You Might Not Believe It, But Five Years Ago The Hechinger Report Was An Uncertain Prospect*

It’s hard to get very far these days without running into a story written by the Hechinger Report. The nonprofit outlet based at Columbia University’s Teacher College seems to produce an enormous amount of coverage each week, which has resulted in several award-winning pieces. Its liberal content-sharing policy means that its stories appear in all sorts of different outlets (including The Washington Monthly).

So it’s worth noting that when the Hechinger Report launched five years ago this week, there was no guarantee the effort to create a new national nonprofit education reporting outlet was going to work.

Based at Columbia University’s education school rather than its journalism program, the Hechinger Institute had for many years before 2010 conducted training for education journalists on issues of policy and practice. Its efforts at that time mirrored the seminars and conferences held by the Education Writers Association so much that there were occasional calls (including mine) for the two organizations to merge.

The task of turning the Institute into a news outlet was initially honchoed by longtime LA Times education reporter Richard Colvin, who arrived in 2002 and took over in 2003.* But it wasn’t clear that the world wanted or needed another news outlet, given the presence of Education Week and all the other trade publications covering education, or how a tiny nonprofit could build up a news reporting operation with a substantial reach. The effort was further thrown into doubt when, the following winter, Colvin moved to DC to head the Education Sector think tank, forcing Columbia to find a new head (Liz Willen, who’s still there).

But the model of foundation-supported nonprofit journalism shared with other larger outlets has proven to be a powerful one, and by all accounts Willen is a prodigious fundraiser and talent scout. Early on, the Report’s work was published in The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, US News & World Report, and Education Week, as well as on its own site. By the time Colvin left, the Report claimed to have been featured in 120 different media outlets. Since then, Hechinger stories have run in nearly every other outlet you can think of, including USA Today, the Miami Herald, McClatchy, the American Prospect. For a current list of publishing partners, look here.

Not everything has gone smoothly or continues to the present day. One strategy that seems to have been dropped is covering the costs of other news outlets to do their own investigative work. That experiment included a controversial series from the LA Times in which the paper listed individual teachers’ classroom performance ratings. The series was a big hit in terms of attracting readers, as highlighted in this 2011 Nieman Lab writeup. But not everyone, including Colvin, was enthused about the end result. Collaborations with the New York Times like this one from 2010 also seem to have ended some time ago.

And five years later, Hechinger isn’t the new kid on the block anymore. Far from it. Politico has an education vertical. The Atlantic has an education page. NPR has expanded its education coverage. The Chalkbeat network of education sites includes New York, Tennessee, Colorado, and Indiana. The Los Angeles public radio station KPCC has expanded its coverage of education, and EdSource claims to be the largest education news outlet in the state. A recent article in Education Next described these as the “new breed” of education news outlets.

I have had occasional concerns about the coverage that the Report has produced or subsidized, and have expressed mixed feelings abut the overall impact of the journalism that Hechinger produces, but there’s no doubt that the transition from the Hechinger Institute to the Hechinger Report has been an enormously successful one in terms of growth, reach, and size — or that the reporters and editors there are an enormously talented and hard-working bunch.

It’s an impressive accomplishment, what’s taken place since May 2010, and for that alone: All Hail Hechinger.

Disclosures: I have written about and pitched stories to the Hechinger Report over the years, attended some of their training seminars back in the day, and was invited to their Holiday party one year (it was fun!). Former head Colvin is an advisor to this blog (though I didn’t interview him for this story).

*The original version of this post had Colvin arriving in 2009. The corrected version has him arriving in 2002 and taking over as head in 2003.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.