Newbie LATimes Blogger Challenges WPost Veteran: "Jay Mathews' Reign of Terror Will Not Stand!"

This week's HotSeat Q & A features the LA Times' Bob Sipchen, who earlier this month launched what I described last week as a new, hybrid kind of education blog -- one that enjoys the best of both worlds in being run by a mainstream paper but written by a full-time staff columnist.

On the HotSeat, Sipchen yearns for smarter education reporting (and explains why journalists get sucked into writing lame articles), tells which his favorite blogs are (and how shockingly easy it was for him to get the LA Times to give him one), describes the pros and cons of starting a blog as a veteran editor and columnist (mostly pros), and challenges Jay Mathews to a duel (no, not really).

Given Sipchen's credentials and the support of the LATimes, it's not hard to imagine that School Me won't soon be a standout. But, given how close the Post's Jay Mathews already is to having a blog (it's online, it's commentary, it's just not daily), I'm guessing Sipchen won't be the only mainstream columnist with an education blog for long. I give it a year before Jay is at it, though I know he's got better things to do. No matter. There's no resisting the blog. Takers?


What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of education coverage in the press, would you say?

BS: Education is an insular stupifyingly complex, acronym- and jargon-laden field populated with self-important people who’ve been inculcated in an ethos of obfuscation. It’s also a vibrant, thrilling, relatively simple realm filled with bright and articulate people who speak their minds with wit and insight. Too often we’re bamboozled into focusing on the dreary side of schooling.

How and why do reporters get bamboozled into covering the stupefying parts of education?

BS: I think reporters on any beat can be drawn into the insularity. If the writers refrain from embracing the jargon and refuse to let the wonkiest players set the agenda, their insider sources can make them feel that their stories don’t grasp the awesome importance of the subject.

What does "better" education coverage mean, anyway, besides making it more fun?

Good coverage is smart. And smart coverage, by definition in my view, is intellectually stimulating, vigorous, engaging—fun even (a lot like good teaching, I think). From what I’ve seen, the edusphere, as you call it, does a pretty good job of side-stepping pedagogy’s pretentious, self-important twaddle and ignoring those who think that coverage of a serious subject (education is that) must always be deathly serious in tone.

Got any favorite education writers, regular or occasional?

BS: Yes: Joel Rubin, Mitchell Landsberg, Erika Hayasaki, Carla Rivera, and Hemmy So. They’re the Times’ education team. They’re smart and tough. And I’m competitive and tribal. The rest of you are the enemy. We will destroy you! Jay Mathews' reign of terror will not stand! (Joking -- Mathews is the master. I can only aspire. And there are many more great education writers out there.)

How hard or easy was it to convince the powers that be to let you blog, and how many pieces of silver did you have to give up?

BS: Easy to get the blog. Rob Barrett, LATimes.com’s business side guru, thinks online education journalism makes good economic sense, so he’s supportive. The tough part is getting it up to snuff. We have grandiose plans for School Me. We’d like it to be more of a full-fledged web magazine. So we have our work cut out for us.

What have you learned these first few weeks about blogging and the edusphere?

BS: The edusphere confirms my long-held suspicion that schooling is vastly more fun and exciting than 93% of standard print education reportage would make you think.

How much time have you been spending so far?

BS: Every waking moment.

Got any favorite blogs to recommend, besides of course this one?

BS: I do very much admire your blog and several others. I know quite a few mainstream bloggers—if that’s not a contradiction in terms—and I’ve learned a lot from watching and talking to them. School Me, to some extent, is blatantly trying to rip off the model of Kevin Roderick’s LAObserved. Though we may be putting a bit more of an edge on School Me than he does on his indispensable roundup of Southern California news.

I’m still exploring the education genre, and I’m not ready to pick favorites at this point. There’s lots of impressive work being done. The references we make in our posts and the links we throw up will, over time, reveal our biases (I say we, because the brilliant Janine Kahn, a recent USC grad, is doing most of the really cool stuff on School Me).

What do you like about LA observed and other mainstream blogs that are your inspiration?

BS: LAObserved is sort of our model. It’s just a must-read for people who care about what’s going on in LA, and we’d like to become that for southern California education. Other blogs I like aren’t necessarily an inspiration for School Me. I enjoy political head-butting and snarky insider gossip, but I don’t think those are the best models for School Me.

Were there any concerns about objectivity or balance, and are you edited?

BS: Joel Sappell is the executive editor of the web, and he’s the omnipresent lurker. My column, which appears in the Time’s California section on Mondays as well as online, is aptly edited by Ms. Beth Shuster. But it is a reported opinion column, so no one objects to an element of pontification and no one—so far—is asking me to pull punches. I need to be fair, but not necessarily balanced. Other than that, I’m responsible for the online component of School Me. I’ve been an editor for quite a while and involved in web projects for over a decade so I’m confident that I can walk the online line between attitude and basic journalistic principles.

Is it a big deal that you are unlike the other MSM-run education blog authors, a columnist not a beat reporter?

BS: Not a big deal, really. But it makes my job a lot easier. I don’t have to tip-toe around the obvious the way reporters sometimes do. If a teacher were to come to class naked except for a thin coat of Jiffy peanut butter, I could say that was inappropriate, rather than quoting experts on either side of the pedagogic attire issue.

Are blogs going to take over the world, or is that a bunch of hooey?

BS: Blogs, in my humble view, will always be ancillary to traditional journalism—which is not to say that some blogs don’t do real journalism. News will someday be delivered directly to the cortex via implanted microchips. But the reportage will still have been gathered and processed by hardworking reporters and editors who take their watchdog role and the nation’s First Amendment seriously.

To what extent is School Me just advertising stories written by LAT education reporters? do you always link to them, sometimes, or rarely? what about if there's a good piece in the sacbee or god forbid the LA Daily News?

BS: Ugh. We try to link to stories we find important and/or interesting—whether we agree with them or not. We’ve already linked several times to the LA Daily News, the Daily Breeze and other local publications as well as the Sacramento Bee and New York Times.

How did you get to be interested in writing about education?

BS: It interests me because I think the age of education is upon us. Globalization is spurring worldwide focus on the subject, billionaires are shoveling money into reform, politicians are battling for control of school districts and big thinkers are wrestling with basic questions of how we school our kids.

On a personal level, I’ve been watching schools fail students in LA throughout my 20+ years at the Times and lobbying for better education coverage for most of that time. Assistant Managing Editor Janet Clayton also thinks education is critically important and when she took charge of all local and state coverage, she began ratcheting up the paper’s education reportage. I was eager to join the team.

My wife and I have three children who managed to receive good educations in Los Angeles public schools—my son’s a high school junior, my daughters are in college now--and their experiences motivate me too.

And I guess it also goes back to my own sometimes-sketchy public school education. One teacher in particular was inattentive. Midway through an oral book report I started pretending to talk in tongues. When I was done he glanced up and said: “Very good.”


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