This is a guest post by Alexander Russo, a longtime education writer, editor, and author. He is a recipient of the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University, the author of Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors, a critically acclaimed book about the attempt to rescue a South Central Los Angeles high school, and the 2018 winner of the Education Writers Association award for opinion journalism. This was originally published at The Grade.
After more than eight years covering the New York City schools for the New York Daily News, much-admired reporter Ben Chapman left the grueling beat last month.
It’s a massive beat, focused on a district that’s larger than any other in the nation. And, unlike many others, Chapman had come to the beat by accident, as a travel writer and journalism graduate student desperate for a journalism job in the middle of the Great Recession. He found a spot covering education in New York City, and he stayed longer than most.
Along the way, he wrote nearly 3,000 stories and experienced some dramatic moments. He got doxxed. He got mugged. And he won a bunch of awards. Now he’s one of several NYC education reporters to have moved on to other things, joining former NYC education reporters like New York 1’s Lindsey Christ, WNYC’s Yasmeen Kahn and Beth Fertig, and the New York Times’ Kate Taylor and Elizabeth Harris.
Three weeks into his new job writing about crime for the Wall Street Journal, Chapman sat down with The Grade to talk about his experiences and share his observations. Known as a particularly affable reporter, Chapman may surprise you with the strength of his views on coverage of New York City schools and education journalism in general. Maybe that’s why he thrived at a hard-charging tabloid.
As you’ll see, Chapman wants more journalism about kids and families and less about policies and politics. He wants more coverage of systematic inequality and less about elite schools that serve only a handful of students.
What do you wish you’d known about covering education before you started?
BC: The beat always challenged me in terms of the complexity of the subject. It also pushed me on a technical and psychological level when it came to covering children. Parents were extremely protective. I needed to develop tools to gain their trust. I needed to figure how to get kids to open up. That’s important. Over the years, I often encountered young people who were suffering. I kept a professional distance, but that was always sad. People don’t talk about trauma in journalism enough. In my opinion, it should probably be taught in J-school like ethics are. Being mindful of all that makes one a stronger reporter.
What were some of the tools you developed to build trust and practice self-care?
BC: I tried to give a lot of myself to the stories and put a lot of time into building empathy and sensitivity, and I think people in the community responded to that with trust. I also take care to spell things out for sources so they feel knowledgeable about what’s happening in terms of the articles. That gives them confidence and agency and builds trust. After my son was born, I realized that I needed to take some proactive steps to deal with the stress generated by my work as a journalist. I talked with my mom who is a therapist and got a couple of book recommendations from her. From there, I just learned to employ basic stress-reduction techniques such as practicing some light meditation, getting exercise, and taking good care in terms of nutrition and sleep.
What was your biggest/proudest moment covering education?
BC: The greatest thing about covering schools for a local publication like the Daily News was that I really got to make an impact in my community. I wrote almost 3,000 stories for the News, and they probably prompted more changes in the school system than I know. That was the best thing about the job. I helped homeless kids get scholarships, got abusive educators removed from schools, and prompted significant policy changes. I think I helped make the system better in NYC. I also won some awards, which was nice. I kept a steady paycheck, too, and that was important.
What was your lowest/hardest moment?
BC: Covering the Sandy Hook mass shooting was one of the darkest assignments I had. I was one of the first reporters at the scene. We couldn’t get into the school, but people were coming out from there. I had to interview victims’ families. Another low point was when students and alumni from a school I wrote about started harassing my family and doxxed us. One of them got arrested. It was upsetting because I only ever wanted to help kids with my stories.
What are the advantages and disadvantages, writing for a tabloid news outlet?
BC: I found it to be a great fit for me on a lot of levels. They were really seeking to be the voice of the working person in this city. They also gave me the opportunity to publish a ton of stories, which is great practice. And the Daily News totally moved the needle in terms of policy decisions. The negatives were that it was extremely fast paced, and they wanted hard-hitting articles. So there was a lot of conflict baked into the job.
Who’ve been some of the NYC education reporters you’ve most admired/envied along the way, and why?
BC: Eliza Shapiro of the New York Times is super smart and has an exceptional gift for contextualizing the stories of the day in the bigger picture. Elizabeth Harris [who formerly covered the beat for the Times] was an uncommonly empathetic reporter when she was on the beat for the Times, and Kate Taylor [another former Times metro reporter] was a fierce schools reporter for the Times as well. Leslie Brody of the Wall Street Journal is maybe the fairest reporter I’ve ever met in my life. She is about as unbiased as a reporter can be. It’s inspiring. Yasmeen Khan and Beth Fertig of WNYC were great. The folks at the New York Post do good stories and Yoav Gonen was a very sharp reporter when he was there. Lindsey Christ was an incredibly sensitive and energetic reporter who was really generous and kind. The folks at Chalkbeat are doing good work too.
You’re really not going to pick a favorite, are you?
BC: It’s very hard for me to pick a favorite. I like them all for their different things.