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Many Happy ‘Returns’: Why Reporters Come Back to the Education Beat

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For Neal Morton, taking over the K-12 schools beat for the Las Vegas Review-Journal earlier this year represented two kinds of homecoming.

First, he grew up in the Las Vegas valley. Second, he was returning to the education beat after stints covering business and tourism for the San Antonio Express-News. Earlier in his career, Morton spent a little over two years covering schools for The Monitor newspaper in McAllen, Texas.

Education reporter Neal Morton of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who is now covering the same school district from which he graduated. (Courtesy photo)

“To cover my home school district where I graduated was a pretty interesting opportunity,” Morton told me. “Some of my friends I grew up with are now teachers; some of my former teachers are now administrators. So to see firsthand what’s happened in my community — I couldn’t turn that down.”

Not long after Morton joined the Las Vegas paper, another reporter left: Bethany Barnes, who had covered higher education for a relatively brief – but influential – period during the summer of 2014. She switched to the county government beat but only after her editors agreed to let her stay on to complete one story: how the Nevada System of Higher Education’s chancellor was handling several controversies, including allegations he quashed a report that had been critical of his administration.

That turned out to be a prescient move by Barnes. Her story turned into a multi-layered, FOIA-heavy investigation revealed through a series of stories, and contributed to Chancellor Dan Klaich’s decision to step down. A few months ago, with the Review-Journal in widely reported turmoil, Barnes chose to move on to The Oregonian newspaper, where she now covers Portland Public Schools.

Education reporter Bethany Barnes poses in Las Vegas, shortly before she moved on to her current assignment with The Oregonian. (Photo credit: Chase Stevens)

So what do these two reporters have in common, besides the Las Vegas connection? They’re the latest examples of what I like to think of as “returnees” – talented reporters who opt to come back to the education beat. (Disclosure: I spent eight years as the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.)

I’ve long argued that education can be one of the most challenging, and rewarding, of newsroom assignments. It’s the only beat that regularly crosses over into every other facet of a community, including politics, business, criminal justice, health, and even sports. While it’s often one of the first assignments a rookie reporter might be handed, there’s a strong community of experienced reporters who have stuck with it for a decade or more, as our recent State of the Education Beat report confirmed. Here’s just one example: This fall, education journalist Toni Konz is marking her 15th consecutive year covering the first day of school in Louisville.

Seventy-nine percent of education journalists say they are committed to pursuing a career in this field, according to our national survey, with only a small share seeing it as a “steppingstone” to a better beat. Fully 95 percent believe their work has a positive impact on education.

To be sure, it’s a beat that comes with enormous challenges, in part because of the overlap with other key issues. Barnes, for example,  is on the K-12 beat for the first time and assigned to Oregon’s largest school district. That gives her a chance to get to know her new home from the inside out. She got off to a remarkably strong start, landing her first scoop her second day on the job:

(Barnes is quick to point out that her strong start is due in no small part to the guidance and support she’s getting from her new newsroom: particularly longtime Oregonian education reporter Betsy Hammond.)

In the past month , Barnes has been immersed in a crash course on school construction and facilities, given that Portland – like many districts nationwide – is struggling with the long-term effects of having deferred routine building maintenance as a short-term cost-saving measure. Barnes also has had to bone up on another complex and controversial issue: lead contamination in the water and paint used in the city’s schools.

Morton says he’s also multitasking as he covers the nation’s fifth-largest school district. He’s using the same skills he gleaned as a business reporter (most recently for the San Antonio Express-News), but now he’s looking at the financial documents of a school system with a $2.2 billion operating budget: The Clark County district is the single largest recipient of tax dollars in Nevada, as well as the state’s largest employer. He covers the court proceedings when education legislation is challenged, as is the case with Nevada’s new Education Savings Account law, intended to boost school choice. And there’s always politics – even in election cycles less contentious than this one. The latest brouhaha is the state legislature’s plans to potentially reorganize Clark County into smaller, regional school districts.

When I mentioned the State of the Education Beat findings to Barnes, she said she was gratified to learn that most education journalists are optimistic about their work, and believe they are having a positive impact.

“It can be very easy on an education beat to feel overwhelmed; there are so many meetings and so much to cover,” Barnes says. “If people feel their reporting is making a difference even in these times of fewer resources, that’s really encouraging. And I would say (the survey results) are more heartening than surprising, because I’m feeling that way, too.”

Back in Las Vegas, Morton agrees.

“With the state of media as it is, we don’t know what our jobs are going to look like next month or next year,” Morton says. “I think to be optimistic about education journalism gives me hope that we’re all in the trenches together, and that things are only going to get better.”