This week’s announcement that former Obama Administration education official Jim Shelton (above right) was going to head the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) provides a great example to look at how different outlets covered the announcement — and to think about whether it still makes sense for mainstream media outlets to cover these kinds of “news” events.
As you’ll see, my take is that the same-day coverage was weak and repetitive and that news outlets should try and do much better and/or find other, less duplicative things to do with their scarce time.
The initial stories include some interesting tidbits but often much the same information, and quotes, some of them provided via the press outfit handling the announcement (GMMB):
The NYT version of the story (Zuckerberg hires education leader to run philanthropic effort), penned by Natasha Singer, notes that Shelton joins several Obama refugees like Jay Carney (Amazon), David Plouffe (Uber), as well as Arne Duncan (Emerson Collective), and could represent a new push from Silicon Valley in education.
The EdWeek story (Zuckerberg, Chan Tap James Shelton to Lead Huge Education Giving Effort) includes all the basics, as you’d expect plus some extra details. Shelton was Deputy Secretary in charge of “innovation and improvement” under Arne Duncan for six years before leaving to join 2U. Before that he worked for the Gates Foundation.
Shelton will lead CZI’s education efforts – bringing the nonprofit grantmaking (through Startup:Education) and investments (through Zuckerberg Education Ventures) up under the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Other coverage includes Tech Insider (Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan on education’s future), USA Today (Zuckerberg taps Shelton to run education effort), VentureBeat with the slightly incorrect headline (Zuckerberg taps U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education), SJ Mercury (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan name education head), Forbes (Mark Zuckerberg Makes First Move).
This EdSurge piece (Zuckerberg, Chan Pick Jim Shelton to Run Education Program) by Betsy Corcoran (for whom I’ve freelanced a handful of stories) describes the news as “simultaneously a surprise–and no surprise–to those who know Shelton.”
EdSurge also includes an embed of the Facebook Live video, which brings me to the main point here. The main announcement was made on Facebook Live, a video service that allows users to stream video to viewers live and then archive it for later viewing (see above). See Zuckerberg’s Facebook post on the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and a follow-up Facebook Live event. As of a little while ago, the announcement video had been viewed 3 million times.
So why should newsrooms do much more than share and retweet the video and quotes provided to them by the Facebook team? Is it worth the time and effort to crank out a same-day story that — let’s be honest — most folks are already going to know the basics of before they get to the journalistic version? I’m not so sure.
In the age of social media, distributed publishing, and limited journalistic resources, does it make sense for valuable reporters to spend time getting up to speed and cobbling together stories that resemble each other so closely and lack many key details? I’m increasingly thinking not.
An alternative assignment/coverage strategy would be to hold off on covering what one Boston Globe veteran Walter Robinson recently called “the news they want us to write about” and focus instead on investigative stories.
“Find stories that people in power don’t want you to know,” advised Robinson at EWA 2016. “The more we do of the dailies and the press conferences, the less we can do of the good, investigative work,” he said. “Give them what they can’t get elsewhere.”
That could mean (a) skipping the event entirely or (b) finding out information that the powers that be probably don’t want you to know. Like what? For all the NYT, EdWeek, and other coverage, we still don’t know whether Shelton was their first choice, what latitude he’s been promised, how much he’s going to be paid, or how well he performed at the USDE or at Gates. Was he up for other jobs? How’s he going to approach working for Zuckerberg differently from working for Gates?
Apparently, the handful of reporters who interviewed with Shelton didn’t ask. That’s right. Didn’t ask. (I did, and will let you know if and when I get an answer.)
Another way to go would be to imitate Vox’s now-infamous explainers or MinnPost’s education page, which leaves the breaking news to others in favor of longer. A recent example can be read at Inside Philanthropy, where David Callahan’s piece (The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the New Era of K-12 Philanthropy) uses the Shelton announcement as a news hook to string together some recent events and make the claim that “signs abound that this era of polarization is giving way to a different and more constructive phase in U.S. efforts to boost student achievement.”
It’s more analysis/hot take than straight second-day coverage, but it’s got some of the feel of an explainer, too. And it’s not rushing to provide details that readers already probably have and other journalists have already given.
In an ideal world news outlets would have a beat reporter covering these topics closely, able to anticipate or even break news independently (remember real breaking news, which meant more than “first”?). But the reality is that few outlets these days have anyone dedicated to philanthropy or edtech who’s well-positioned and aggressive enough to write a really useful same-day news piece.
Even outlets like EdWeek and the NYT that have beat reporters covering edtech and philanthropy don’t seem to have the resources or interest in covering announcements like this much beyond the press announcement and some links back to previous coverage.
Some might argue that these aren’t exclusive approaches, that full-service outlets can do both. It’s their call of course, and they know better than anyone else, but my sense is that they might be wrong. Letting a social media person handle the flow of daily tidbits, or joining a wire service like AP or Reuters (or EdWeek, assuming they provide such a service) could be a good way to save resources for internally-driven reporting or deeper analysis. Lots of folks get their news from Facebook and Twitter already.
Spend that time doing something else that isn’t already being provided to readers directly through other (often larger) social media platforms. Report something that we don’t already know, and ideally that someone in power doesn’t want us to know. Then we will really want to read (and possibly even pay) for what you’re writing.