Learning from the parallels between newspapers’ demise, public education

Just as newspapers lost subscribers, some public schools have been losing students, and like papers, some responded to losses in revenue and enrollment by laying off teachers, narrowing the curriculum, and eliminating programs.
By: | August 12, 2021
Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash
Erich May is superintendent of Brookville Area School District in Brookville, Pa.

Erich May is superintendent of Brookville Area School District in Brookville, Pa.

I got out of newspaper journalism twenty years ago just before the industry began to collapse. The internet took the ads and the readers, and since 2004, more than 2,100 newspapers have ceased operations. Now, from my perspective as a superintendent of schools, I see public schools facing some of the same pressures and making some of the same mistakes that newspapers made.

For hundreds of years, local newspapers were established institutions of the social fabric. Like public schools, newspapers were intended, in part, to maintain our democracy. Local newspapers and public schools distribute information and draw a distinction between facts and opinions. That distinction is crucial to critical thought, and an informed and thoughtful electorate is essential to democracy.

But newspapers – and now public schools – have been disrupted by technology. Television news was already cutting into newspaper subscriptions when the internet arrived. Craigslist took the classifieds, Yahoo took the ads, and the Drudge Report and HuffPost took readers. Online options proliferated, ensuring the supremacy of Google and Facebook.

The internet did not just compete; the search engine changed the way we read. No longer do we have to flip through newspaper pages or ignore entire sections that do not interest us. The search engine allows us to focus on our interests and read only what we want. It has changed the approach of readers and shriveled their patience.

The newspaper made every reader a generalist; the internet encourages specialization. The newspaper offered unbiased or balanced reporting; the internet is home to many partisan sites with a more tribal ethos. Likewise, public schools provide a general education in a centrist or moderate environment while private and charter schools are by design selective or specialized.

The newspaper connected its readers to their community – an actual, physical community. When people dropped the paper in favor of cable news and social media, they ended up with something less local. Similarly, magnets, charters, cybers, and private schools are less representative of the neighborhood and less rooted in it.

Newspapers responded to losses in revenue and circulation by cutting staff, shrinking news coverage, and imitating their online competitors. They published editions with fewer pages, sometimes on fewer days of the week, or abandoned print entirely.

Just as newspapers lost subscribers, some public schools have been losing students, and not unlike papers, some responded to losses in revenue and enrollment by laying off teachers, narrowing the curriculum, and eliminating programs. The government’s insistence on standards and tests led school leaders to shave off arts and athletics in favor of math and reading, which, in turn, encouraged some families to take their children elsewhere.

Then came COVID. The pandemic forced schools of all kinds to offer online options to families not comfortable coming into buildings. There was no way around that. Cyber schools saw an opportunity and capitalized. In Pennsylvania, for instance, public schools saw a 2 percent decline in enrollment last fall while publicly funded but privately managed cyber charters saw a 60 percent increase.

Education is an increasingly competitive industry, thanks in large part to cyber schools. Parents have choices. School leaders must understand that – and learn from the mistakes that newspapers made. You cannot simply become what your competitors already are; you have to be something else or something better. Fortunately for public schools, we already are better than cyber schools.

Instead of turning into just another provider of educational content, we should double down on the things we do best: athletics and arts, caring and character, conversation and community.

Schools with fields and stages are in the best position to engage students in sports and the arts. Schools with nurses and counselors are in the best position to care for students and develop their character. Schools with classrooms in buildings are in the best position to carry on conversations. Schools in neighborhoods are in the best position to serve communities and partner with them.

Cyber schools have no cafeterias, no playgrounds, no basketball courts. But lunch and recess, practices and games, concerts and musicals, dances and pep rallies – these experiences and activities make school more appealing. By restricting or abandoning the very things that connect kids to school, public schools are contributing to their own demise.

To put it another way, play is vital to the mental, physical, and social growth of children, so public schools have always given kids a chance to play – from kindergarten through senior year. Even in the pandemic, schools must embrace childhood and the messy business of raising children. Focus on the whole child, not just the part that computes.

Erich May is superintendent of Brookville Area School District in Brookville, Pa.

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