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Perspective | Remaking journalism, and schooling: Lessons learned from trauma

“School is ‘changed forever.’ This teacher shares why.” —  Headline at EdNC.

“The Existential Issue: What is Journalism?” — Headline at Columbia Journalism Review.

EdNC, launched six years ago, has just published an impressive package of in-depth reporting on lessons learned as North Carolina educators confronted the challenges imposed on them by the COVID-19 pandemic. CJR, the venerable magazine of press criticism founded 60 years ago, has posted online long essays responding to “the journalism crisis of the past year.”

To read the EdNC and CJR special issues, as I did this week, is to gain a heightened appreciation for how EducationNC, the formal name of the nonpartisan nonprofit of which I am a co-founder, has become a hybrid in the state’s ecosystems of news and schooling. At its founding, EdNC had a simple rationale: to fill the gap on the great debate over pre-K–12 schools in North Carolina left by the downsizing of traditional newspapers. As it has grown and matured since January 2015, EdNC finds itself with responsibilities in addressing the post-pandemic realities in education and journalism in North Carolina.

In both fields, the year of COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated already existing problems. CJR reported that “as many as 37,000 media workers may have experienced layoffs, furloughs, or lost pay amid the pandemic.”  

The magazine’s “existential issue” examines the distinction between classic professional journalists and “news influencers” on social media and cable television. It has a chapter focusing on media coverage of COVID-19. CJR explores citizens’ concerns over misinformation as well as evidence of Americans’ turn to media “echo chambers on the left and the right.”

For its part, EdNC examines schools and education policy through its own style of purpose-driven journalism. It is not a think-tank, nor an advocacy organization, and it doesn’t have the equivalent of an editorial page. Still, it publishes commentaries, reports on legislation, and interviews influentials. Most significantly, EdNC tells stories of what takes place in schools, illuminating the efforts of principals, teachers, and superintendents — identifying what’s working and what isn’t.

EdNC cares about outcomes for educators and their students. While reporting with fairness and integrity, EdNC positions itself akin to a partner in seeking solutions. Tellingly, Business North Carolina recently placed Mebane Rash, EdNC’s CEO and editor-in-chief, in the education, not media, category in its 2021 “power list.”

When public schools, colleges, and universities shifted from in-class to online in mid-March 2020, the EdNC staff went remote, too. Staffers worked from their homes, kept in touch through text, email, phone, and video conferencing. The organization ceased renting its co-working office space.

Under Rash’s direction, EdNC journalists decided they could not document education in a time of COVID-19 by staying “remote” from schools.  While also covering state boards and the legislature, EdNC staff visited 44 local school districts and 29 community colleges during the pandemic.

“We decided to keep doing what we do best — showing up, masked up but in person, in your classrooms and in your community colleges, in your communities and in your lives, to listen as you made complicated decisions with real human consequences,” Rash wrote. Her staffers, who often conducted interviews outdoors, won a 2020 first place from the NC Press Association for an earlier collection on issues involved in returning to the classroom.

In the mid-20th Century, North Carolina had a reputation for strong, competitive newspapers. Now it is among the leading states in having a robust array of “digital-native” news organizations, each with a special style, topic or community focus. EdNC joins them in the work in progress of engaging in what CJR describes as an “opportunity to do nothing less than remake journalism.”

Similarly, EdNC acted on its early insight that the trauma of school closings and prolonged virtual instructions would reshape education, from early childhood to postsecondary. The reshaping is also still a work in progress, to be informed by think tanks, academic researchers, and education institutes.

EdNC’s “2020-21 Lesson/Plan” illuminates the importance of telling the stories of the people who cared for their students as they dealt with trauma and disruption — stories that provide North Carolina a foundation for schools to emerge not only changed forever, but also better than ever.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.