What’s happening to national coverage of big-city school systems?

Coverage of school district crises is becoming increasingly rare in national, general-interest media. Reporters say they’re stretched thin. But is there more going on?

If the country’s seventh-largest school district falls and no national education reporter is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

National, general-interest media outlets have been curiously quiet about the likely state takeover of Houston schools in which white, male, Republican state education leaders would take control from a largely non-white, largely female, entirely Democratic, elected board.

And about dramatic goings-on in other large districts as well.

“We’ve definitely seen less coverage,” said Tonya Harris, communications manager for Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 76 districts educating more than 7.8 million students in the U.S. and Toronto, Canada.

We still see dailies when a scathing report emerges, such as this month’s condemnation of sexual abuse in Chicago, covered by outlets including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Or by metro teams when something’s happening in the publication’s home turf, such as the New York Times’ focus on city school segregation, covered largely (and excellently) by metro education reporter Eliza Shapiro.

However, there’s less coverage than there used to be of slower-moving crises in cities across the nation, or follow-ups after a major story breaks.

US News & World Report was one of few national outlets that covered a recent report suggesting serious problems in Providence, Rhode Island, schools. 

The Providence schools have been in crisis mode for years but received scant notice until a scathing June report by Johns Hopkins University found that “the great majority of students are not learning on, or even near, grade level,” and attended facilities so decrepit that “the worst reduced seasoned members of the review team to tears.”

The Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report stepped up to cover the report. The Wall Street Journal sent Leslie Brody to report on the ground. And the Boston Globe’s coverage has been strong, thanks to Providence-based reporter Dan McGowan. Local outlets, like the Providence Journal, covered the story closely.

But except for a recent piece in Politico, national coverage in general-interest outlets has been largely absent since then, even as a state takeover looms.

Big-city school districts serve large numbers of the nation’s children, especially among communities of color. These school systems used to draw regular media attention. Yet even some cities that once were the subjects of prominent education coverage have fallen off the map. The state takeover of New Orleans schools, which received enormous attention during the decade after Hurricane Katrina, ended last year — virtually unnoticed outside the city.

When a deep dive on a city appears, it’s more likely to be an example of a nationwide trend or issue, such as April’s New York Times story about school segregation as it plays out in San Francisco, than a locally-focused story.

National reporting in large, less glamorous districts in suburbs and secondary cities is even rarer. The public school districts in Jacksonville, Florida; greater Houston; Louisville, Kentucky, and Polk County in central Florida, for example, have more students than Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco or Seattle but have received scant attention.

“We are very easily forgotten,” said Las Vegas Review-Journal education reporter Amelia Pak-Harvey. Clark County, Nevada, is the fifth-largest district in the country. Its schools have among the worst overcrowding and transience rates in the country, its academic outcomes are low, and its funding formula is half a century old, she said. “There’s all these big issues that I think would make Nevada a good landscape for a national story,” the reporter said. Yet “when people think of Vegas, they might not realize, oh, there’s kids.”

The shortage of city coverage isn’t limited to the education beat, said Kristen Hare, a writer at the Poynter Institute. Reporting on metropolis government issues is suffering all around. One reason is the extreme culling at local outlets, she said: “When there’s no one to cover the nuts and bolts, there’s nothing for national [teams] to build on.”

In addition, she said, national politics has taken up so much reporting bandwidth that even important developments in cities or their schools can’t compete with coverage of presidential candidates.

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The Houston public schools are currently experiencing a high level of political turmoil, though national education reporters have paid little attention thus far. 

Several national reporters and editors from the New York Times, Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NPR, and the Atlantic did not respond to emailed requests for an interview, so we can’t know the specific thinking around their coverage decisions.

Education reporters at U.S. News, USA Today and HuffPost said that cutbacks had left them stretched too thin to get to some of the worthy stories on their list.

“I just wish there were more of us. I feel there are so many stories that aren’t getting told,” said Rebecca Klein, who is the only education reporter at HuffPost.

“I think people don’t do district coverage because there’s so much other stuff to do, honestly,” U.S. News reporter Lauren Camera said.

So they set priorities. “We just have to be very deliberate about what stories we pick,” Klein said.

First to get attention are the stories driven by the national news cycle: mass shootings, civil rights, the election, immigration, environmental disasters. Newark, New Jersey, has gotten renewed attention, from Klein for one, thanks to Cory Booker’s presidential candidacy.

Higher education issues, such as the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal and the student debt crisis, required more attention recently. Those stories can pull time from K-12 coverage.

Reporters’ individual interests play a role, too. “I love to write about obscure policies that are really a big deal but that nobody knows a lot about,” Camera said. “I’ve been doing a lot of Census work,” such as June stories on the school-funding consequences of a citizenship question.

The Wall Street Journal published this piece about the issues Providence schools are facing. 

Somewhat surprisingly, local reporters in Texas and Rhode Island told The Grade that the stories in their areas simply weren’t ripe for national notice, or renewed notice in the case of Providence. They said they figure that national reporters were waiting for the other shoe to drop — for the state takeover to be definite in Houston and for a new superintendent to be chosen in Providence.

“I’m assuming when we actually have a turnaround supe and a plan is being developed, it might catch fire again,” Providence Journal education reporter Linda Borg said.

National reporters don’t necessarily see it the same way. “Houston is a good example of one that I’ve been watching, but I just haven’t had time to write about it,” Camera said. “It’s not that I’m waiting for something to change.”

Education reporter Erin Richards, who moved to USA Today from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel at the start of this year, is writing a long article about New Orleans schools; the news peg is the chartering of the city’s final traditional public school, but the more general goal is to catch readers up on how everything has changed 15 years after Hurricane Katrina “and what the charter movement has learned from it.”

But above all, they look for stories that speak to a wide audience. “What do we think readers in more than one state are going to care about?” Richards summarized. It’s not enough for the district to be in a state capital or have more than 200,000 students. Its crisis or success has to fit into a trend or illustrate a larger phenomenon.

U.S. News’ Camera keeps an eye out for similarities among districts “that can quickly become a major national story,” she said. “Does this play into a larger narrative that no one has really picked up on yet?” She cited a story about a squashed Massachusetts proposal to expand charter schools if they give preference to neighborhood children, which showed “how politicized this entire situation has become” and “was a perfect example for how to explain what’s happened at the local and federal level with charter schools,” she said. When she wrote about the Johns Hopkins report in Providence, she made broader connections: The story’s tagline ends, “Many urban school districts face the same problems.”

An editor at an education-focused outlet understood the challenge as well. Stories about individual districts are “more difficult to relate to,” said Emmeline Zhao, special projects editor at The 74. “Finding a wide, a broad audience that cares about education, period, is hard enough, much less to bring them into a microcosm of a community that they don’t live in.”

That reasoning could explain the dearth of national coverage about Houston. Local coverage indicates that it doesn’t even fit neatly into a larger narrative of urban school failure that usually spurs takeover. As a district, Houston earned a B on the state’s report card.

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Local outlets including the Providence Journal and Boston Globe have covered the Providence saga closely.

That said, the change in approach to district stories isn’t necessarily bad. “You have to consider whether there is a demand, or a need, for people just to report on these districts in silos,” Zhao said.

Readers probably learn more about education issues from stories with themes that connect across districts, or that focus on how a national issue is playing out locally — stories that go broad as well as deep — than those that focus narrowly on one place dealing with parochial issues. And readers are more likely to pay attention to those broader stories.

National outlets also are finding ways to beef up coverage of schools in particular cities not by parachuting reporters in but by working with partners and subsidiaries. In public radio, “there’s been more and more collaboration between the national desk and local reporters,” Houston Public Media’s Laura Isensee said. “I have had a lot of stories make it national.” NPR edited and provided a photographer for her long profile of a Santa Fe High shooting survivor, she said.

USA Today is capitalizing on its network of papers across the country, Richards said. All the education reporters are now on a chat channel, and the national education editor sometimes works with local reporters. When something important happens in a region, often “local reporters ‘write up,’” she said.

Richards recently handed off a national pitch about the expansion of a Bloomberg Philanthropies early-childhood program to a reporter in Detroit, one of the expansion cities, with editing by both the metro and national desks. Said Richards: “They can write it like a national story, but it will be rooted in the community.”

Related columns and coverage:

Breaking free from the hamster wheel of daily news coverage

Exit interview: A star reporter explains why she left journalism — and ways to fix education news

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

A brain drain in education journalism

Danielle Dreilinger is a New Orleans–based reporter writing a book on the history and future of home economics. Follow her at @djdreilinger.

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