland Unified budget cuts.

Some of the stories that aren’t getting the attention they deserve include teacher shortages, enrollment declines in some places, Common Core/Algebra, and tech-focused models like AltSchool and Summit that have been piloted in the Bay Area. There are any number of additional stories that reporters and readers don’t even know about, which could include local spending, and services to English language learners.

To keep up on media coverage of education news, sign up for the The Grade’s weekly newsletter or like its Facebook page!

chalkbeat logo

The Chalkbeat network of local news outlets has now expanded to Chicago and Newark. 

The downsizing of major Bay Area education news teams has also created an uneven patchwork of information about schools.

Blogs such as SF Public School Mom (San Francisco) and Great School Voices (Oakland) pick up some of the slack, along with sites run by advocacy groups such as Parents for Public Schools-San Francisco and Innovate Public Schools.

Community newspapers sometimes fill the local news reporting gap, but the results are uneven. Higher-income communities tend to get better education coverage. “The Palo Alto Weekly is doing a great job covering Palo Alto Unified, getting documents, finding out what the district is hiding,” says Noguchi.

Kevin Forestieri’s reporting in the Mountain View Voice exposed parent and teacher dissatisfaction with the Teach to One math curriculum that had been adopted by the Mountain View-Whisman School District. It was dropped in the middle of the school year.

However, other communities such as blue-collar East San Jose, a checkerboard of elementary districts and a large high school district, have no local paper covering schools.

Reporters stretched thin can only do so much to make sure that middle- and lower-income school districts get the attention they deserve. For example, Noguchi is reporting on elementary district, which enrolls many children from immigrant families, even though she knows that it might not get as many readers as a story about a high-income community.

The region has no nonprofit education-specific news outlet like the LA School Report to focus on education when traditional media cannot. And there’s nothing like the four-person education team at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, which covers breaking education news and regularly pulls off deep dives.

To fill in as much as possible, Bay Area publications are picking up stories from Sacramento-focused EdSource, which specializes in state education issues but has been beefing up its coverage of East Bay issues. And the LA Times is picking up the slack here and there, though it has no education reporters in the Bay Area.

The lack of journalist resources could have a significant effect on parents’ understanding of their children’s schools. Noguchi’s outlet no longer has a dedicated data person to create and maintain a searchable data base for school test scores. That means readers get little help decoding the state’s new Trivial Pursuit-style school dashboard, which features multiple, multi-colored pie wedges. (Noguchi thinks officials “made it confusing on purpose.”)

To keep up on media coverage of education news, sign up for the The Grade’s weekly newsletter or like its Facebook page!

I worked for the San Jose Mercury News’ editorial pages for many years: Noguchi was my copy editor and John Fensterwald was a fellow editorial writer. My old paper is owned by a hedge fund that shows no interest in good journalism, my old comrades tell me. When the newspaper was making lots of money, reporters complained. Now they hunker down and do the best they can.

By contrast, the Chronicle is now making a profit, reports the Columbia Journalism Review. After years of cutbacks, the paper is investing in projects, narrative writing and an I-team, says Tucker. She dreams of having the education staff to “pay attention at the local level, follow the money more, do public records requests.”

So far, though, none of the new money is going into education coverage.

In 2018, both Tucker and Noguchi will cover the worsening teacher shortage and the challenges to teacher tenure. Tucker predicts her top stories will be budget crises in Oakland Unified and elsewhere, strike threats and possibly “a more heated debate about charters.”

Noguchi, who covered teen stress and suicide in 2017, expects to focus on electronics-addicted teens this year. She also plans to pursue stories on achievement gaps, the effect of pension commitments on district finances, technology and innovation.

Looking further down the road, the nonprofit network called Chalkbeat says it’s exploring the possibility of a Bay Area outlet to join others in Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, and elsewhere.

“The Bay Area has been on our radar for a while,” says Chalkbeat’s Elliott. “It’s one of the places we get a lot of people asking us to take a look at. We definitely do see a gap in coverage that we think Chalkbeat could help address.”

The network announced two new bureaus will open Chicago and Newark this year. The Bay Area was the runner-up site, and according to this Education Week story the possibility remains open.

In the meantime, Bay Area readers will continue to have a dearth of information about the area’s school systems, and school systems will operate without the kind of robust accountability that news coverage can provide.

Joanne Jacobs was a Knight-Ridder op-ed columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer from 1978 to 2001. She left to create the first education blog, joannejacobs.com, freelance and write Our School (2005) about a San Jose charter high school. A freelancer for Education Next and other publications, she wrote a chapter in Education for Upward Mobility (2015).

Disclosure: Jacobs helped write Innovate’s 2013 Broken Promises report and edited a follow-up report and school profiles.

*CORRECTION: The original version of this column failed to note that the SF Examiner covered the achievement gap story in December and has an education and community affairs reporter, Laura Waxmann.

Related columns from The Grade:

How a Teach For America-inspired journalism program aims to bolster local news coverage

LAUSD school board race reveals chronic gaps in political coverage

NYT Underplays deep race/class issues in Oakland story

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

6 comments

  • Caroline Grannan

    Wait, Joanne Jacobs has done paid work for the organization whose publicity push scored a story in the L.A. Times, and then writes an article inherently praising the Times for doing the story and damning the Chronicle and the BANG newspapers for not doing it? That fails every smell test of journalistic ethics.

  • Donald G.

    Don’t forget about the Black people that make up about 10% of the Bay Area’s population, many of whom were born and raised here. You mentioned White, Asian, and Latino folk but you left out Black folk. They are here and not invisible and are often getting the crappiest end of the stick in education.

  • I disclosed the fact that I wrote for Innovate so that readers should judge its relevance. I think the achievement gap revealed by Innovate’s analysis (and, independently, by CALMatters’ analysis) is newsworthy. Don’t you?

    Blacks, who have gotten the dirty end of the stick, are 6.7 percent of the Bay Area population, less than ever before, according to the 2010 Census. Black students are doing worse in San Francisco Unified than in virtually every other district in the state, Innovate and CALMatters discovered. I don’t think that should be ignored because the number of black students is relatively small and declining.

  • Caroline Grannan

    Yes, the achievement gap is relevant, but the Chronicle has covered it extensively over the years; and that doesn’t justify your outrageous breach of ethics, Joanne — nor does your weak disclosure. I’m ashamed of you, as a former colleague.

  • Independent analyses of state test scores by both Innovate and CALMatters revealed that blacks in San Francisco do worse academically than blacks in 96% of districts in the state. That’s news that nobody has covered before.

    I hope you can live with your shame.

  • Caroline Grannan

    ?? I’m not sure what shame I need to live with. Black students’, or any students’, test scores are beyond my control, though the achievement gap and other ill effects of poverty are heartbreaking. I do try to uphold journalistic ethics, which sometimes means calling out lapses.

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