Turning Points For Big-City Education Journalism (But Nothing For DC)

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It’s a reel-to-reel tape recorder, but a portable one.

Two of the longest-running independent education publications out there — Chicago’s Catalyst and Philadelphia’s The Notebook — are both facing big turning points this winter, with the planned departure of their top staffers and open questions about long-term funding. A third city — the District of Columbia — somehow still lacks a dedicated, journalistically independent news site.

Between the two long-running looking for new heads, Philly’s Notebook sounds closer to naming someone. According to The Notebook’s Paul Socolar, “We’re still expecting to announce a new publisher/executive director early in the year (which means not too long now).” The site raised $60,000 for investigative journalism this past Fall, he says. 

According to Catalyst founder and publisher Linda Lenz, “We’re getting there. The search committee and the executive director of Community Renewal Society [the fiscal agent for Catalyst] have conducted one set of interviews with the finalists and will conduct another one in early February.”

Neither of the two sites seems like it’s going to merge with another organization or outlet anytime soon, though some funders and outside observers have raised the issue in the past.

Asked about the pros and cons of some sort of merger with another nonprofit media outfit — a local public radio station, watchdog organization, etc. — or about joining an existing network like Chalkbeat, Socolar writes “We have a robust partnership with WHYY that goes back to 2010. We share content and coordinate our coverage, often crediting each other on our stories… We’ve also secured a number of grants for our partnership, most recently a grant from the William Penn Foundation to jointly look at school funding in 2016.” The Notebook is “not currently engaged in any explorations of merger with WHYY or other current or past partners,” according to Socolar. He’s not ruling it out in the future, however.

According to Catalyst’s Lenz, “Elizabeth [Green, co-founder of Chalkbeat] and I have chatted on and off about doing something together, be it merger, partnership, whatever. It would take a deeper exploration to say what the pluses and minuses would be. …and we have been pretty busy to think about that now.” Lenz notes that Catalyst is coming off “a hugely successful 25th anniversary year” including real-world issue forums and Classroom Story Slams, web metrics are up 25 percent, and additional funding. 

The two departing chiefs make a compelling case for staying independent, but at the same time it’s not clear if they have the resources or the reach to make their work really hit hard. (As you may remember, Catalyst Chicago broke the $20 million SUPES story that led to Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s departure nearly two years before anyone else started paying attention. That might have been harder to do if the site was part of a larger, more aggressive organization.) I’ve been told by a local foundation program officer that that Catalyst and local NPR station WBEZ were at one point close to some sort of merger that would have kept the Catalyst branding. (Lenz describes these as “serious conversations” but nothing more.)

Meanwhile, Washington DC mysteriously continues to lack an equivalent hyper-focused independent news source for education coverage. WAMU’s Kavitha Cardoza and the Washington Post’s Michael Chandler cover DC schools. There’s a site called Greater Education. At one point back in the Michelle Rhee era, the Washington Post ran a blog specifically about DCPS, staffed largely by Bill Turque.  But that seems to be long gone. There are a few blogs (Washington DC Public School BlogDC School Hub, and The DC Education Blog) but none of them seems to be independent, robust, and journalistic.

This seems notable given how many other big-city school systems — Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles — have some sort of dedicated newsgathering operation watching over their progress and struggles. 

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.