A brain drain in education journalism

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Let’s talk about all the education journalists taking buyouts, leaving the beat, going to smaller outlets, and quitting newsrooms. 

By Alexander Russo

Last week, education reporter Ann Doss Helms announced that she was taking a buyout from the Charlotte Observer after 16 years on the beat.

She’s not the first education journalist to make a big job move in recent weeks. And she won’t be the last.

Education journalists are retiring, taking buyouts, or — in a worst-case scenario — being laid off. They’re going to another beat, joining an investigative team, or moving to smaller, education-specific outlets.

There have always been education reporters on the move. And not all of these job changes are bad ones.

But the biggest trends I’m seeing — reporters leaving the beat or going to niche outlets — don’t seem conducive to keeping the public informed. And I worry that these patterns aren’t getting enough attention.

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A definitive headcount of the total number of reporters covering education in the United States doesn’t exist, according to the Education Writers Association (EWA). But the number isn’t a big one. Four years ago, EWA reached out to just over 3,100 journalists as part of its survey of the industry.

The nonprofit says that it has not seen dramatic shifts in the number of their journalist members over the past few years. The latest figure from EWA — a subset of the total number of education journalists — was 1,332.

“Education is one of those beats that’s hard to dislodge,” explains Inside Higher Ed’s Greg Toppo, who is also president of the EWA board. “You can get rid of the movie critic or the environment reporter, it’s a hard case to be made to get rid of the person who covers the school board.”

Still, the relatively low numbers of layoffs and the apparent stability of EWA’s membership numbers don’t necessarily mean that education journalism is strong and stable.

Education teams are smaller today, a reflection of newsrooms in general. The downsizing has generally happened through attrition, masked to some extent by foundation support for nonprofit newsrooms. So we don’t have to talk about it all that much.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Some regions, like California’s Bay Area, don’t have nearly enough full-time education reporters to meet the need. As Rowan Moore Gerety noted in a 2018 Columbia Journalism Review piece, preemptive job moves journalists make often go under-reported in coverage of industry cutbacks and layoffs.

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Some of the many journalists who are no longer covering education full-time these days.

So where are reporters moving?

Traditional retirements seem few and far between, though NPR’s Claudio Sanchez announced his a couple of weeks ago. Going over to “the dark side” — communications work — seems less frequent than it used to be, though it still happens. And there are occasional layoffs. In just the past few weeks, we heard the news that BuzzFeed’s Tyler Kingkade lost his job. (Hire him while you can.)

Other kinds of job changes seem more common these days:

Several of education journalism’s top names — former Oregonian education reporter Bethany Barnes, who’s now at the Tampa Bay Times, and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lauren FitzPatrick — have left the beat for prestigious investigative jobs.

There have been a number of reporters like WNYC’s Beth Fertig, Marketplace’s Amy Scott, and WBEZ’s Linda Lutton who move (or are assigned) to a new beat.

Several veteran reporters, including Sharon Noguchi, Diana Lambert, and Kathleen Megan, have moved to one of the smaller new outlets that have popped up in the last decade or so.

And a handful of other former education journalists, including the Seattle Times’ Linda Shaw and Chalkbeat’s Francisco Vara-Orta, have moved on to journalism-related endeavors outside of a newsroom.

Read also: ‘I used to be an education reporter.’ by Dorie Turner Nolt

Of course, some of these beat assignment changes are being made by newsroom managers reassigning reporters to different beats based on readership or revenue. Education coverage from the Associated Press is just a portion of what it used to be. BuzzFeed, Vox, and Marketplace all reassigned people who used to be full-time education reporters.

And leaving beat reporting is a standard part of moving up the ladder. Vox’s Libby Nelson transitioned away from the beat during the runup to the 2016 presidential campaign. She’s now deputy policy editor. After stints covering education at the LA Times and the Denver Post, Zahira Torres became editor of the El Paso Times in late 2017.

But there are lots of other factors motivating these moves, according to some of the journalists who’re making them.

One reason articulated by former AP education reporter Dorie Turner Nolt in last week’s column is the frustration and grind of being asked to perform a challenging job under increasingly difficult circumstances.

Moving over to an investigative team allows a reporter to do deeper work that can sometimes include education coverage, according to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lauren FitzPatrick. “I don’t see it as leaving [the beat],” she emailed. “I’m still doing education stuff.”

Smaller, newer, education-specific newsrooms may appear to be as safe or safer than today’s traditional newsrooms, many of which are being downsized. “People are kind of covering themselves,” says Toppo. They’re also joining growing efforts dedicated to producing high-quality coverage.

Leaving education can be a chance to do something really exciting, says former Seattle Times education editor Linda Shaw. She “wanted to do something really different” when she joined the Solutions Journalism Network last year, and she hoped to be part of helping reinvent journalism

And to be fair, not everyone’s meant to be a lifer. “It was hard to walk away from the beat,” emailed WNYC’s Yasmeen Khan about leaving the beat after nearly six years. But the issues that came up were repetitive, according to Khan, and “Any beat needs a new pair of eyes and ears every now and again.”

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

gone group image 2

More journalists who are no longer covering education full-time —  or who’ve moved to smaller outlets.

Maybe I’m misinterpreting the numbers.

Maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic for the old days of big-circulation mainstream education news coverage.

The outflow of education reporters, if that’s what it should be called, might be temporary. Each week, it seems, a new endeavor to revive journalism is announced.

“I see on Twitter all the time, ‘Please welcome so-and-so to the beat,’” says Toppo. “It’s not like people aren’t bringing in education reporters.”

He’s right. The Oregonian recently assigned Eder Campuzano to the beat, replacing Barnes. WAMU snagged Jenny Abamu. Politico snapped up Mackenzie Mays from the Fresno Bee for its new West Coast bureau. The list goes on.

I’m excited and hopeful about all the new talent, new outlets, and new funding sources. And yet, I can’t help but feel as though something’s being lost along the way — without our entirely realizing it.

RELATED COLUMNS

‘I used to be an education reporter.’ by Dorie Turner Nolt

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

On motherhood and education journalism by Lauren Smith Camera

Alexander Russo is founder and editor of The Grade, an award-winning effort to help improve media coverage of education issues. He's also a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship winner and a book author. You can reach him at @alexanderrusso.

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