The news that Lynn Olson, Education Week’s senior correspondent, is decamping to the Gates Foundation after more than two decades of writing thoughful trend pieces and news analyses reflects a disquiting trend in American education: the number of experienced journalists writing about schools and colleges for national newspapers and magazines is reaching a disturbingly low level.
Peg Tyre, who has covered the beat for seven years at Newsweek is leaving the magazine at the end of the month under a buy-out program that’s going to leave the newsmagazine with over 100 fewer staffers. Claudia Wallis, who has written many of Time‘s education covers, has left the magazine. Ben Wildavsky departed U.S. News a few years ago for the Kauffman Foundation. And The New York Times has reportedly spiked its regular Wednesday education coverage.
Such cuts are part and parcel of the financial woes inflicted on print media by the advent of Internet advertising. But the collateral damage to education journalism is substantial. There are today very few journalists with the knowledge and experience to write authoritatively for national, non-specialist audiences. There’s been a proliferation of education bloggers ready to share their opinions (yes, I’m writing this on a blog). But smart, analytic long-form writing on education’s big themes, the sort of work that Lynn did for a long time from her independent perch at Education Week, is becoming harder and harder to find. As Eric Alterman wrote recently in The New Yorker about journalism generally in the Internet era: “We are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation [via blogging], but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism.”
The news industry’s economic woes eventually may sort themselves out. Until then, we need to find new ways to support the production of first-rate writing about education in national general-interest publications. Several foundations have taken steps in that direction by funding a new “public editor” position at the Education Writers Association and education fellowships at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. But we need to do much more if want to elevate education to the status it deserves in the national public policy conversation.