Panel on Education Writers

Behind the Bylines

Karen Arenson of The New York Times
Anand Vaishnav of The Boston Globe, who covers K-12 education
Beth Potier of the Harvard Gazette
A reporter from The Appian, the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s newspaper

J.D., who works on The Appian, introduced the evening by talking about the importance of education writing.

Anand started off in the education beat by accident: he had an offer from The Times-Picayune for a position in education writing. “The first six months were a real learning curve,” he expounds. He was there for a few years, then got an offer from the Globe when they redesigned their education coverage. He now covers state and regional issues. He’s now a student at HUGSE getting his masters in education policy because he thinks it will improve his writing. He’s taking a leave of absence from the Globe. He’s been writing for the Harvard Education Letter. After being on the beat for seven years, he finds his position fairly unique because usually journalists will be in the position for a few years, then move on to “bigger and better” things.

Beth outlined her position in the Harvard News Office. She admits being unique because most of her career has been in public relations, not journalism. She finds the beat very relevant and hands-on. Many people follow education because it impacts their lives in very real ways, especially if they have kids in public school.

Karen started journalism with a school paper when she was a student. She attended Harvard, working on a degree at the Kennedy School, then realized she didn’t want to spend her life behind a desk. She got a summer internship working at The Miami Herald. The time was very exciting because both political parties held their conventions in the city. She decided to become a journalist. She lined up something in Chicago before her family moved, but when she got there, a strike was happening. She faced some gender discrimination, too. She attended a journalism program at Northwestern. BusinessWeek offered her a position because they needed a woman on the staff and, as she put it, her resume was the last one in the drawer. She learned journalism on the job. “I love asking questions, being in the middle of things,” she admits. She’s noticed a shift from analytical writing to storytelling. She moved to The New York Times in 1978. After she had a child, she became an editor for about ten years, even though she didn’t particularly enjoy it. She wanted a change, so she suggested nonprofits and her editors let her. She covered colleges as part of that. A university president complained to the paper. The next day, an editor switched her beat to education because she had been involved with colleges and universities in her spare time. She had to cut her times with MIT (she had been an active alumna), which seems to have saddened her, but she like her job more, so she did it.

“It’s a lot more fun to talk to college students and college professors than people in other walks of life,” she explains, though she claims she also enjoyed talking to business people, too. The beat covers lots of other topics, too, as they related to education. She’s stayed very interested in higher educaction through the years.

The moderator, whose name I didn’t catch, wants to cover three themes:

  1. What’s it like to work as a professional journalist?

  2. What are the challenges of the job?
  3. How can we recruit writers for The Appian?

He wants to begin with how the panelists select stories.

Anand began by talking about how he chose to write about a school closing in rural Massachusetts. He was tired of covering the same issues related to school closures, budget cuts, and school board elections. He decided to visit the schools to get a picture of what’s happening and how that picture will change if two schools close as proposed. One of the neat facts he uncovered is that the school buses travel the distance from Massachusetts to California every few days because it picks up children from several communities. He doesn’t think the Globe covers issues related to rural Massachusetts well. This story provided him an opportunity to get the news out there.

The moderator asked how teachers can get their issues on a reporter’s radar screen. Anand recommends e-mailing education reporters. He says about one in ten of the e-mails he receives from people suggesting topics is worth something, but he often keeps contact information for people who have contacted him because he might want to quote them or use them as a resource for a future story.

The moderator asked Beth to talk about her article reporting a Harvard professor’s study about charter schools countering recent reports that charter school students do not perform better than their peers at public schools. Beth read about the professor’s work in the New York Times and decided to interview her. She spoke of the importance of pulling information out of a scholarly report to make it something palatable and understandable to Gazette readers. Beth then talked about an article she wrote about a new course at the ed school because of its importance to the future of education.

Next, Karen began by talking about how some stories she has to cover, like when there’s a new Secretary of Education or president of a university president. Sometimes she reads bits of news and realizes their connections to education, like a report about a woman winning a math prize for the first time opened the door for her to talk about women and math. She also wrote an odd piece about a student who slept in a library for 6 or 8 months because he couldn’t afford a place to live. A friend’s son was in an outdoors program when he started college, so she looked at the trend in higher education and saw how more colleges were doing activities like that to build bonds between new students.

The article of hers in the packet is about enrollment of black men in community colleges. She became interested in the trend when she realized census data of people’s college degrees didn’t really map with college enrollment numbers, so she decided to investigate. She confesses her liking of statistical data, as she talks. The article proved challenging because she wanted to write about black college-age men who weren’t in college, too, and there wasn’t an apparent, easy way to do that. She decided to follow some students during the course of a semester instead of writing a quick piece. She befriended some students during her research, one of whom ended up dropping out. She expresses concern over the lack of space for a larger story. Lots of annecdotes could have filled the paragraphs. After this story ran, Medgar Evers College, the college on which she focused, received some offers for assistance. More places are working on ways to improve the enrollment and retention of male minority students because of that piece.

The moderator asked about whether other media outlets printing a story limits whether someone else can report on it. Beth answers by talking about a number of press releases that cross her desk and how she, like Karen, often doesn’t look at what the release is reporting, but whether there’s another story there. For example, if it’s a release about a student winning a math contest, she might examine what it takes to run a contest instead of just reporting the win.

Anand discussed how sometimes he can find a story when he doesn’t expect to find one. When he looked at valedictorians one year, he realized a large number were Latino, which is a population with a large dropout rate. He reported on these students and received an e-mail from one guy’s friends saying he had cheated. He investigated and the Globe ran a follow-up article about it. He didn’t want to write another article about valedictorians after that, but the next year, he had a great opportunity to write about girls in education because of the valedictorians the next year.

Beth also mentioned that friends who are parents and friends who work in education can be excellent sources. She mentioned how she learned of students with sections very late at night because that’s when they want to meet.

Karen related journalism to academic research by saying she often finds little nuggets, then looks for patterns and tries to string them together. Sometimes, she says her ideas are too early. She wanted to cover early admissions, but her editors turned her down because it wasn’t a big thing at the time. Now, it’s a hot topic. Education reporting can be a public service because of how it can inform people.

Questions:

Q: Karen, would you consider writing a book?
A: A daily paper lets us explore issues with more flexibility than we can in a book, she explains. She also talked about the struggles of writing a book she learned about through some colleagues who published books.

Q: Who reads the education section of papers?
A: Anand guessed families and policymakers read the Globe’s education section. Beth cited some Web site statistics showing a number of readers come from outside of Harvard and the United States. “Different stories, different audiences,” Karen tosses out.

Q: How do you get people who are reluctant to talk to you?
A: “Courtsey goes a long way,” Anand opines. One of his colleagues uses a phrase like “The Boston Globe will come out every day of the rest of your life. How do you want to handle this?” Beth has an easier time getting people to talk because the Gazette is usually such a positive publication. Karen often coaxes reluctant people into talking with her by telling them a story’s not showing them in a good light when it isn’t.

Q: How do they measure success?
A: Learning about some positive outcome from the article’s appearance can be success, Anand answers. Beth mentions the pleasure of realizing that what she’s written is good writing. She also thinks she’s done well when she notices another publication picking up her article. Big journalism awards are a way to get public acknowledgement, but they aren’t the only measure of good journalism, Karen responds.

Q: I missed most of the question, but it must have been something about how many stories the journalists work on at a time.
A: Karen and Anand both work on big picture stories instead of little bits of news. Beth admits being challenged by multitasking, so she usually works on one piece at a time.

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