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The business of think tanks is changing, and EdNC’s Rash is leading the way nationally

Detroit, MI. – Mebane Rash, the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC, reached a milestone in her career here this week when the Governmental Research Association installed her as its president. Mebane will serve a two-year term as the leader of the GRA, a professional organization of state and city nonpartisan think tanks.

For Mebane, her GRA presidency shows the respect with which she is held by her peers and validates a career dedicated to enhancing public decision making in North Carolina. Mebane’s participation in GRA began during her 12 years at the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research before she became chief executive of EdNC in 2014. While Mebane became president, Nancy Rose, EdNC’s chief operating officer, was chosen to serve as GRA’s secretary.

For EdNC’s board and staff, this is a moment to cheer and to congratulate Mebane and Nancy. Even more, this moment affords an opportunity to reflect on the depth and quality of our organization’s leadership and staff – and on its summer of transition and expansion.

Mebane and her team will soon publish EducationNC’s annual report. I hope you will read it and take the time to delve into the videos and information graphics. In anticipation, I’d like to frame EdNC in a wider context.

In the field of journalism and in the world of think tanks – and EdNC fits into both – old verities have fallen away in the face of flux and disruption. In her speech to the GRA annual meeting, Mebane spoke of the need of public policy analysts to adapt to “a constant state of change.’’

“If think tanks are going to thrive going forward,” she said, “you will need to prioritize the intentional intergenerational transfer of knowledge… The next generation embraces change better than us, which is good since the business of our work, of think tanks, is changing.”

To her audience here, Mebane didn’t need to spell out the changes afoot. One is a convergence of think-tanking and journalism – the need for policy analysts to push their findings out in real time to inform decision making in motion. While the need for in-depth, high-quality research remains as vital as ever, the days of publishing only ponderous 150-page reports are gone; effective think tanks now know they must issue findings in relatively short, readable newspaper and online articles, as well as podcasts and videos.

Another important development is the rise of think tanks defined by their partisan, advocacy, and ideological orientations, some backed by wealthy individuals and corporations. In a democracy of free debate, this proliferation is fair enough, especially when it produces reliable data and argument of substance and insight.

At the GRA meeting, Mark Wilson, a professor of urban and regional planning at Michigan State University, made an implicit argument for nonpartisan think tanks to step up to address “disruptions in society’’ not often recognized amid polarized political debate. As disruptions that will affect lives and life-styles, he listed the decline of shopping malls, the rise of so-called self-driving vehicles, increased reliance on digital media and the shift from coal and oil to solar as sources of power. “Who is responsible for informing the public?” he asked, and to “move the public to a new place’’ in facing disruptive shifts.

Even as the GRA met here, the Pew Research Center issued a “Fact Tank’’ data summary of the precipitous decline in newsroom employment across the U.S., especially in ink-on-paper news institutions since 2008. “Newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 45% over the period, from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017,” says the Pew report. Pew also reported growth in “digital-native news outlets,” though not yet sufficient to offset losses in traditional news organizations.

At its founding as a “digital-native’’ nonprofit news organization, EducationNC sought to fill the gap in journalism on the great debate over preK-12 schools in North Carolina. Under Mebane’s guidance, in deliberations with the board and with the support of funders who have confidence in her vision and leadership, EducationNC now contains a cluster of operating units: publishing policy analysis through the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, tapping into public and educators’ opinion through ReachNCVoices and educating young people on democratic participation through First Vote NC. Its scope is in the process of expanding from preK-12 to community college and related post-secondary issues coverage.

EducationNC has come to serve as a living model of the convergence of journalism and think-tanking, at a time when both are needed for state and local problem-solving. Mebane now has a national platform from which to illuminate what EducationNC has achieved and learned in North Carolina.

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.