Thursday, October 10, 2013

Should Gotham Schools Be Taken Off Of My Reader? (Part 1 of 2)

There have been a lot of attacks lauched at the edu website over the last few months. The most noticeable is a satirical blog entitled "Gotham Charter Schools" (see here). While I myself have not been above pointing out that website's deficiencies (see here for one example), I have to say that I have been more concerned with another question: Does the website even hold value anymore? By that, I mean the type of value that someone like me (a public school teacher) can take from visiting their pages? While my habit of visiting it daily says "yes", my experiences with their articles and linkbacks have been saying "no" more and more as of late. I'm finally up to asking myself this question: Is it time to just say goodbye and take them off my reader?

GothamSchools "crawls" by the 'Way Back Machine'. The amount of crawls performed correspond to web traffic and Google searches and is the best "quick" way to gather how busy a website has been over time

I don't want to simply attack. That's really not what I do, anyway. Instead, I want to give the question, and the previously awesome website, the full airing I think they deserve. I also want to help inform my fellow edu bloggers as to whether they should be angry with, upset at or have just plain understanding for what the folks over there have to go through -have to put themselves through, really- in order to have to publish. So this question is going to take two posts. 

so buckle up. Part One  is a quick history lesson ...

It's no secret that the way we get our information these days is becoming a process that is getting more and more narrow. When Ronald Reagan's FCC disposed of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 , he let us fall off of a very big hook: He told us that it was ok to stop listening to views that contrasted with our own opinion and  to pay no mind to people with whom we disagreed.

For those who may not know, the Fairness Doctrine was a fairly important FCC policy which news organizations followed during the Golden Age of Journalism ('49 - '87). It said that two things: 1) Controversial topics in American had to be covered and 2) When covering any topic, major positions, representing contrasting views needed to be represented in the news organizations' publication. For the newspapers, this usually meant that both sides of a given position had to have their coverage on their pages. For radio and TV, this tended to mean equal time be given to both perspectives of a given topic. 

This was done with the thinking that the audience would hear both sides and make up their mind for themselves. It all boiled down to a Jeffersonian commitment that journalists had  in helping a create a well informed citizenry.

These days, as Gotham schools own a mission statement once revealed, the journalistic institutions that many middle aged adults have grown up with are collapsing. Without the Fairness Doctrine, yet with the continuing need to raise money (either through profit or institutional donations) that is the lifeblood of professional journalism in America, news organizations have been left to themselves to earn whatever viewership will keep the money coming in.

The new trend of amateur journalists -the bloggers- haven't made this any easier. Readers tend to read opinions that appeal to their opinions. "Old World" news outfits must compete more and more against this backdrop of the new 'social' media that are banging around the echo chamber.

 For the overwhelming majority of news organizations in America, the response to this has been to attempt to draw as many viewers that will gain as many advertising (or donation) dollars as possible (this is why you and I see more of Snooki in a pair of high heels then we do our own president during 6:30 News hours: She looks better than 'O, and she doesn't numb our brains by making us all think too hard).  This reality has turned professional news organizations, once the solitary  beacon of information for the entire adult nation, into almost complete slaves of their viewers' whims.

As a consequence, whatever  the viewer wants, or says (s)he wants, is what the news organizations have shown or discussed. As the news outlets have tried to gain an edge, and attract more viewers, they have experimented by showing or revealing news that will attract one particular type of reader or viewer. And the viewers? Well, they have swarmed to some news outlets expecting to see one type of news, and to other outlets expecting to see a different type. If they do not see what they expect, they tend to drift away to another outlet that will discuss what they do expect (this is sort of where I am with regard to my big question: should I take them off my readers). 

It's this mentality -and it's best to think of it as a swarm mentality- that has led innovative online news organizations to create news outlets which are intended attract a particular swarm of readers. CNET, for instance, covers only information about technology. Gawker, covers only shocking news and gossip that would interest urbanite New Yorkers. This trend of journalism around one topic or issue (specifically an entire news outlet which provides news only around a specific issue), is a relatively new one, but a relatively feudal one as well -where instead of one organization with the ability to provide news around all topics, several dozen smaller organizations spring up and are able only to provide information about smaller 'local' topics. 

While it will probably be around for a while, this feudal journalism holds a a few wonderful promises. For instance, it makes no bones about what it is and about which viewers or readers it is trying to attract. That's a good thing, because these new smaller, news outlets, organized around single issue to topic, are  therefore free to cover whatever they want, within the parameters of what they have set for themselves in their mission statements and other internal decisions they make. That means they can develop a true expertise and flip almost anyone off who doesn't like what they have to say. That type of journalistic feedom is good for us. 

This was the promise for a brand new website,, in 2008. Gotham was a test as to whether issues based journalism could  carve out a niche for itself over the topic of public education. As they're original statement of purpose read on their "About" page back then:
GothamSchools is an independent news source about the New York City public schools.
We seek to correct an unfortunate confluence of events: The movement to improve urban schools is reaching a peak of energy while the journalism industry is crumbling. That means that both the achievements and challenges of the movement risk escaping the healthy scrutiny of a vibrant press corps.
(note, they have since changed this statement of purpose to something completely different further leading to my big question)

In addition to a new hopeful outlook, GS also held the promise of not being profit driven. Overhead and salaries were provided through large donations from institutions who cares about their topic of education.

Yet, despite collecting and disseminating the best list of edu news stories on a daily basis,  the endeavor seemed rocky right from the start. These issues based journalists seemed rather close to the educational leaders yet rather distant from actual educators. Their staff came off as snooty right in their own comments section and began replies with sentence starters like "A close read of this article might show you that ...". One year into the gig, they were being called schils by anyone involved in education who didn't seem to agree with them (only partly because they weren't liked and because there were times when the staff came off like a bunch of jerks, but also because of who funded them)

That said, their open comments section and their commitment to gathering and sharing information from Twitter and the blogs, was brand new -and it showed their commitment to the democratic process of discussion (which is what their website says they seek to "host") around education. Gotham Schools connected readers to bloggers like Norm Scott Leonie Haimson and a host of other edu bloggers, for the first time. Their "Community" section not only connected readers with edu wonks and players in the edu scene , but also to teachers like Arthur Goldstein, who can explain the pedagogue's perspective about as good as anyone I've ever read.  They weren't even above publishing a post from an anonymous blog -as long as it was intelligent and talked about education in New York. It's important to note: that had never been done before! Jefferson once said that "Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government". Well I'm here to tell you, relative to what we had before GS, we were all plenty well informed!

All in all they, while tilting heavily toward the power brokers of education in New York City (the Bloombergs, the Klein's and anyone else who held power at Tweed and City Hall), they did let voices in. Some may say those voices were marginalized. Others may say they were just outnumbered on the pages of their site. But no one can claim that they didn't let new voices -voices that had previously had no place- into the public discussion of education. A complaint like that would be just plain absurd.

And man, was 2009 - 2012  the time to have "discussions" about edu in New York, or what!

Soon, as the recession hit and  the mayor changed the tone and policies for his third term, Gotham demonstrated to viewers and competitors alike that education in New York could be a hot button topic that generated a fairly large swarm of viewers. And other news organizations soon followed this pattern in an attempt to attract the 'swarm' of people hungry for edu news. But more on that in the second post.

So, to review, journalism collapses, then feudalizes around topics that they hope viewers might find interesting and find a niche for itself, and lets in new voices.  

It was really important to place the gothamschools story in that context. I'll publish the rest in a few more days.

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