Member Spotlight: How a Newbie Education Reporter Landed a Big Investigation

“Race shapes everything we write” says 2019 EWA Awards Investigative Finalist Annie Ma

Annie Ma landed her first full-time staff reporting job – as an education reporter at the Charlotte Observer – in June 2019. Just four weeks later, a story broke that would lead her into an investigation that won her and another reporter finalist honors in that year’s EWA Awards program.

She wrote a news story when Clayton Wilcox was suspended as the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. Then she started on what she thought would be a standard follow-up story about why he left. Ma and her colleague, Fred Clasen-Kelly, didn’t think that answering the “why” question would lead to a series of stories. But the more they researched and interviewed, the more troubling information they found. The resultant investigation uncovered allegations of offensive remarks and pressure to award seven-figure contracts for education software of questionable value.

Ma said her EWA “New To The Beat” mentor, Liz Bowie of the Baltimore Sun, and her fellow NTTB rookies encouraged her. And her editor agreed to pay the awards entry fee. So she figured she had nothing to lose and gathered the confidence to apply to the awards program.

“EWA is just so attuned and personable and cares about its membership in a way that just feels like a warm hug. Nobody gasses up our work harder than Emily and the staff,” Ma said. The EWA awards gave an environment that anyone of any level of experience could apply, she added. “I remember she sent out so many (emails on) awards and fellowships. I was like, ‘You know what? Why not? I’m proud of this work.’ The supportive stuff made me feel like I might as well throw my name in like I did. It can’t hurt.”

Ma was hired by the Associated Press to cover race and education in March 2021. In this EWA member spotlight, Ma details the submission that earned her a 2019 Finalist title, and how her journalism career changed.

The below Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity. 

How did the investigation come about?

Out of college, I worked out a bunch of fellowships and learned a ton through those programs. But in June of 2019, I got my first staff job at the Observer covering the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. One day in July, I get this email from an Observer co-worker. Another news outlet broke the news about the suspension of the superintendent. They didn’t fire him. And I was like, Oh my God. I’ve been here four weeks, and I don’t know what is going on. I had an editor, Ronnie Glassberg, who was really good at stepping up in a high-pressure situation. He really helped guide me through the immediate news cycle. I just feel really lucky that I had an editor who helped me through it.

Afterward, he pulled Fred, who’s one of my best friends and mentors still to this day, from the local government and the investigations team, and the two of us sat down and (tried to) figure out what happened. And Ronnie was someone who really championed the story and was like, “We need to really push and figure out what’s going on.”

Fred had covered Mecklenburg County and Charlotte for a long time. He called his sources. And I took more of the data and document approach, filing records requests and the like. We were building up our source network, getting people to trust us, and looking through the documents, peeling back the layers of how the district functioned. We were able to get closer and closer to the truth of the story, really.

Were you still doing regular beat coverage, or did the workload increase?

I definitely was doing other stuff at the same time: school board meetings, covering the first day of school, the impact of the budget. The state budget was really wild that year, and writing about the local impact was definitely a lot. So it was definitely a balancing act of juggling my beat and the project. But I felt like I didn’t have as much pressure to do that because they knew that Fred and I were really working hard on the investigative story.

What was your biggest takeaway after this investigative journey? 

When the story first broke, people were like, “He’s out. Good luck. No one’s going to talk to you.”

I remember thinking, “Oh, I have to figure out why they forced him to resign.”

What really broke the story open in terms of my methodology was we started asking the questions in a bigger and bigger framework and taking steps back like, “OK, well, if you’re not going to tell me why he was out,I’m going to figure out what other people thought about him. I’m going to figure out what people thought about the district. I’m going to figure out how the district operated. What was he doing with his time?”

We requested his calendars [and] his phone logs. If we ask for everything, we can reconstruct how the district was operating. We can tell that story, even if we can’t get it in their heads. To this day, I still don’t know what every board member was thinking. But the reporting kind of speaks for itself in terms of what is going on behind the scenes.

You continue to report on racial and gender inequity. Do you have any goals, and are there reporting experiences that helped with this beat?

I literally just got off a meeting with my editors yesterday about my goals [for 2022]. I want to do a better job talking to the people living those lives. Some of the best reporting I’ve seen this year and the reporting that I hope to do more of is inclusive of the voices of the people most affected.

You can’t write a story about trans athlete bans without talking to trans kids and trans athletes, and really centering their voices. The best work when it comes to writing about gender and race and identity includes the voices of the people you’re talking about. You’re not just talking about them.

Now you’re covering the race and education beat on a broader level. You’re not just talking about a specific county in North Carolina. Are there any big changes or differences you see in a bigger newsroom like the AP that you have to get more comfortable with, or any changes that you’re still navigating?

One thing that really made me interested in this position at AP was that the race and ethnicity team at AP has been around for years. I just really appreciated the fact that it was ingrained within the newsroom’s coverage structure.

Race does shape everything that we write about. If you’re covering politics, you should also be covering race. Every education reporter should be able to have fluent conversations about race. There is a policy-driven and systemic way that race shapes our lived experiences. My colleagues who are education reporters at AP do an incredible job of writing stories about what’s happening in education with an eye toward race.

I’ve always admired people who can really tell a local story and make it resonate nationally. That is a skill that I’m working on. There are themes that emerge: What happens in Detroit will mirror what happens in Charlotte and Savannah because they reflect bigger questions about systems and how they’ve long functioned in this country.

As a national reporter, what I hope to do is write about those commonalities. Over time, you start to realize schools are a reflection of their community, and they’re a reflection of the anxieties and joys and hopes of the country as well. What happens in one place is going to be slightly different, but the broader themes are similar.

How much do you think awards matter to a journalist’s career? And did you see any changes after your career after you became a finalist?

It’s complicated. I have certainly benefited from them. In their purest form, awards are a recognition of your work from your peers, but it doesn’t mean everything. And some of the best reporting I’ve ever read didn’t win any awards. That doesn’t take away from how incredible it is.

Would you like to pass on any advice to education reporters out there, especially about awards?

One thing that was told to me by a mentor and that I really try to pass on to other people is: You’ve got to put yourself out there. You’re never going to win an award if you don’t put your work up for consideration. So I highly recommend it. I think you’d be surprised.

I was shocked when we were recognized as finalists. I was like, “What?! That’s crazy.”

But it happens. You should always put your work forward because it’s like gassing yourself up. And it’s also like giving other people a chance to gas you up, and [it] certainly helped my career. I have been able to reference it. It’s certainly beneficial to your career, but I think it’s hard for women and journalists of color sometimes, too.

You’ve got to be your own biggest supporter. The more that I try to embrace that, the better I feel about the work I do.

My advice is you should just definitely apply. There’s so much incredible work that happens on the Ed beat. I’ve judged awards one year, and I was just floored by the quality of everything I saw. It was just so good. I loved reading people’s entry letters for why they felt this work was important, the impact they had on their community, what they did, how they got the story.

Going through your work, being proud of it, and telling someone else you’re proud of it through writing a cover letter, putting the package together –It’s just a really, really uplifting process, and makes you see your work through different eyes.

One of my mentors, Fred, does this thing sometimes whenever I’m really stressed. [He] says, “ I wish I could give you my eyeballs, so you could see yourself the way that I see you.”

That’s something that we all deserve a chance to feel about the work we do.