NYT Joins Education Coverage Arms Race With Zernike Addition

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Last week, news got out that Kate Zernike (@kzernike) is returning to the national desk and to the education beat, where Motoko Rich has been toiling on her own for a while now.

I heard about it first from Patrick Riccards on Twitter, then from several others such as as Jim Rutenberg, who noted “NYT’s Mighty @kzernike To Storm National Education Beat In New Role; Team Christie Breaths Easier; Key Education Players On Tenterhooks.”

Indeed, Sad Chris Christie tweeted “Glad to be shaking off @kzernike at last. Have fun in the schoolyard, Katie!”  She’s also apparently written pieces perceived as critical of Cory Booker. 

It’s not Zernike’s first time covering education, she says: “This is either the 4th or 5th time in my career (I have lost count) that I have come back to covering education.” According to her Wikipedia page, she joined the NYT in 2000 and won an EWA award that year

Nor is it, apparently, the first time that the paper has assigned two national education reporters, though I don’t have any specific recollection of a duo in the past. Maybe others will have better memories?

The paper declined to offer someone for me to interview about the decision, though I was able to obtain the internal announcement email (below), which describes a “newsroom-wide effort to enhance our education coverage” in part by “beef[ing] up our reporting corps on education.”

The move could be seen as part of the surge in education coverage that’s been going on in recent years. The Washington Post currently has two reporters assigned to the national education beat, and NPR and other nonprofit outlets have squadrons of reporters covering the issue (with varying levels of success). Politico, of course. 

Just last week, the LA Times announced a much-expanded education coverage project, featuring nonprofit funding that’s not apparently part of what the NYT is doing. The solo national education reporter seems to be out of fashion right now, though some outlets (USA Today, AP come to mind) seem to be going the other direction.

Zernike has been a metro reporter most recently, though she’s covered education here and there, as in this June piece about Cami Anderson (Schools Chief in Newark Says Debate Lost Its Focus). There’s no word yet on how she and Rich will divvy up the beat, or anything else. Rich tweeted out “The inimitable @kzernike is joining the @nytimes national education team. We — and readers — are super lucky.”

NYT Email: 

A Return to National for Zernike

As many on the national desk know, it is the tenth anniversary of
Hurricane Katrina. About this time a decade ago, Kate Zernike was
living in a dank SUV somewhere on the Gulf Coast covering the first
night of the storm and the subsequent devastation. We are thrilled to
say that she has finally forgiven us for those living quarters and is
returning to the national desk to be a roving education reporter as
part of a newsroom-wide effort to enhance our education coverage. Read
more in this note from Alison Mitchell, Jim Dao and Suzanne Spector.

In her 15 years at The Times, Kate has done almost everything, writing
for Styles, Metro, Sports, National, Washington and Investigations. As
a member of investigations after 9/11, she was part of the team that
won the 2002 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.

She covered the 2002 Winter Olympics, and joined the national desk
later that year to cover lifestyles, trends and social issues, which
came to include the Washington Sniper, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse
scandal, Hurricane Katrina and the Texas woman who ran over her
cheatin’ husband with the Mercedes, as well as the early days of the
meth epidemic.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, she and Jim Rutenberg teamed up
to investigate the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Kate then went on to
cover Congress, the tumultuous midterm election of 2006, Sarah Palin
and the presidential campaign of 2008 and the rise of the Tea Party in
2010, which led to her book, “Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America.”

For the past four years in New Jersey, she has covered tempests
(Hurricane Sandy) and tempestuous political personalities. Here’s what
metro editor, Wendell Jamieson says:

“Kate’s coverage of Gov. Chris Christie has been ultra-aggressive and
game-changing. There were months when she could have been on a talk
show on a different channel every night. The bridge-gate scandal was
only the starting point for Kate to explore how Christie did business,
his personality, and the culture of those who work with him —
explorations that ended up changing how the nation perceived of the
governor. She described his office’s hyper political “moneyball”
tactics and use of 9/11 remnants as gifts in return for endorsements.

But that was hardly all. Kate did great work capturing all the color
and flavor that makes New Jersey one of the most fascinating places in
the country. Sandy and Sandy recovery, fires on the boardwalk, the
state’s refusal to allow people to pump their own gas. Working
directly with her has been a great joy to me, without a dull moment. I
will miss her!”

All of this means that as we beef up our reporting corps on education
Kate will be a natural at bringing us aggressive coverage of
education, teachers’ unions, and the industry that has grown up around
charter schools and testing. It is a beat that will tell us a lot
about what kind of country we are becoming and it will use all of her
prodigious skills as a writer, a digger and a wise chronicler of
politics. It is not her first time at it.

As she put it in a note, “This is either the 4th or 5th time in my
career (I have lost count) that I have come back to covering
education. I do so because I believe there is nothing more important —
it’s those lifestyles, trends and social issues again, but it’s also
the intersection of so many conflicts and special interests, with
hundreds of billions of dollars in public and private money being
spent every year. There’s endless opportunities to explain and
illuminate.”

We are ecstatic to have her back on the national staff.

Alison Mitchell, Jim Dao and Suzanne Spector

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.