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July 27, 2015, 11 a.m.
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Can Campbell Brown’s education news site walk the advocacy–journalism tightrope?

The new venture, cofounded by the former CNN and NBC News anchor, is not ashamed about having an agenda. One key part of its toolkit: using video to create a “Waiting for Superman”-like impact on the discussion around education.

The newcomer to education news outlets has a not-so-new name attached to it: Campbell Brown, veteran television reporter and former CNN and NBC News anchor, who has in recent years taken on the role of education reform advocate. So far, her celebrity, and her record, have been a mixed blessing as the site looks to expand into a crowded field.

The Seventy Four takes its name from the 74 million kids in the U.S. (the actual number of school-aged kids is lower, but the site’s logic for its name is that educational inequality starts at birth). The mission: to “challenge the status quo, expose corruption and inequality, and champion the heroes who bring positive change to our schools,” publishing stories “backed by investigation, expertise, and experience.”

“To further that mission, it is our responsibility to challenge the status quo, scrutinize the entrenched interests, and expose corruption and inequality,” Brown told me in an email. “In doing so, taking sides and highlighting what is working and what is not working is necessary and something we will not shy away from.”

An opinion piece Brown wrote for the site’s launch explains that The Seventy Four is both advocacy and journalism, a claim that has fired up longtime critics like education analyst and historian Diane Ravitch and journalists who doubt that balanced reporting is possible coming from a site helmed by a broadcast journalist with highly public views on teachers’ unions (nay) and charter schools (yea).

“Campbell has been an incredible advocate, but Campbell and the site are two different things,” The Seventy Four cofounder and CEO Romy Drucker said. “Her voice will be featured on the site, but that doesn’t mean that her opinion is the site’s point of view.” (Day-to-day editorial operations are overseen by editorial director Steve Snyder, formerly of Time and People, though Brown is listed as the site’s editor-in-chief.)

The Seventy Four -- homepage

Brown has said that news consumers don’t believe journalists are completely objective anyway, so why not be open about having a bias? But at least one person is crying foul about lack of transparency: An education reporter who claims to have interviewed for a potential job at The Seventy Four was allegedly told that the newsroom would avoid critical investigations of charter schools, leaving that coverage to daily news people who would only write quick hits. (In a statement, The Seventy Four said it “will follow every story wherever it takes them” and “any suggestion to the contrary is patently incorrect.”)

About a week after launch, The Seventy Four has published a handful of newsy, fairly straightforward pieces covering the No Child Left Behind rewrite and the opt-out movement. Explainers make an appearance, in the form of “flashcards” on bullying and charter schools. There are pieces in an ongoing “inspiring” series profiling positive developments in the world of education, like the 300 central Illinois students who lined up to get their yearbooks signed by a beloved school janitor. And several opinion pieces are posted alongside Brown’s, including one by former Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker Haynes on why the next president needs to make education reform a top priority and one about the disparity in quality between charter schools.

“We’re looking to strike a balance between semi-daily reported opinion pieces from our corps of regular columnists, and then outside op-eds from professionals in the field, thought leaders, policymakers, and education experts,” Snyder said. “As for the latter, we welcome pitches from those with an area of expertise who are serious about having a constructive dialogue about the education policies, practices, and challenges shaping the nation’s classrooms.”

The site is visually striking, with colorful headings and fun graphics. There are “scorecards” for the 2016 presidential candidates, listing each candidate’s stances on issues like the Common Core, No Child Left Behind, and higher education. In a noticeable nod to impartiality, though, the candidates aren’t given actual scores.

The Seventy Four's baseball scorecard for Scott Walker.

hillary-clinton-scorecard-the74

Brown and cofounder Drucker (who worked with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg on education reform) anticipate pushback from the same people who opposed Brown’s (somewhat litigious) earlier advocacy work. They emphasized to me that The Seventy Four is nonpartisan and will allow room for debate and disagreement (though clearly not on every issue). Of course, the site has an agenda, they say — and that agenda is better education for millions of kids.

Some are skeptical of the “there aren’t always two sides” approach.

“Any site that wants to be taken seriously as a legitimate source of education news needs to be transparent about its funding, its mission, and needs to show through its choice of stories, and its thorough, evidence-based reporting that it can be trusted,” education reporter and Columbia University journalism professor LyNell Hancock said in Education Week. “Campbell Brown has an uphill battle on her hands to prove that this will be a source of independent news, as she’s claiming.”

The Seventy Four, which has a budget of $4 million, runs no advertising and is entirely philanthropically funded. Its supporters include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, The Karsh Family Foundation, and others — a few of which are known to have been major backers of charter schools. (To be fair, many other education reporting sites also rely on foundation support, often from foundations with strong opinions about education policy.)

One of the site’s goals is to bring attention to education reform during the 2016 presidential campaign, and Brown has hit the print and television media circuits hard to do so. The site plans to host forums for both the Republican and Democratic parties, with Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Carly Fiorina signed up to participate in August’s Republican forum in New Hampshire. The Democratic forum in Iowa in October hasn’t been fully set yet, but Maggie Haberman of The New York Times and others note that Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, whose president Randi Weingarten has been publicly at odds with Brown for years.

“Any attention to stories on education is a good thing,” said Elizabeth Green, cofounder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of the nonprofit education news site Chalkbeat. “There’ve been a lot of these new efforts, and we hope they all succeed.”

At the national level, there are other nonprofit outlets like Education Week and The Hechinger Report, which has found success partnering with other news outlets to expand its audience. (Disclosure: Lab director Joshua Benton, a former education reporter, sits on Hechinger’s board.) And the philanthropically funded Education Post launched last fall in hopes of encouraging a more “respectful” discussion of education issues and potential solutions.

Green sees The Seventy Four’s advocacy journalism as a simply a different approach to writing about education and wasn’t ready to characterize it as either effective or harmful. But she was clear it’s different from Chalkbeat’s own model and mission. “Obviously, we’ve chosen journalism that’s not advocacy, and we think that distinction is very important,” she said. “We don’t think it’s our place as journalists to recommend; it’s our place to tell an accurate story of what’s going on. A story can miss the substance when people get caught up in a fight over politics that doesn’t draw attention to implications for students on the ground. That’s our point of view: We need more from true, on-the-ground sources.”

The Seventy Four is betting that on-the-ground video will be one of its keys to success. Video director Jim Fields previously led the video effort at Time and is a documentary filmmaker and producer. The site currently lists a staff of 13 — with two dedicated video journalists already on board — and will be offering more compelling video once school starts in the fall, the team assures me.

“The education journalism world is busy and well occupied, and it’s mostly print, mostly wonky, idealistic,” longtime education writer Alexander Russo told me. Russo runs The Grade, a site that critiques education coverage in the media. But “schools can be really dramatic and intense places,” which makes for good video footage that can tug at heartstrings and attract unexpected audiences.

The 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, Russo said, is an example of how compelling video can bring education issues to the fore, regardless of whether you agree with the film’s criticisms of the American public education system. (Drucker and Green both also pointed to Waiting for Superman as a film that successfully reframed the narrative on education and turned non-educators into activists.)

“If [The Seventy Four] can do that kind of Vice, Al Jazeera, can’t-look-away video — and I think that’s at least part of what they’re trying to do — that theoretically changes everything,” Russo said. “Video is really powerful, and the rest of the world seems to have gone to video, but there’s still a strange lag in education journalism.”

“Part of what we’re trying to do is break through and make this issue exciting and tangible for people,” Drucker said. “In our mission statement, we’re very clear that we believe the system is broken, and we have journalists and contributors who have very different ideas about what’s broken and how to fix it. We really will be incorporating lots of different perspectives.”

POSTED     July 27, 2015, 11 a.m.
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