Bridging the Great Divide

As newsrooms contract and already inadequate higher education coverage decreases, faculty members should be working closely with those who remain—and the “new journalists” who are taking over.
By Jon Marcus

I was in a ballroom in Chicago when it hit me. I was sitting on a panel at that moment with some fellow journalists who cover higher education at a conference of the public-relations types who promote it.

How could they get better press? the university PR people asked us. How could they rein in the news of spiraling tuition, worrisome graduation rates, and dubious administration salaries, all in an era of fewer resources?

We shrugged. There are so few of us, we answered. Newspaper staffs and circulations are evaporating. There’s no time. No travel budgets. Too little space to tell day-to-day stories, to say nothing of interpretive and investigative pieces.

That was when I had my revelation: we’re much the same.

The New Journalism

Conventional journalism, like higher education, has been challenged by new high-tech methods of delivery, among many other things. Money’s tight; public skepticism, high. But the new journalism, also much like higher education, is more complicated than it seems. Journalism isn’t going away. It’s changing.

With notable exceptions, the higher education beat was never particularly well covered. Now there are even fewer journalists to do it, with less space to do it in, and much, much less time. Nearly twenty thousand newsroom jobs have been eliminated in the last ten years—more than a third of the total—according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

At another conference in Chicago—this time of the nation’s higher education writers, convened at the end of 2009 by the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University’s Teachers College—I was surprised there were so many left. But I also quickly came to learn that many of those writers also cover K–12 and even health care. That’s a lot to balance. At about two-thirds of American newspapers, and at almost all papers with circulations under fifty thousand, the higher education beat was being covered only part time by reporters who have other obligations, an Education Writers Association survey found as early as 2006.

As newspapers realize that readers respond to local news—something the Internet has so far not found an effective way to give them—higher education coverage has rebounded, but only in the sense that those few overburdened journalists who still have jobs are compelled to write more stories, often superficial, about more local campuses, in addition to juggling their other beats. This spreads them even more thinly.

Eighty percent of higher education journalists surveyed by the Education Writers Association said they cover three or more institutions, two-thirds handle five to twelve, and 15 percent watch thirteen or more. Some at large papers cover more than thirty institutions apiece. One journalist in New Jersey is responsible for fifty-seven, leaving little or no time for in-depth or informed reporting.

Journalists want to do more in-depth and investigative reporting about such things as budget, endowments, tuition, student loans, and academic issues—retention, mainly—according to the Education Writers Association survey. But 87 percent said they simply don’t have time.

This doesn’t mean newspapers have become irrelevant. Not yet, anyway. Eighty percent of the links on blogs and social-media sites return their users to the so-called legacy media, the Pew Research Center reported last year. Newspapers may have plummeting circulation, but they’re still a principal source of information.

A moral? When reporters call you, call them back. Time is an increasingly precious commodity to journalists. Even publications that specialize in higher education have become vastly more time-sensitive, a shift propelled largely by the online daily Inside Higher Ed. The weekly Chronicle of Higher Education now also comes out every day online and is updated constantly when news breaks. Another moral? Call them back today.

Without time, there’s no question: journalists don’t dig as deeply as they should. Sometimes that works to universities’ advantage. When the American Council on Education launched campaigns to convince parents that they could still afford to send their kids to college—by, among other things, taking advantage of existing financial aid that increasingly consists of loans and not grants—few journalists had time to ask what schools were doing to lower the price in the first place. (Not much, as it turned out.) As tuition continues to increase far faster than inflation, time-starved journalists at even the most prestigious publications repeat universities’ insistence that the rate of growth is slowing. Of course it is; as the base amount swells, the percentage increase falls. (University administrators apparently assume that journalists learned precious little in math class.)

When the AAUP announced in 2008 that faculty salaries had failed to keep up with inflation, most journalists bought that, too, even though, while technically true, it was potentially misleading. Full, associate, and assistant professors all got raises at or above the inflation rate. Only when instructors and lecturers were added did the average annual increase fall to 3.8 percent, compared with an inflation rate of 4.1 percent.

Telling the Story

A bright spot in higher education journalism is on business pages and in magazines like Bloomberg BusinessWeek, where higher education is being covered more aggressively. Higher education is, after all, a business, among other things—a realization hastened by the success of private, for-profit institutions (whose recent best-defense-is-a-good-offense public relations are state of the art). Some foundationsupported news organizations also are laboring to pick up where conventional media have left off. ProPublica conducts the sort of investigative journalism newspapers can no longer afford, Kaiser Health News covers health care, and Global Post reports international news in a world in which most newspapers have closed their foreign bureaus. Foundations have invested some $141 million in such efforts in the last four years, according to J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism.

There’s a nonprofit organization that covers higher education, too, hiring journalists (including me) to write stories that are placed in partner publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, U.S. News & World Report, and Washington Monthly. The Hechinger Report, named for the respected late New York Times education editor Fred Hechinger, is based at Teachers College at Columbia University and underwritten by the Lumina, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Joyce Foundations, among others.

Foundations pay for journalism in part because they recognize its importance in democracies. They pay for higher education coverage because it’s crucial to their goals of increasing student access and retention. They do so not only because people need to know what higher education does right but also because there are some things it isn’t doing very well at all. Its economic model may not be sustainable. Its governing boards are often rubber stamps. Its graduation rates, on average, are too low. Its costs are much too high. No one, in or outside higher education, benefits from leaving these truths unaddressed.

In this important way, mainstream journalism and higher education, in their financial struggles, aren’t alike at all. Journalists incessantly bemoan the condition of their industry. Many in higher education seem in denial about the state of theirs.

Academics also are not particularly good at harnessing what media remains. They’re far too slow to respond to the news, and, when they do, they often speak in abstractions, using terminology that makes people think they’re being condescended to. It’s not the smartest strategy for faculty members to announce that their salaries aren’t rising sufficiently, for example, at a time when one of every ten of their fellow Americans is unemployed. And while academics are rightly concerned about the erosion of tenure, it’s hard to get much sympathy from taxpayers who have no job security.

There’s a deep, deep divide in this country on opposite sides of the ivy-covered walls. Much of it speaks to universities not doing a particularly good job of telling their stories. After all, perception is reality.

Forty-three percent of Americans, for example, think that universities raise prices whenever they can, according to polls conducted by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Only 19 percent believe that these institutions do anything to keep prices down. Four in ten say waste and mismanagement are factors in driving up the cost of college, and six in ten government and business leaders think colleges and universities need to become leaner and more efficient. Seventy percent of Americans think higher education is being priced beyond the income of the average family, compared with only 44 percent who feel that the cost of a house is out of reach.

Some universities and university systems have succeeded in galvanizing public support with extraordinary results, including increased budget allocations. It’s significant that the impetus has often come from outside. In Ohio and Maryland, past activist governors and legislators have persuaded taxpayers of all the good things about public higher education: its ability to jump-start languishing economies, for example, and the value of an educated population. Legislatures have responded with the most important of commodities— more cash.

It’s possible to change perception. But to do so, academics need to help the public understand these new realities. That means not only having a good story to tell but also being able to tell it simply and directly. And returning that reporter’s call before the end of the semester.

It was hard to tell your story before. It’s harder now. But more important.

Jon Marcus is US correspondent for Times Higher Education magazine and has also written about higher education for the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, CrossTalk, and the Hechinger Report. 

 


Comments:

To the editor:

The article "Bridging the Great Divide" in the May-June issue of Academe contains the following statement: "Even publications that specialize in higher education have become vastly more time-sensitive, a shift propelled largely by the daily Inside Higher Ed. The weekly Chronicle of Higher Education now also comes out every day online and is updated constantly when news breaks."

In fact, The Chronicle began publishing daily on the Web and by e-mail in 1995, eight years before Inside Higher Ed even existed. So if anything was the impetus for speeding up the reporting of higher-education news, it was The Chronicle.

Besides calling journalists back, it's useful to remind them to check their facts.

Phil Semas
President & Editor in Chief
The Chronicle of Higher Education

The author responds:

The story doesn't say Inside Higher Ed was the first to provide information daily. It says that Inside Higher Ed largely propelled the speeding-up of higher-education journalism. Once there were two widely read, competitive daily online vehicles for higher-education news, the speed with which it was reported was accelerated.

Jon Marcus

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