CALIFORNIA WATCH: Emerging nonprofit journalism ventures set sights on education

June 8, 2010
Louis Freedberg

One of the more interesting questions in the burgeoning nonprofit journalism landscape is the extent to which new reporting ventures will focus on one area of coverage, or, like California Watch, will cover a range of topics.

A slew of nonprofit ventures focusing on health and health policy reporting have sprung up in the last few years, mostly underwritten by foundations with a specific interest in health and health policy issues.

The most extensive is Kaiser Health News, underwritten almost entirely by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The Center for Health Reporting at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is getting underway, with support from the California HealthCare FoundationReporting on Health is a new resource established by the California Endowment Health Reporting Fellowships. FairWarning.org, based in Los Angeles, reports on "health, safety and corporate conduct." HealthyCal.org, a website started by former Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub, and underwritten by the California Endowment, is the latest addition to the field.

Now a second generation of topic-specific journalism ventures is emerging – this one focusing on education.  The reason? Just like health, there are numerous local and national foundations which have a major interest in education (and in some cases are entirely focused on it). So it is natural to expect a surge of foundation-supported reporting initiatives in this arena. 

The interest in education reporting reflects a deep concern about the state of education reporting generally. A recent report by the Brookings Institution, "Re-Imagining Education Journalism," described a range of problems afflicting the field, including a decline in the number of education beat reporters, general assignment reporters having to cover education with little knowledge of the field, and education generally not being a high status beat to begin with.

That said, the field of education reporting – and blogging – remains a surprisingly vibrant segment of the media landscape, although increasingly in new forms.

The educatedguess.org is a California-oriented website written by Jon Fensterwald, a former editorial writer at the San Jose Mercury News.  Funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (which also underwrites California Watch's education coverage), the site has quickly become a go-to place for Californians interested in education policy and reform.  Founded in September 2009, it is based at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation and demonstrates the potential of what one person with deep knowledge of education policy issues can accomplish.

Another state venture is EdNewsColorado, run by Alan Gottlieb, who was previously a reporter at the Denver Post and more recently a program officer at the Piton Foundation.  Underwritten by a several Colorado-based foundations, the site describes itself as "the only news service devoted to continuing, in-depth coverage of education policymaking in the (Colorado) legislature and state government and to comprehensive coverage and serious analysis of such issues as school choice, accountability and education reform." Several of its staffers worked at the Denver Post as well as the Rocky Mountain News, which closed its doors in February 2009.

Nationally, the just-launched Hechinger Report focuses on producing in-depth education journalism." It is a project of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teacher's College at Columbia, and name after the late Fred Hechinger, an esteemed education editor and reporter at the New York Times. The Institute, as well as the new Hechinger Report, is directed by Richard Colvin, a former education reporter with deep California roots, who worked at several California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. The project receives support from some of the biggest names in education philanthropy, including the Bill and Melinda Gates, Joyce, Lumina, and MacArthur foundations.

Of course, the big daddy of education reporting is Education Week, a nonprofit organization that describes itself as "American education's newspaper of record." It dwarfs all the newer nonprofit reporting initiatives, especially when it comes to philanthropic support. Education Week receives multimillion-dollar grants from Gates, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and The Wallace Foundation, as well as smaller but still very significant grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and others.

In addition to these more-established ventures, numerous education-oriented blog sites have emerged, many of them staffed by professional journalists. They include the lively  GothamSchools.org, which reports on New York City, and a well-regarded blog site run by former San Jose Mercury columnist Joanne Jacobs.

But as the Brookings report suggests, one of the major challenges for all these organizations, including traditional news organizations trying to cover education with fewer resources, is how to build on each other's strengths, and to collaborate.

"A major focus for those who would improve education coverage should be to build a variety of alliances among education reporters around the country," the report urged.  That has yet to happen to any significant extent.

Now that health and education reporting ventures have gotten some traction, it's possible that other topic-specific ventures will emerge – such as those focusing on the environment, immigration or criminal justice. But education and health are likely to be in the lead for quite a while, as these are high-priority areas for many of the nation's largest foundations, as well as smaller ones with a more-local grantmaking focus.

Over time, we will learn whether a single-issue or multi-issue focus is more effective and sustainable. For now, it is a case of incubating many different approaches and learning from each other's experiences.

After all, learning is at the heart of the education enterprise – and should be a core principle for those of us reporting on it as well.