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Professional Opinion

Taking Control of Your District’s News

Create the kind of news that gets out to the public.

It was June 1979 when I became a reporter for my hometown newspaper in Alabama. From the time I was a kid following my grandfather around cotton fields and talking politics with the farmers, it was all I had wanted to be.

What’s happening now—30 years later—breaks my heart. We are witnessing the slow death of great American newspapers. Newsrooms are being slashed as paid readership declines and ad revenues go bust. My hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle, recently cut more than 12 percent of its workforce. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer only publishes online now. The Rocky Mountain News and the Tucson Citizen have closed. The San Francisco Chronicle is on life support.

This is a sad time. We need good newspapers that deliver fair, in-depth news coverage—especially of educational issues. No one should celebrate this decline of the American newspaper.

But this dire situation presents both opportunities and challenges for school districts.

Launch a Permanent Campaign

It is time for school district administrators to launch what I call the “Permanent Campaign” for public support. Many in the school business can no longer depend on the local newspaper to deliver straight, fair, complete coverage of districts. Many of the papers don’t have the space, the resources and, in some cases, the inclination to do it anymore.

School districts must create their own supercharged newsrooms to find and deliver compelling, dramatic stories about success—and failure too. The sea change occurring in the news business gives school districts more opportunities to find and tell their own great stories and get more positive coverage in the media.

We must engage in the Permanent Campaign if there is going to continue to be, as my old boss Secretary of Education Rod Paige called it, “a public for public education.” If the community—parents, especially—hear only bad news about schools from the media, they will walk away from public schools. And public schools without public support will die.

School district administrators can help increase public support by producing full-blown news releases in news story style immediately to the media. School officials who have access to television coverage should push those stories immediately to television, where far more people get their news. School district leaders make a huge mistake when they sit back and wait to see how the newspaper covers the story and then allow all the other local media to piggyback on the newspaper story and cover it the very same way.

It's a huge mistake to sit back and wait to see how newspapers cover your story.

Administrators should hold major news conferences and produce news announcements on their budgets, new programs and initiatives, and significant or touching stories from schools.

Blast Out News Stories

And instead of simply tossing the school board meeting agenda to the media and saying, “Here, you figure out what the news is,” school district leaders should blast out individual news stories about proposed school board agenda items days in advance of meetings.

Administrators should never let the local news media decide how test score information will be announced. They should announce their districts’ own test scores at news events featuring successful schools with great stories of achievement to tell, and then also face head-on any bad news.

Another powerful tool is a notification system, such as Blackboard’s Connect-ED, which can be used to transmit important information directly to parents by phone, e-mail and text message in moments. School districts can then download the audio phone calls, release the phone calls to the media, and use them to create more new stories.

I’ve worked with school leaders across America, and they ask me the same question: “Why can’t we get better news coverage?” My answer is always the same: “Look in the mirror. It starts right there.” If you want good media coverage, go get it.

The Permanent Campaign must begin—right here, right now.

Terry Abbott is an award-winning reporter and the chairman of Drive West Communications, which represents Blackboard’s Connect-ED. He was also the former chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Education, the press secretary for the Houston Independent School District, and the press secretary for the governor of Alabama.