For education news — and other local news too — consider keeping it handy

Researchers have recently produced a flood of interesting studies on what audiences want in their news diet. A particularly provocative one arrived last week – a sample of several thousand parents to find the information they want about schools versus what is actually covered.

According to the report by Jesse Holcomb and his team at Calvin College, parents show only modest interest in national issues such as race in the curriculum or school choice. Rather, they are squarely focused on learning – something that has been greatly complicated over the past two years by COVID-19’s disruption of normal in-person teaching.

A second headline finding: Black and Hispanic parents are more, rather than less interested than white parents in local education news. Their interests lean even more towards practicality, including the role of schools in providing nutritious meals. Black and Hispanic parents surveyed were also more likely to have their information needs met from local media as opposed to informal networks, white parents conversely.

The report is well worth reading and was well summarized in a Nieman Lab article. I chatted via email with Holcomb, a friend from his days as deputy director of journalism at the Pew Research Center, about the implications of his findings.

Was it any surprise to find black parents more interested in education news, I asked. Not really, Holcomb said.

“Our survey is actually not the first to find this. A 2015 American Press Institute survey found a similar trend. In our Pew case studies of 2015 local news interest, we found found that in the cities we studied, white adults were less likely than other groups to follow local and neighborhood news closely.

“So the finding is even less surprising given that it’s a survey of not just American adults, but also parents who have children in school. For black parents, the issues The issues around school inequality are widely known and I won’t rehash it here, but to underscore this, our survey reminds us that black parents are less likely than white parents to give their schools a good grade local authorities, plus they are more likely to report that their child’s school was closed for much of the previous school year.If the information is a tool for these parents to help their children succeed, it goes without saying that they will pay particular attention to it.

“In my opinion, the biggest takeaway is that black parents work harder to stay informed, but for their efforts they feel less informed than white parents about what’s going on in schools. And I see that as a failure on the part of communicators inside and outside the news media.

The study, sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, was prompted by the disruptions of COVID-19. The first round of the survey was close to the start of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, with a second round in August 2021.

Given this moment, I was curious if Holcomb felt the survey anticipated parental anger over extended school closures. That anger proved to be the overriding factor in Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in the Virginia governor’s race in November and one of many reasons for the crushing recall of three San Francisco school board members last week.

“I am reluctant to weigh in on San Francisco politics from my perspective in West Michigan,” Holcomb wrote. “And public opinion is multifaceted and complex on this issue. But a recent CNN poll captured the national mood well, I think. People care about the general benefits of education in society and in their family’s life. Few focus on issues that have dominated national discourse, such as the history curriculum and critical race theory. And this is reflected in our study in that parents say the main issues they want to stay informed about are how to keep their children learning and thriving, healthy and safe in the school system.

I also wondered if the preference for the practice could extend to other local news. Holcomb replied

“Absolutely. I think the signals we’re getting about K-12 education are analogous to all kinds of local issues that affect people’s daily lives. That’s not to say people don’t don’t care about or benefit from other kinds of journalism. But it does suggest that when it comes to hyperlocal community issues, political drama and discourse somehow takes a back seat to the day-to-day issues to which people face.

Ten years ago, the University of Southern California launched a new experimental digital startup called The Alhambra Project. The professors traveled to the small working-class suburb – a kind of news wasteland – surrounded by Los Angeles. Their design strongly involved citizens in choosing the orientation of the cover.

Michael Parks, the late USC Journalism Dean who spearheaded the project, told me that one of the strongest findings was that residents were much less interested in the city’s changing demographics, linguistic differences and politics than by prosaic issues like parking and garbage collection.

The trilingual Alhambra Source published until November 2020, when financial problems forced closure.

I don’t think the study of Alhambra or that of Holcomb involves moving away from investigative and accountability reports so much as finding room for less glamorous work on everyday concerns.