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Higher Ed Journalism: New Realities

How media coverage has evolved--and how campus administrators should respond
University Business, Aug 2008

ONLY A FEW YEARS AGO, all of the higher education media were published weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Many, such as University Business, Change, Education Week, and various newsletters and magazines published by higher education associations and consulting firms, still are available on a periodic basis in printed form.

Inside Higher Education, the daily online higher education newsletter, however, fundamentally changed the nature of higher education media through the immediacy of its coverage, as well as the broad range of subjects that engage faculty respondents. The Chronicle of Higher Education also has increased its own presence online with twice-daily news reports and continuously updated late-breaking news on its website.

A degree of competition has been introduced into what gets reported and who reports it first.

It is important to recall that for many years The Chronicle dominated how and what officials of higher education organizations and deans, vice presidents, presidents, and faculty members in colleges and universities learned about new developments in higher education. When Inside Higher Education launched its website and daily e-mail news summaries in 2004, a degree of competition was introduced into what gets reported, who reports it first, and what editorial stance is taken.

One positive result of this rivalry is that readers now have a choice of news outlets. A second is that both of the daily news outlets now cover programs and events that received slim coverage in years past, such as the substance of presentations at higher education conferences. Still another good result is that readers can find higher education news almost the moment it occurs.

A more troubling development in the higher education press is the move from solely reporting the news to occasionally creating the news that's reported. For example, The Chronicle now organizes a conference, the Chronicle Executive Leadership Forum. For several days in early June of this year, the publication was dominated by accounts from its own conference, whose sessions duplicated those offered by the consortia of colleges and higher ed associations that have for years served administrators in just these collective ways.

Growing public skepticism about higher education, reported widely in the media, has changed the journalistic styles of The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, University Business, USA Today, and other mainstream media. When legislators or federal officials know they can score easy points with constituents by issuing broadsides on matters of higher education policy, these politicians do half of the journalists' work for them. The education press has been criticized for not being very interested in publicizing serious and significant achievements of individual institutions, consortia, or whole sectors of higher education unless these achievements reverberate in larger policy circles.

For example, Harvard started giving low-income students no-loan financial aid packages several years ago, a development that should have been treated then as an important news story, but only when Harvard sweetened packages for middle-class students this year, in apparent efforts to mollify Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), did the practice get covered extensively.

The problem with too heavy a policy orientation in higher education journalism is that "policy" is difficult to separate from politics and ideology. Much of the recent reporting by the education trade press on accountability, for instance, has been couched in terms of whether or not the U.S. Department of Education favors whatever development is being reported. In an earlier day, a college's outstanding innovations in assessment or an initiative of an accrediting body would have stood on its own as a story or been treated at least as prominently as the political dimension of the issue.

It's tempting when a reporter faces constraints of space and time to reduce a story to the formula of a controversy between, say, faculty and administration or elite versus underdog institutions, rather than providing a fuller background.

Some of the biggest challenges in today's higher education reporting are economic. Many daily newspapers are reducing their already small higher ed reporting staffs. Also, long-time and well-respected higher education journalists--specifically at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal--have recently left their posts through resignations, reassignments, or buyouts.

Colleges should renew efforts to help reporters learn about campus developments.

The remaining education journalists are often responsible for covering not only higher ed but also K-12 education. Both areas are complex and require depth of knowledge for effective reporting. The higher education journalist's typical workload is enormous.

How should colleges and universities and those organizations that serve them respond to the changed environment for higher education journalism? The easy answer is to try to ride the trends, good and bad, in the hope of obtaining coverage. More productive, however, would be renewed efforts by colleges to help reporters learn about campus developments--by making available to reporters not only occasional press releases but also school newspapers, alumni magazines, and possibly the president's blog.

Another approach is the one championed by the Hechinger Institute of Columbia University and the Education Writers Association, both of which work with reporters to help them deepen their higher education coverage.

Still another attractive strategy is to strengthen the liberal arts components of journalism degree programs at colleges and universities. As higher education continues to rise as a topic of public interest, we need to be sure that there are more journalists who will present its multiple dimensions.

Even if simplification is a natural by-product of increased competition and the loss of seasoned reporters, the media should resist the temptation to oversimplify. And colleges and universities and their membership organizations need to insist on media coverage that is complete, balanced, free of ideology, and as nuanced and varied as higher education itself is.

Richard Ekman is president of The Council of Independent Colleges,

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