Politics & Media Mashup: your weekend news aggregator leads off with a Q & A with Emily Alpert, the former education reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. Also included: Gobs of links to some of the week’s best stories about local, state and national politics as well as social and traditional media.
Emily Alpert covered education for voiceofsandiego.org until she was laid off in December. She quickly bounced back, landing a job as a blogger and web editor for The Los Angeles Times‘ global news blog, World Now. Alpert’s departure from Voice surprised many who considered her education reporting unmatched. CityBeat editor Dave Rolland said recently that Alpert was “easily the best education reporter in San Diego, if not beyond.”
An award-winning reporter, Alpert stumbled into journalism while studying history and working toward becoming a rabbi at the University of Chicago. Last year, she reported from Bolivia as a fellow with the International Reporting Project. These days, she works at breaking down international news for the masses. Here is Rostra’s Q & A with Alpert:
- You have a new job. Tell us when you started, what you’re doing, etc.
I’ve joined The Los Angeles Times as a blogger and web editor for World Now, their global news blog. They already have an amazing slate of foreign correspondents doing incredible work; part of my job is to make that reporting more accessible for people who may feel intimidated by international news.
For instance, I wrote an explainer last week on the Strait of Hormuz and whether Iran can block access to oil. It’s one of those basic things that comes up over and over in stories about Iran, but many people don’t understand it. This is a big change from beat reporting on San Diego schools, of course, but I’m trying to use my ignorance as an advantage by asking myself, “What would I want to know?”
I also try to add more to our existing coverage through linking back to older stories and providing maps, video or other extras that don’t make it into the paper. We’re figuring it out, so if you have suggestions about what would make an amazing foreign news blog, please let me know!
- Tell us a little about yourself — your education, experience, time in San Diego, etc.
I grew up in Ohio, South Carolina and Georgia. I went to college at the University of Chicago thinking I wanted to be a rabbi and ended up studying history because it was the one major that let me study just about anything I wanted. So I have a very impractical year of Biblical Hebrew on my transcript.
I stumbled into journalism at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association conference in Chicago and just fell in love with it. What other job lets you be nosy for a living? I sent out hundreds of resumes my senior year and took the first internship I got in Oregon for $100 a month. I starved for a summer and then landed my first job covering cops, courts and just about anything else in Gilroy CA, the Garlic Capital of the World. My big story was exposing the fact that the police chief had secretly retired.
I jumped at the chance to work for voiceofsandiego.org because I wanted to work somewhere that had a mission of public service above all. I knew absolutely nothing about San Diego. Or education. But I was really drawn to the fire in their bellies about good reporting that speaks truth to power.
- When you were working in San Diego, what did you read/watch to make sure you were up on things?
I usually scanned all the local publications for local news – the U-T, the North County Times, KPBS – and I checked a few blogs that do solid roundups of education news, including GothamSchools and ThisWeekinEducation. Education Week is great for national education trends. In the past few years I’ve turned to Twitter to find news, following links sent by journalists and friends and other smart folks.
- What did you like most about covering education in San Diego?
My favorite thing to do, as a journalist, is to show how decisions made by powerful institutions impact ordinary people, whether that’s the federal government or the school board. Education is one of the clearest places where government impacts our lives. And it involves some of the most vulnerable people out there – kids. I think the only beat that would go further in satisfying those cravings is covering social services.
Also, you get to spend more time around preschoolers than if you write about City Hall. Preschoolers are the best.
- What was your favorite story to write? Why?
I just sat at my kitchen table for twenty minutes agonizing about this question. I really loved pretty much everything I did. I still have a soft spot for my story about the calculus teacher at Crawford High who managed to get dozens of kids excited about taking advanced math early in the morning. There were obviously other stories that packed more of a punch, and I loved those too, but seeing someone do something that completely defies the conventional wisdom and make it work is just so much fun.
- What was the most difficult story to write? Why?
My investigative stories on the San Diego County Office of Education were extremely challenging because the office wouldn’t talk to me. It was dense, legalistic, easy-to-screw-up stuff. Every reporter’s dream! But I’m glad we got them written. Word to the wise: Not talking to me does not stop me from writing about you. It just stops you from getting your points across.
- Why is San Diego Unified in such a difficult place?
There is very little trust inside San Diego Unified. I think a lot of that comes from the upheaval and conflict when Alan Bersin was superintendent, which was before I started to report on San Diego schools, but it’s been perpetuated by the problems that San Diego Unified has in 1) knowing exactly what resources it has to work with and 2) communicating with schools about what it is doing.
I was always stunned by the amount of confusion within schools about what the School District was doing. Often teachers and principals would tell me they turned to me to find out what was happening. That was a nice thing to hear, but really, they shouldn’t have to do that. Once, when Terry Grier was superintendent, dozens of teens came to the school board to protest the closure of their school. But nobody was talking about closing their school. That kind of thing happened constantly.
Add in the financial pressures from the state, the constant uncertainty about what the budget, major turnover in key departments like human resources and finance – all of it means very few classroom teachers believe much they hear from the school district.
That, in turn, feeds the animosity between the Teachers Union and the School District, which has been really sad to see. After all, this was a Board that was very sympathetic to labor. It still is. I would have been fascinated to see what they could do in the classroom if the union and the district coordinated on reform. But the last time I heard, those coordinated reform plans have been put on ice at most schools. The School Board knows this is a problem. But this is just about the toughest time to try to fix it.
- If you had a magic wand, what would you do to fix San Diego Unified?
This is the kind of thing that would only happen in the alternate universe where I had a magic wand, but I’d randomly assign kids to schools. If that sounds weird, stay with me a moment. Right now parents are very, very invested … in their particular school. They will move heaven and earth … for their particular school. And because we still have some schools with lots more affluent families than others, some schools are much more able to move heaven and earth when they need to.
School choice was expected to help, by letting poor kids go to school in wealthy areas that their families can’t afford to live in, but poorer parents are often less likely or able to exercise this option, either because they aren’t aware of the option or they can’t get their kids to schools across town. So school choice has been as likely to segregate schools as it is to integrate them. It didn’t change this problem.
If all schools had the same parent investment and attention, people would not stand for some of the things that happen in poorer schools, like getting a disproportionate share of the green new teachers. And you wouldn’t end up putting all the poor kids, or all the English learners, together, which helps perpetuate some of the disadvantages they have when they come to school.
This whole Bizarro Universe scenario would also depend on private schools not existing, which is why it’s a complete fantasy. Any politician who proposed it would be voted out — if not egged on sight. So it’s a completely unworkable idea. This is probably why I am a journalist and not a politician.
- You’re obviously well aware of the highs and lows of the journalism business. Where do you think it’s headed?
I still believe in the nonprofit model. I hope we see more startups like voiceofsandiego.org and California Watch and ProPublica. Obviously it isn’t invincible, but what is? I’ve never been a journalist when people weren’t saying that the industry was falling apart. Even if it is, I plan to be here until the bitter end.
I think we’ll also see more specialization. Perhaps the most valuable thing that Andrew Donohue drilled into my head at Voice was, “If we can’t do it better than anyone else, we don’t do it.” It’s better for readers if each news outlet is finding the one thing they can knock out of the park instead of rushing to cover the same press conference. I would be happy if I never had to cover another press conference.
- What would you tell a student who tells you that he/she wants to become a reporter?
It’s the best job in the world.
Here are links to some of the best stories of the week: