What columns attracted the most readers in 2018 and what lessons can we learn for the year ahead?
By Alexander Russo
The Grade published 45 columns during 2018, touching on all sorts of topics: school gun violence, classroom teachers, and education technology.
A big chunk of them were critiques of problematic storylines being told in the media or specific pieces of journalism. Roundups of various kinds were also common as were reporter profiles and Q & As.
But what were the most-read columns of the year?
Like everyone else, we look at the data to see what our readers like and then make adjustments so we can give you the kinds of columns that you will be most likely to find interesting and useful.
Towards that end, here are the top 10 most-read columns of the year and some thoughts about what might have made them popular and how we plan to respond in 2019.
As you’ll see, it seems clear that readers of The Grade like variety. Some of the most-read pieces were roundups, some were profiles and interviews with reporters who’d done amazing work, and some were critiques.
10: 2 education reporters … for a metro region of nearly 8 million people by Joanne Jacobs
“Education reporting has been downsized in the Bay Area as much as any other metro area in the country.”
While the lack of education coverage in California’s Bay Area mainly concerns Californians, this January 2018 column by longtime education writer Joanne Jacobs addressed a major concern for all in journalism: the downsizing of traditional newsrooms and the resulting lack of high-quality coverage that often ensues.
Since the piece was written, things have gotten somewhat worse. Sharon Noguchi left her newsroom spot. (She’s now editing for Chalkbeat.) But the Bay Area is not alone, and we will focus on another news-starved region in 2019.
“They told her she was a poor journalist. Then they moved her to an undesirable night beat. Then they killed her story. Then they fired her.”
Everybody loves Bethany Barnes (above) — except for maybe those she’s investigated. She had an enormously productive, high-quality period at The Oregonian, and her reflections on how she selects, reports, and produces her work were deeply insightful.
Barnes recently left The Oregonian for a new job on the investigative team at the Tampa Bay Times. Crossed fingers there are other up-and-coming journalists who will help soften the blow of losing her on the beat.
The parent-friendly Hechinger Report comes up a lot in discussions about being an education reporter and a parent.
8: On motherhood and education journalism by Lauren Camera
“There isn’t another beat as collegial as education… but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these daily interruptions [of motherhood] can be a punch in the gut to our drive and competitive personalities.”
I’m a big fan of the well-chosen first-person piece. And this topic in particular was something that I’d long wanted to see, given how many education reporters are also parenting young children. US News’ Lauren Camera described the challenges with humor and detail. And readers could relate.
We’ll certainly do more of these first-person pieces in 2019. There’s already a student-written review of education coverage in the works. I’d love to get a parent’s-eye view of education journalism. What other common challenges do education reporters face, and what other perspectives on education journalism would be helpful to read?
“The best newsletters are usually weekly rather than daily, are generous about sharing others’ work, and give me links and tidbits I haven’t seen before.”
Doing these kinds of roundups is one of the most fun things we do, whether the topic is favorite bylines, podcasts, outlets, or individual stories. Being a bit of a newsletter junkie, I found this column particularly delightful to compile. It’s great that it still shows up so prominently given that it was published in late 2017.
I’m not sure I got all the best examples, however. Things may have changed. Let me know what I missed, and I’ll be sure to add your suggestion in the 2019 version.
Hanford has followed up on her documentary with a New York Times oped and an NPR version of the story that just came out today.
“The best stories include kids. The best stories are always complicated.”
It’s no great surprise that this interview with APM Reports’ Emily Hanford about Hard Words, her one-hour documentary on teaching kids to read is on the most-read list. Hanford’s work itself has generated enormous interest from educators. She’s been relentless in making sure the story isn’t forgotten. (See today’s NPR version of the story here). And she reflects with great insight on the challenges of reporting on a topic that is so important and so difficult to cover well.
If you like pieces like this, check out our interviews with Amanda Ripley, Casey Parks, and Rachel Aviv. There will be more in 2019.
5: 11 essential books for education reporters in 2018 by Kristen Doerer
“Often, we think that what we’re seeing on the beat now is new. It’s not. Often, we think that what we’re seeing on the beat now is purely local. That’s rarely the case.”
One of the things that probably made this Kristen Doerer piece so popular was that it included a mix of well-known books such as “The Big Test” by Nicholas Lemann and less widely-known titles such as “Pushout” by Monique W. Morris. Another was that the recommendations came from education reporters like Cara Fitzpatrick, Erica Green, and Greg Toppo, and their descriptions of what they liked best about these books were deeply informative.
Other similar roundups included amazing feature stories, best podcasts, and favorite bylines. What’s next for 2019? I’ve long been toying with some sort of roundup of favorite outlets, organized by size or region.
Some of the many journalists involved in covering DC public schools in recent years.
“This failure to catch and report what was going on inside DC schools is … an example of how relentless turnover on an important beat can result in missed opportunities.”
This deep dive into the series of blind spots and staffing issues that contributed to a big miss by one of the nation’s largest news outlets is the story that I’m most proud of and worked hardest on this year.
While there was no specific response from the Post when the piece came out, I was glad to hear from some of the reporters closest to the situation that my piece had been tough but fair. Crossed fingers that Perry Stein, the current DCPS reporter for the Post, gets to stay long enough to master a notoriously difficult beat.
One of the many ways media outlets try and portray the impact of gun violence without depicting graphic images.
“Without these awful images, unsettling as they may be, the American public is likely to remain unclear about the impact of school shootings and gun violence in general.”
School gun violence was such a big topic of concern in 2018, it’s not a surprise to see that this piece was popular with readers. The position this column takes, however — that media outlets need to take a responsible but unblinking role in presenting the effects of gun violence — is controversial and perhaps even inflammatory. Journalists can’t even agree whether the shooter should be named.
“The storytelling required to get everyday readers to engage with difficult, seemingly intractable topics — what Ira Glass referred to in a recent speech as ‘cunning’ — just isn’t there yet.”
This was certainly the most controversial piece of the year, and I must admit I was surprised by the intensely negative reaction at first. I had intended the roundup to be a thought-provoking take on a broad range of topics rather than anything definitive, much less offensive.
The most unfortunate result was that some of the broader concerns about how education gets covered were obscured.
“There weren’t 11 incidents in which kids got shot or killed during the first three weeks of 2018.”
School gun violence was a big topic in 2018, and much amazing work was done covering these tragedies. And yet, almost from the start, I found so much of the journalism being produced was problematic, often overstating the size of the problem, passing along misleading or murky statistics, and – most objectionable to me – focusing on the issue of gun control and failing to give the schools, educators, and districts sufficient scrutiny for their role.
There are a few overall takeaways from the list of most-read columns.
It seems clear that contributor-written pieces bringing in different voices and perspectives are popular. Lauren Camera’s first-person piece is the obvious example. But Joyce Tsai’s piece on media coverage of the opioid crisis and Wendy Paris’s column about misleading New York Times coverage of how hard it is to get into high school are still on the extended most-read list for 2018 despite having been written in 2016 and 2017.
Reporter profiles have long been part of The Grade, and this year’s profiles of Bethany Barnes and Emma Brown – along with the 2017 profile of Nikole Hannah-Jones – showed why. The addition of Q & A interviews seem to have been a welcome complement. Some examples that were particularly well-read included Kristen Doerer’s interview with Rachel Aviv about her New Yorker stories and our profile of Emma Brown.
Critiques – of school gun violence coverage, graduation rate reporting, or high school admissions coverage – are an important part of what we do, and people read them. They’re difficult to write and can be uncomfortable to read, but I think they provide helpful feedback and help us improve our work.
Done well, roundups can be a great way to reach readers. Some reader favorites that made the extended Top 25 list for 2018 were: favorite bylines and outlets, 11 best education stories of the year (co-written with Kristen Doerer), memorable educations stories every journalist should read (by Doerer), and unsolicited story ideas for 2018.
However, reader popularity isn’t the sole way to measure a column’s worth. Some of our favorite and arguably most important columns didn’t make it on the most-read list. The one column that I wish had made the Top 10 list was the annual survey of newsroom diversity, which won a respectable readership but was no favorite. It’s also too bad that the two pieces we wrote about covering school integration did not make the list. And in a perfect world more people would have discovered our Casey Parks interview. She’s amazing.
What about you? What was the best or most memorable column from The Grade in 2018? And what would you like to see in 2019? We’d love to know.
Here’s last year’s version: Top 10 stories of 2017 from The Grade.