Virtuous Spamming, Lame Blogs, & More: Howie On The HotSeat

Following up on the first three hotseats (Petrilli, McCann, and Rotherham), HotSeat #4 features Howie Schaffer, the founder of the PEN Weekly NewsBlast and -- it seems hard to believe -- a PEN spokesperson.

Beamed to 45K plus folks each week, the NewsBlast is probably still the one to beat, despite its unusual beginnings, old school ways, and predictably pro-public education content. Its clean, simple layout, its nuanced choice of posts and summaries, and its grants announcements are a powerful combination.

On the HotSeat, "SuperHowie" Schaffer slams empty school reform ideas and lame blogs, comes clean about his sketchy past as a spammer, crushes on his favorite education writers (platonically, of course), and claims that the Blast is an equal-opportunity critic. Right, howie. And Wendy P. is fun to work for.


Tell me again the story about how you started the NewsBlast without anyone really knowing what you were up to, and how it grew and grew into the current juggernaut that it is?

HS: Two wrongs make a right when it comes to the PEN Weekly NewsBlast. First, I am a reformed spammer. Second, I didn't ask my boss for permission to start the whole enterprise. The first issue of the PEN Weekly NewsBlast was first sent in February 2000 -- to an e-mail readership of about 400 people whose addresses I culled from our databases. Then I just started cutting and pasting e-mail addresses from anyone who wrote to me. Aggressive spamming (for about two years) and word-of-mouth has been the secret to growing our subscribership.

So just how big has this little operation gotten since then?

HS: Today, we have more than 45,000 subscribers. They in turn forward the NewsBlast to friends and colleagues and post it on numerous listservs and websites giving us about 240,000 sets of eyeballs each week. PEN is the voice of the public in school reform efforts. If I did anything revolutionary six years ago, it was to see the potential for an independent free source of education news.

How do you decide what stories to recap, and what's the trick to a good summary?

HS: How would I know what makes a good summary? Every week I get dozens of emails telling me that I am a lousy editor. The most common complaint is the the blurbs are too long. According to our annual subscriber survey, folks on our list like our formula and don't want it to change.

Got any favorites from the past that stand out in your memory?

HS: I think a good NewsBlast issue has a good mix of everything: sound policy analysis; bipartisan political provocation; humor; the human face of public education; and a diversity of voices. I am a softie for articles about underdogs. Stories of good people fighting great intractable obstacles gets my interest.

Why not a blog? Everybody's doing them. And why no HTML in your posts? Are you just an old school kind of guy? Please don't tell me you still fax that thing out.

HS: When we first started the NewsBlast, I did have to fax it to a few of our technology-resistant subscribers. That soon ended because I hate busy signals. Most folks print out the NewsBlast and take it with them away from their desks. HTML is useless to these folks who read the NewsBlast like a digest. Some of the folks who care too much about HTML are the same people who have infected the nonprofit sector with alleged business-based best practices.

Tell us what you really, think, Howie.

HS: I have special contempt for nonprofit and governmental organizations that spend excessive amounts of charitable or taxpayer dollars lining the pockets of expensive consultants to guide them through "branding" initiatives and marketing to "new philanthropists" and "cause-related marketers." I am a big fan of text-based e-mails, common sense, citizens marching in the streets, and neighbors going door-to-door to collect signatures for petitions.

Who are some of your favorite education writers, and what are some of your favorite education publications?

HS: Amanda Paulsen (CSM), Ben Feller (AP), Steve Drummond (NPR), Kavan Peterson (Stateline.org), and Bess Keller (EW) are a few of my favorites. They are straight shooters who use an impressive array of sources. I like to sneak in essays from Parker Palmer, who I consider to be the conscience of good teaching. I respect the team at Education Week although their attempts to stop losing money are stealing a bit of their soul. As I told Mike Petrilli just this week, I find the Gadfly alternately brilliant and underwhelming. I also like USA Today and CNN for quick and dirty synopses of complex ideas.

Is education reporting in good shape?

HS: I think education reporting is in decent shape. I have seen it improve greatly in the 13 years I have been involved in public school reform. Getting education reporters out from behind their computers and into schools and communities continues to be a great challenge.

Have you ever gotten into trouble, even of the mildest kind, for including or excluding stories in the blast? Could you include pro voucher, pro NCLB stuff without getting slammed?

HS: Yes, I have been reprimanded a few times for putting in articles that have been critical of our friends and partners. I try to be an equal opportunity critic. Just because you buy me a shrimp cocktail does not mean that I will not turn around the next morning and publish something that holds your feet to the fire. I have never been told that a story was too hot to handle. I include pro-voucher, pro-NCLB stuff all the time. NCLB gets one pro article for ever ten con articles in the popular press. My percentage is about the same as that.
Present company excluded, what do you think of the current state of education blogs -- what they do, how they do it, etc?

HS: Blogs make me sad. The value of a blog is that you have a chance to go out on a limb and use the flexible format to say something really strong or outrageous. Most institutional blogs are hardly either. Same is true of Podcasts. These exciting new media are quickly become middle aged before they had a chance to be rowdy teenagers.

Do you read any of them?

HS: Rarely. Many lack decent editing skills. Everything is a three-alarm fire. A real blog that contains insightful commentary and not just gossip or a couple sentences of angry venting is different from most of what I see. What I see from most education blogs is their boring website content repackaged in an equally mindnumbing format but with a conversational tone.

What about a PEN blog to show us how it should really be done?

HS: We contemplated doing one around here and I did my best to kill the idea. My perception is that readers want news, not thinly marketed products and ideology. At present, there are more blog writers than blog readers. I hope that soon changes. But it will require more risk and courage from writers.

Tell us something about yourself, the NewsBlast, pen, or the world of education reform that we don't know.

HS: You can view another side of me at www.superhowie.com. That site shows the parts of me that are alternately a loving family man and a lazy, self-destructive publicity hound.


Blogger KC said...

Funny... I dropped an email to (presumably) him suggesting that he could post all his content to a blog without changing a thing about his email publishing. Interesting to see his hostility to the state of blogging. Seems oddly misinformed about the concept.

He should take a look at Secrecy News and open his mind to the idea that it is not an either/or proposition. Secrecy News is a widely distributed email newsletter that publishes the exact same content to the blog. Aside from teaching an old dog a new trick, there is no barrier.

1:03 PM  

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