Monday, August 12, 2013

Outsized profit expectations harm education news

A big thanks to Vanessa Gallman, Jaci Carfagno, and the editorial board at the Herald-Leader for running my Op-ed, which was critical of H-L's parent corporation and the quality of local reporting.


Here's the lightly- (and well-) edited version of Profit over Product.

Outsized profit expectations harm education news

By Richard E. Day in the Herald-Leader:
It appears that former Herald-Leader and Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll was on to something when he predicted, in 2006, that outsized profit expectations in the newspaper industry would have a destructive effect on journalism. Seven years and several rounds of newsroom layoffs later — all in the service of maximized profits — its effects can be seen in education reporting on these pages.

EKU Assoc Prof Richard E. Day
When Rosalind Hurley-Richards received the $25,000 Milken Educator Award in 1996 it was news and the Herald-Leader ran a story about Commissioner Wilmer Cody's visit to Squires Elementary School for the award presentation. When she was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year in 1997 for her "real world" approach to teaching, it was news again, and the Herald-Leader followed her progress as a national finalist. In 1997, the paper reported that Hurley-Richards was directing her own program at the Preparatory Academy at Lexington and that she was speaking at a conference for black career women in 1998.

Even before his arrival as superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools, the Herald-Leader reported on Stu Silberman's success in Daviess County and his interest in the state education commissioner's post. Beginning in 1999 there were hundreds of stories about his work in the local schools.

But for some reason, it was not news — or at least, the Herald-Leader did not cover it — when in 2009 Silberman suspended and dismissed Hurley-Richards for "conduct unbecoming a teacher" after she disciplined an unruly child in the hallway at Cardinal Valley Elementary School. What circumstances could have led to such a shocking event? Herald-Leader readers might never know.

By the time the Kentucky Supreme Court vindicated Hurley-Richards in April (no story) — in what Fayette County Education Association officials were calling a landmark case — she had been through an administrative hearing (no story), Fayette Circuit Court (no story) and the Kentucky Court of Appeals (no story).

Was the lack of coverage an editorial decision or simply a lack of newsroom resources?

When a teacher's aide crashed her car, with two children as passengers, and snapped a utility pole on Georgetown Street and was charged with a DUI recently, the Herald-Leader ran the story and printed her name. But when Fayette County schools director of human resources Melodee Parker wrecked her car downtown in 2011 and was cited for driving under the influence, there was no story.

On Kentucky School News and Commentary (, an education blog I moderate, these and other unreported stories have caused some parents to entertain wild speculations about the quality of Herald-Leader reporters, and motives for reporting, or not reporting, certain stories. Some question whether the paper is protecting the school district by passing on certain embarrassing stories. Others have suggested the school district pays off reporters. Readers are confused, and these speculations are very unfortunate.

I suspect the real answer lies elsewhere.

Even before the great recession damaged economic conditions globally, journalism professionals were recoiling from historically high profit expectations by their parent corporations. As Carroll warned, continued expectations of 20 percent profit margins in the newspaper industry would damage the quality of journalism. "At a 20 percent margin, I feel strongly that we are cashing in the paper's future in favor of current earnings," Carroll told NewsHour. In the battle between those who see themselves as serving shareholders and those who see themselves serving readers, the shareholders are winning.

I am very concerned about what news corporations have done to newsrooms and I believe there are qualitative deficiencies in today's coverage that are leaving the community in the dark on too many important topics. One is left with the impression that the few remaining reporters are too often unaware of what's going on or ill-equipped to do anything about it. But McClatchy is still insisting that the Herald-Leader produce a return between 15 percent and 20 percent. Apparently shareholders care less about high quality coverage than lining their own pockets, and the net effect is harmful to democracy. 

Richard E. Day blogs at Email:

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Unknown said...

Were Hurley-Richards and Parker Black? If they were, THAT'S why the story wasn't covered.

Sam Sonka said...

What a great article! You have captured the problem with your "profit expectations" theorem. If part of the mission of a publication like the H-L is to inform the public and serve the common good of the community, then profit expectations must be revised. In the publishing business one can not expect to reap returns like a high-volume widget-maker, a chemical manufacturer, or an oil refiner. Returns in the 7-8 percent should be sufficient in serving the public. The quest for profits in publishing is inconsistent with what the mission should be.

Anonymous said...

I think all of us understand why Hurley Richards was not covered. The Herald Leader did not like to make disparaging comments about Stu Silberman and his wave of success. The fact that Hurley Richatds was exonerated was deliberately not covered.

Hurley Richards' case was probably the most important case incolving "teacher conduct" in the last ten years.

It will be cited in all future cases involving conduct "unbecoming a teacher."

Anonymous said...

Like periodicals, papers are on the skids these days with free internet news service and real time reporting via cable news companies. Sensationalized Tabloids litter the checkout isle with certainly less than public service.

Great Competition from more flexible and less expensive services are simply a reality, its got nothing to do with serving the public. They have to stay in business.

I always sense this blog his frequented most by FCPS employees the most and maybe those might not like it but perhaps the general public is more interested in who Stoops picks to quarterback or Calapari recruits than any sort of "scandal" in their school system.

Richard Day said...

August 12, 2013 at 9:52 AM: Hurley-Richards is African American but H-L showed no reluctance in praising her until she ran into Silberman. Parker is white. I have not confirmed this, but was told that the teacher’s aide whose DUI was published is black. But I don’t believe it’s a racial issue.

Sam Sonka: Thanks. Carroll told the LA Times ownership that he thought he could run a quality paper at 10 percent.

August 12, 2013 at 4:02 PM: It’s hard to argue with your Silberman theory, particularly early on. But let me remind everyone...H-L fully covered the Petrilli case. And Jim Warren came up with the documentation showing Silberman's payoff to Brenda Allen, not me.

But from conversations I’ve had with folks inside H-L, they think it’s entirely possible (likely) that they simply missed the Hurley-Richards story altogether. Had they known, I suppose they might have chosen not to run it. But it’s not clear to me that they even knew.

I actually take a different view of the legal importance of the Hurley-Richards case. Throughout history “conduct unbecoming” has always related to “morals” cases.

Silberman is the first superintendent I’ve ever heard of trying to attach it to disciplining a child. The courts, all the way up the line, swatted his argument. He kept pushing appeals (even after the circuit court ruling) and the Board remained docile.

But the Supreme Court ruling didn’t create any new law here. If Hurley-Richards is cited in future cases it will simply reaffirm existing understandings of the law.

In my opinion, the Board of Education has been much too passive in approving expenses for some of these legal activities.

August 12, 2013 at 4:11 PM: I was with you until you said, “its got nothing to do with serving the public.”

Of course it does. Producing news that the public is interested in is the product. There is still a demand for well-produced news. The trick is, how are they going to package and deliver Local/Kentucky news in a way that you will feel good buying and consuming it.

I believe you are correct to point out that the market for sports news seems to be very high here. And I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem like sports has had layoffs as deep as the newsroom. Please correct me if I’m wrong about that.
That said, scandal still sells in either camp.

Thanks for the comments y’all.

Anonymous said...

I'm pleased this was printed, Dr. Day,

Now if you are Amanda Ferguson's Facebook page, you will find her making disaparaging comments about a certain middle school I am assuming her child (children) attended. The post ran "Does anybody have anything good to say about ____________Middle School? " I have always believed Mrs. Fegurson was right to stand up to Stu, but as a parent, I don't think it is right for school board members to make questional comments about the schools their children have attended. Nothing on Facebook is private these days...

Richard Day said...

Yeah. I saw that earlier today.

My problem with it was that I needed something more than "a bad year" to understand the problem.

Board members who do not always move in lock step are refreshing to me...but a bigger problem for superintendents. I'm not sure Facebook is the place....but why not. They know whatever theey post can be reprinted anywhere. Maybe she's just getting warmed up.

Ring ring ring. Amanda. It'sTom.

Anonymous said...

Amanda Ferguson apparently took a page out of Doug Barnett's playbook by posting something like this on Facebook. For her to do it seemed odd to me. I wonder if she did get a call from Dr. Shelton about it. If he called her on this, though, wouldn't you think Mr. Barnett is on his speed dial?

I think it is good to see board members willing to communicate with the public through whatever means available to them.

Richard Day said...

: )

Ring ring ring

Lady McBeth: It's Dr. Shelton again. What did you say this time?

Anonymous said...

Is the due process hearing with regard to Kathy Dykes/hearing officer mess happening this week? I heard one of the ones that was a re-do was happening during the end of the week at the Fayette County Courthouse. Does anyone know if that's true? The docket does have a parent vs Fayette County Board of Education on Friday.

I can't wait to see if there is any coverage on how things turn out for the parents. If the school has to reinburse them for all their time, trouble, legal fees, etc. I can't even believe that Fayette County Schools would not make a settlement offer and save the taxpayers some money.

Does anyone realize that their attorney is paid at least $250.00 an hour for his services? That is a lot of money for all their legal fees. That money could be spent on educating our children instead of lining a lawyer's pockets. Just wondering if the Herald-Leader will cover the story or not?