High Hopes & Expectations For The LA Times’ Massive Education Team

UnnamedLAT

Screengrab of page A2 of today’s LA Times

Today’s the first day of school for LAUSD, the nation’s second-largest school district. It’s also the first day for Education Matters, a new online vertical at the LA Times. Former HuffPost reporter Joy Resmovits is the big new hire, listed as reporter and editor for the new page. Read all about it from the LAT: The Times’ new initiative to help parents, educators and studentsWhere to reach Education Matters.

What’s not entirely clear yet is how the new page is going to be different from what the LAT already has been doing with its regular coverage (and relatively large education team). Is Education Matters going to be a more serious, beefy addition to the paper’s existing coverage, like some sort of in-house ProPublica, or is it going to be a lighter mix of serious and silly things like the HuffPost education page? Is it going to match the ideological tilt of the paper’s previous education coverage, which has at times seemed to me to skew liberal, or come at things from a more conservative angle?

Last but not least, how it will distinguish itself from a now-crowded field of media outlets covering education in LA that includes a beefed-up education team at KPCC LA (local public radio) as well as from the LA Daily News and LA School Report (the niche site I helped launch)? There’s lots to cover in LA schools, but it’s also a crowded field out there. 

Here’s what we know: The existing education team at the paper is already pretty big: Longtime reporter Howard Blume covers LAUSD. Zahira Torres and Teresa Watanabe cover K-12 education more generally. There are some folks banished to higher education — Jason Song among them. Beth Shuster remains the education editor. Other than KPCC’s five-person team, the LA Times’ education team is already the biggest outfit in the area even before adding three new people — and bigger than many education teams at other major outlets. I count 10 people overall. 

According to an internal memo, the new page is “the first of several planned verticals to better organize our work around communities of interest.” It will include “interactive features and databases on topics including test scores and vaccination rates.” Much of the new content will be translated into Spanish. 

According to a published note from LAT publisher Austin Beutner (A renewed emphasis on education), the paper is “rededicating itself to coverage of teaching and learning” by creating “an ongoing, wide-ranging report card on K-12 education in Los Angeles, California and the nation.” 

According to its mission statement, the new effort is intended to “help parents, educators and students across California better understand their schools, to hold those systems accountable, and to inform and entertain with stories, photos, videos and charts about education.”

What does all that mean? Read between the lines and you get the sense that there’s going to be a mix of news coverage, Vox-style explainers, and maybe a bit more multimedia than in the past. While purists might cringe at the idea of “fun stories about education,” it’s not such a bad thing to be entertaining (and it’s obviously where the readers are). Whether that kind of coverage is helping expose serious issues or making a real difference is another question. (Hey, at least it’s not “solutions” journalism, right?)

One person I talked to called this the nonprofit model — focusing on community engagement and live events, and relying on nonprofit funders — being adopted to a for-profit newspaper.

The Times’ communications person, Johanna Maska, tells me that the new effort isn’t going to be at all light and frothy, however.  “I don’t think that’s the case at all,” Maska said on the phone, noting the investigative chops the new hires bring to the paper.  “We’re adding more people to make our coverage more robust and substantive.” (Staffing-wise, Sonali Kohli is another new face at Education Matters, running around today taking pictures and video of kids’ first days back at school. There’s also a new community engagement manager, Daniela Gerson.)

In terms of how it will all work with two education editors in the same newsroom, digital guru S. Mitra Kalita — herself a relatively new arrival at the paper — emailed me to say “We all work together.” Well, that could happen. But a local journalism insider who didn’t want to be named told me that these new verticals at the LA Times are being attached to existing news teams in ways that aren’t entirely clear and are the subject of much confusion and gossip inside the paper. And merging a big team of veterans and a new digital team of ambitious youngs might not be easy under the best of circumstances.

The new effort is being funded by a mix of private foundations including the California Endowment, the Wasserman Foundation and the Baxter Family Foundation, as well as the California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles. These last two nonprofits are apparently passing along funding from The Broad Foundation, though the wording makes it unclear why the money isn’t being given directly.  

The paper has received funding in the past from the Ford Foundation, but any outside funding (whether it comes from advertisers or foundations) can raise questions about agendas and firewalls. Beutner includes the standard disclaimer about editorial independence in his note. While the Huffington Post skewed left ideologically, and the education page sometimes reflected a progressive sensibility, Resmovits’ coverage has almost always seemed to me to be pretty centrist — as do these new funders. 

The good news is that, long with her experience at the HuffPost and her strong Twitter presence, what Resmovits brings to the endeavor is a national perspective and reputation — a key attribute when it comes to getting LAUSD coverage into the national conversation.  

Even in recent years when LAUSD was getting covered locally — by the LAT, LA School Report, and LADN, among others — the stories rarely made it into the broader narrative in any consistent way. You may know about the iPad scandal or the conflicts between former Superintendent John Deasy and the UTLA, but you probably don’t know that the district has led the way in rethinking student discipline, for example, or that there are an enormous amount of charters in LA but the variation in approaches (and student demographics) seems much greater than in other big cities, or that LAUSD still has an elected school board.  Even the conflict-laden local school board races got little consistent national attention this past spring (National Media Outlets AWOL on Big LA School Board Elections).

Kalita seems to take national attention as a given, according to quotes attributed to her in EdWeek. “We have the country’s second largest school district in LA. So I am not too worried about our good work resonating widely.”

Another hopeful possibility is that Education Matters takes up the daily coverage of board meetings and press events that Blume and Watanabe and others have been forced to handle in the past, freeing them up for deeper dives into why LAUSD remains so dysfunctional. That’s a version of what seems to have happened in Seattle, where the Seattle Times used Gates Foundation funding to add a new reporter and freed up its veteran for deeper pieces. We haven’t seen a big, powerful piece from the LA Times education team since, well, 2010.

“The Times has rededicated itself to education coverage and good deeds before, most notably with the Reading By Nine program in the 1990s,” according to LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick. “But this time looks different in a couple of key ways.” In an argument I’m not sure I follow or agree with, Roderick cites the publisher’s personal interest in education and the financial contributions of outside foundations and nonprofits. (Plus which, he leaves out School Me!, the Bob Sipchen-run education vertical from the 2000s that I admired greatly.)

But of course it’s still too early to tell. We’re all seeing a bit of what we want to see, or worry about. Crossed fingers the end result is something really good. With this amount of talent and resources, expectations are understandably high.

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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.