Public Radio’s Fertig Thinks Differently About Education Reporting — & It Shows

Beth2015headshot

As she recently noted on Facebook, education reporter Beth Fertig (above) just celebrated 20 years at WNYC, the local NPR affiliate covering the NYC metro area:

“Twenty years ago today, after the constriction of print media and a difficult journey in the freelance desert, I was officially hired as a reporter by WNYC Radio… Who knew that volunteering for a public radio show in Boston, when I couldn’t get another newspaper gig after the ’91 recession, would turn out to be such a smart career decision?”

For that longevity, it wasn’t until relatively recently  — 2009 — that Fertig (@bethfertig) became a fulltime education reporter.  By some measures, then, she’s still practically new to the beat.

But her time spent covering politics, transportation, and not to mention 9/11 shows through in much of her education coverage.  And she produced some pretty impressive work well before she was on the beat full-time.

Fourteen years after the fact, one of Fertig’s first big education stories seems particularly relevant to the present: It was the 2001 battle between Rudy Giuliani’s City Hall and others (including ACORN) over how to fix struggling schools. Only five schools were involved, but it became an “all-out political battle” that included rallies, robocalls, door-knocking campaigns, bus trips, and all the rest. Winning approval [to let Edison run the struggling schools] required a majority vote from parents. Each side promised or threatened as much as possible. 

Sound familiar to today’s battles over choice, privatization, and the parent trigger? It’s pretty eerie.

That series of pieces — here courtesy of WNYC — went on to win a duPont-Columbia award for the station. The commendation notes that the series demonstrates “strong, active writing and radio production” and that Fertig “lets all of the constituencies speak for themselves” as she reports on the interplay of teachers, minority parents, school officials and Edison’s public relations campaign. 

Indeed, interviewing Fertig last week and revisiting some of her work, I am reminded  how much there is to admire. I don’t recall having a major issue with any of Fertig’s coverage (which is saying a lot for someone like me), and I’ve rarely had cause to criticize WNYC’s education pieces. Take for example Fertig’s coverage of one Chelsea school’s turnaround efforts in The Big Fix, a series I praised for giving readers a sense of “real people making hard decisions and doing difficult work.”The only instance I can think of is this 2014 piece about FFES by Robert Lewis (who was working out of field). 

One reason for the excellence of her work may be that Fertig and her colleagues do their best to get in a classroom or community and watch how things are playing out in real life rather than at press conferences or media events. She and others at the station are trying to make sure to try and find new, diverse sources to talk to and share nuanced perspectives. “We alway want to get the grey areas,” says Fertig.

Fertig’s not particularly worried about foundation funding for reporting, at least not when it comes to WNYC — and finds the claims that she’s being guided by funders’ interests mysterious and frustrating. “I have no conversations with the grant and underwriting people. I don’t even know who’s funding our work.”

She says she’s excited about education journalism over all. “I think this is a really good time. There is so much discussion nationally around standards. People are engaged, they want to talk about it and learn about it.” This summer and fall, she predicts that we’ll see stories about summer school, test score results, and turnaround efforts under de Blasio. School people seem a bit less concerned about letting reporters into their buildings, she says — or maybe she’s just gotten better at reassuring them she’s going to tell a balanced story.

She’s got a long list of education journalists whose work she admires, including Sam Freedman (Small Victories), Ira Glass (Harper High), Claudio Sanchez (“able to tell complicated stories in a very accessible way and humanize them”), the team at Chalkbeat (“for being so dedicated to following all the twists and turns in the New York City public school system”), Ann Fadiman (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down), David Isay’s Radio diaries series about the boys in Chicago (“a major inspiration”), and the Radio Rookies team at WNYC (“I’ve learned so much about interviewing kids from them”)

But one of her strengths may be that she’s still not sure she considers herself an education reporter. “I just think of myself as a journalist who tells stories about New Yorkers who happen to be involved in these places called schools and how the government deals with their challenges.” 

For someone who might not consider herself solely an education reporter, she still sounds pretty excited about the topic. “It’s the most fun beat in the city, I think,” she says — no matter that, as she says she’s frequently asked, she doesn’t have children herself.

“I see it as  my job to explain all our listeners in the metro area (and country when I’m on NPR) why we should care about what’s going on in our schools, since we fund them and these are the adults of the future.

“So whenever a friend without kids tells me ‘you made me really interested in that school situation’ I feel like that’s the ultimate compliment.”

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.