Low-Key Reporter Thrives In High-Pressure NYC Environment

How one education reporter manages to stay unbiased.

NY Daily News education reporter Ben Chapman (above second from the right) is disconcertingly pleasant and seems awfully well-adjusted compared to the stereotypical NYC journalist.

Maybe it’s the background in travel writing that keeps him calm, or coming from the West Coast. (His Twitter bio reads in part “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.“)  Perhaps he was just having a good day when we spoke last week.

Either way, he’s been covering NYC education for more than six years now — a pretty long time for the fast-paced NYC journalism world — penning 5-7 pieces a week. According to his Daily News biography, Chapman has written more than 2,000 articles about NYC schools since 2009.

The Daily News is “other” NYC tabloid (the one that’s not owned by Rupert Murdoch), competing with bigger and more established outlets to cover the city’s 1800-school system. According to Chapman, the Daily News is “the paper of the working people in NYC,” taking a more liberal perspective than the Post, and fewer negative stories.

“We are commonly confused with each other because we’re both tabloids,” said Chapman. “Both present stories in a flashy, splashy manner.”

Certainly, covering NYC’s $24 billion a year, 1.1 million-kid school system is not for the faint-hearted. “There are a lot of tough issues,” said Chapman during a recent phone interview. “It’s intense to jump into that.” And it wasn’t easy from the start. “It was a difficult assignment at first,” admitted Chapman. ”Schools are very technical [as a beat], and it’s a very complicated system.”

Winning trust and access from kids and parents, in addition to teachers and administrators, is no easy feat. But there’s no other way, according to Chapman. “My job is to bring attention on the areas of school system that need most attention.”

Chapman claims to take the middle road when covering NYC schools. “In my own reporting, of course I always strive to be unbiased and give full fair treatment to whomever I’m covering,” he said. But he admits he’s “a big fan” of effective charter schools, and finds plenty of positive and negative stories to cover about all kinds of schools. “I’m not on a crusade.”

Anyway, the charter/traditional school debate is missing the point, according to Chapman. “The reality for life in the city is more complicated than a simple charter school bad district school good or vice versa. Families just want good options.”

By his own account, he’s known for a recent series on the costs and challenges of teachers who’ve been removed from their classrooms.  He won a New York State Associated Press Association award for beat reporter in 2014, based in part on his coverage of Chancellor Farina’s plan to remove more than a dozen district superintendents, the phasing out of the Bloomberg-era cell phone ban, and the demise of the computerized tracking system.

Last year, he worked on an inequality series that ran to 36 pages in six installments, culminating in two town hall meetings with the Chancellor and community leaders — following other news outlets experimenting with events of various kinds. Chapman and others at the Daily News created an awards program for teachers that’s now in its fourth year. Roughly 30 profiles are run during the year, and there’s an annual breakfast event. Last year, the Mayor attended.

Working in tight quarters with journalists from competing newsrooms like WNYC, NY1, the NYT, WSJ, and Politico New York isn’t particularly Darwinian, according to Chapman. “I personally feel competitive with them in a friendly way,” he said. “There’s a great sort of group of reporters who cover the schools here. All of us feel that way, all focused on doing the best journalism we can.”

There is occasional confusion or disagreement among the education corps covering NYC schools, noted Chapman, such as recent coverage of the departure of the principal at Boys and Girls High School.  The NYT, WSJ, DNA Info, and the NY Post all covered it.  “Maybe that’s an instance where some of the coverage of the story wasn’t helpful,” said Chapman. “As education reporters, we’re covering families and communities, so we have to be as careful as possible in our coverage.”

Asked about allegations of bias by education reporters, Chapman said “I don’t feel like the reporters are particularly biased one way or the other.” However, it’s enormously challenging to find observers and experts to talk to who aren’t biased in some way. “Everybody is getting paid by the unions or the charter schools, so it feels like it’s really hard to find somebody who’s straight down the middle.”

By and large, his work has seemed solid and I haven’t received any complaints. Chapman is one of too few education reporters who’s covered both union spending in addition to reform group spending on political campaigns (Unions Have Lobbyists, Law Firms, & PACs Too). (Covering just one side’s spending is a common occurrence in education reporting – and a big peeve of mine.) But he was also there when the Daily News joined other NYC outlets in publishing teachers’ performance scores, which was extremely objectionable to many teachers. And the Daily News editorial page is known for being strong in its support for charter schools, another contentious issue.

Chapman seems unaffected by the criticism he’s received, and even more appreciative of the nuances and subtleties involved in education now that he and his wife are parents. That’s Chapman below, with son Dion. Credit Brooke Vermillion.

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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.