A close look at The Atlantic’s education coverage since the announcement that billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs would become a majority owner.
By Alexander Russo
Earlier this week, reporter Adam Harris started a new job covering higher education for The Atlantic, the sprawling for-profit news outlet that includes a legendary magazine (once called The Atlantic Monthly), a vibrant website, and a series of sponsored, highly lucrative live events.
The hiring of Harris away from the Chronicle of Higher Education takes place during a major expansion by the outlet that has been accelerated by the largesse of billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs.
This isn’t Powell Jobs’ first foray into funding journalism. The Atlantic has attracted no small amount of outside revenue for its efforts in recent years. And a spokesperson says that the Harris hiring and other changes in how the education team is staffed are unrelated to Powell Jobs or the organization’s 100-person expansion.
But Powell Jobs brings with her a very specific agenda for reinventing American schools. And this is arguably the biggest and most far-reaching relationship between a wealthy education advocate and a major national outlet responsible for providing a steady stream of education coverage we’ve seen thus far. Her involvement with The Atlantic raises a series of questions.
Chief among them: How much of an increase in education coverage will the new, deep-pocketed owner provide? And will The Atlantic’s somewhat left-leaning education coverage be affected by the new ownership, or have its coverage questioned or criticized because of its new owner’s views? (Or, as NYU media professor Rodney Benson asked last summer: Will Powell Jobs see the outlets as “another vehicle for her to promote these views?”)
The Atlantic is an important part of the mainstream education news ecosystem, commissioning and republishing a steady stream of generally high-quality reporting and thoughtful commentary.
So far, Powell Jobs’ investment in The Atlantic hasn’t fueled a major spending spree on education coverage, which is too bad. But it doesn’t appear to have substantially influenced its coverage or created much controversy, either. And that’s a very good thing.
For the calm to last, however, The Atlantic needs to tighten up its disclosure practices, which have sometimes been lackadaisical, and articulate its commitment to independent education coverage directly with readers. In the current era of reader mistrust, transparency concerns, and questions about Silicon Valley media ownership, the outlet would do well to practice extreme openness.*
The Atlantic tells us that it has and will continue to practice independent journalism:
“The Atlantic maintains complete autonomy over its journalistic prerogatives,” wrote a spokesperson in an emailed statement. “The selection, assignment, and editing of all of our stories remains solely in the hands of our editorial staff.”
Pictured: New York Times coverage of Powell Jobs investment announcement last summer
Over the decades, The Atlantic magazine has published a handful of truly memorable education pieces, including such favorites as the 1997 cover story, “The Computer Delusion,” and the 2008 thought piece, “First, Kill All the School Boards.”
The 1997 story by Todd Oppenheimer was among the first mainstream pieces to critique the notion that computers would transform K-12 education. The 2008 piece by Matt Miller explained how difficult it is for anyone to change an education system controlled by 15,000 or so semi-independent local school boards.
For the past several years, editor Alia Wong has run The Atlantic’s education page. The stories there are often written by freelancers or provided by other news organizations like Chalkbeat. They can be quite good and have contributed a steady stream of education journalism of interest to general readers. The outlet also publishes a series called What My Students Taught Me, a StoryCorps-like podcast in which teachers and former students reflect on their experiences.
These offerings make The Atlantic unusually strong on education coverage among general interest magazines and outlets. Slate featured an education section for a time, and the New York Times used to have a weekly education column. But both of those are now gone, and few national publications have anything similarly frequent or high-caliber.
Pictured: An image from the podcast “What My Students Taught Me,” provided to The Atlantic by the Columbia Journalism School via funding from the Emerson Collective and Carnegie Corporation
There has been occasional criticism over The Atlantic’s education coverage in recent years, usually expressed by moderate- or conservative-leaning voices complaining about inaccuracies and/or a perceived progressive tilt.
An early 2017 piece by freelancer George Joseph blamed charter schools for fueling urban school resegregation, downplaying the enormous role of the traditional education system (and belittling the decisions of black and brown parents who choose charter schools). An October 2017 Erika Christakis piece claiming that Americans have “given up” on public schools came under intense heat from a variety of directions. And I thought the introduction to a recent interview of the NYT’s Nikole Hannah-Jones by Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg overstated the role of charter schools as a method for white parents to avoid sending their kids to schools with black and brown children. (Neighborhood attendance zones are the main culprit, along with magnet school programs and white parents’ willingness to move away from integrated neighborhoods.)
Another issue that has flared up sometimes is the seemingly large amounts of funding that the outlet receives from teachers unions and other outside groups for its live events. According to Digiday, events made up just under 20 percent of Atlantic revenues last year. For 2016-2017, The Atlantic topped the AFT list of outside grants. (The Atlantic’s annual education summit is coming up next month in Washington, DC.)
Pictured: The new team, including higher education reporter Adam Harris, editor/writer Alia Wong, and senior editor Rebecca Rosen.
Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs, purchased a majority stake in The Atlantic through the Emerson Collective, an LLC created more than a decade ago.
Like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Collective is among the most recent philanthropic attempts to address social issues including education. These newer efforts join legacy organizations like the Ford Foundation and organizations like the Gates Foundation that became prominent in the early 2000s.
The Collective has thus far focused on a number of education initiatives including “reinventing” the American high school.
It has also supported education journalists such as Nikole Hannah-Jones, Amanda Ripley, and Richard Whitmire.
And it has provided funding for nonprofit news outlets including Chalkbeat and the Teacher Project at Columbia University, which has provided content for Slate and The Atlantic.
Last summer’s Rodney Benson piece expressing concerns about Powell Jobs and The Atlantic
One immediate question is whether Powell Jobs’ interest in education will translate into expanded education coverage by The Atlantic.
So far, at least, the answer seems to be no. Education is not one of the six areas of expanded focus in 2018 that were announced earlier this year. The addition of a higher education reporter is not officially part of that initiative.
However, education is not being entirely left out.The expanded offerings include a new family section. Senior editor Rebecca Rosen, a longtime business editor at The Atlantic, has been named as the section’s editor. And as part of that job, Rosen will oversee education coverage. Harris will cover higher education. Wong is going to do more writing than she’s been able to do in the past, says Rosen.
And, because there’s going to be no strict division between the two sections, there may be education stories produced by others hired to the family section, or vice versa. “There’s going to be a bigger team,” says Rosen. “That should mean we’re producing more.”
Another issue is whether the Emerson presence will affect the quality or focus of the outlet’s education coverage.
So far, at least, the new ownership of The Atlantic hasn’t generated any red flags when it comes to education. None of the education writers reached for this piece reported anything changed about the assignment or reporting process in the past few months. A look back at education stories doesn’t reveal any obvious ideological shift or change in contributors. (Coverage of Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos and the 2018 teacher strikes have not suggested any obvious changes, according to NYU’s Benson, who’s been watching closely.)
However, it can become extremely awkward extremely quickly when funders or owners have an interest in a topic or approach that’s being covered. The Broad Foundation’s support of LA Times education section is one obvious example. In that case, the outside funding to expand the LA Times education coverage contributed to heated, unending questioning of the newspaper’s work. No amount of disclosure seemed to be enough. By all appearances, both the newspaper and the foundation were glad when the two-year grant ran out.
Rosen says that The Atlantic values transparency and disclosure with readers. But the education section has been somewhat lackadaisical on the disclosure front in the past. For example, it indicates when education content is being provided by the Teacher Project but leaves it to the Columbia website to explain where the funding comes from.
It would be better if The Atlantic was more explicit about funding sources behind outside pieces. And the magazine might also want to address readers’ potential concerns before any controversy breaks out. That’s what NPR’s education team did a few years ago when it launched its Gates-funded education vertical, explaining to readers that it was aware of the concerns and laying out measures to prevent any problems.
In that case, at least, addressing readers’ concerns directly seemed to go a long way towards building trust and putting the attention back and the coverage that was being provided.
*Disclosures: I have penned a handful of pieces for The Atlantic’s education page over the past few years. I have also approached the Collective about supporting The Grade. The Gates and Broad foundations are among the organizations that have supported The Grade.
The Atlantic: The Computer Delusion
The Atlantic: First, Kill All the School Boards
FiveThirtyEight: Shut Up About Harvard
NY Magazine: Laurene Powell Jobs’s Mission to Disrupt High School
Education Next: A new philanthropy’s competition to reinvent high school