At risk: The education beat at WBEZ



Is WBEZ missing a bet?

The current pledge drive runs through the end of this week. The station is drilling into our heads the reasonable argument that if we like the station's programming we ought to help pay for it. The dominant chord struck is celebratory, but there's an undertone of fear and urgency. A note of, if not us, who?

I hear Jerome McDonnell and Shannon Heffernan talking up their station's coverage of education—which damn well deserves all the praise it gets. WBEZ is "killing it" on education, says McDonnell. "We have Linda Lutton because you give us money," says Heffernan. McDonnell chimes in, "Linda's putting gas in her car, going on to all those schools, talking to all those people—that is you paying for it!"

The last day of school—a big, big story because for some 50 schools it was the last day forever—Becky Vevea did most of the reporting and got the same sort of great-reporting-isn't-free treatment. Lutton has been covering education for WBEZ since 2008; about 15 months ago the station scraped some dollars together and added Vevea as a contract employee—a freelancer with portfolio. In the months ahead, one education reporter would simply not be enough. The public school year in Chicago began with a strike. Then Lutton was pulled off her regular assignments to spend most of the fall embedded at Harper High School for the celebrated two-part report broadcast by This American Life in February.

Spring brought the closing of the schools, a simple enough story if reported from Chicago Public Schools headquarters but an overwhelmingly complicated one for Lutton and Vevea, who took their tape recorders into the neighborhoods.

So as I was saying, is the WBEZ pledge drive missing a bet? There's still time to lay the matter bluntly on the line—If you want education coverage of this quality to continue at WBEZ, then dig deep. Because at this moment we don't think we have the budget for it.

Last Friday, June 21, the board of Chicago Public Media met on Navy Pier and approved a fiscal 2014 budget that Daniel Ash, Chicago Public Media's vice president of strategic communications, describes as a "growth budget." It doesn't grow much, just 3 percent, but Ash promises there will be no layoffs. Then again, Vevea can't be laid off because she was never technically on staff to begin with. What matters is that she will not be added to the staff as a reporter—or, it appears, kept around in her current contract status. WBEZ has no reporting jobs to fill, and the fiscal 2014 budget, as now conceived, does not create one. But a couple of openings for producer do exist, and I understand that Vevea is being encouraged to apply. If she does she's likely to be hired, because she's so highly valued. And if she's hired—albeit as a producer—she's likely to find herself doing some education reporting while she wears a different hat.

But all of that is hypothetical and roundabout. Something else the board of directors did at their meeting last Friday was read and briefly discuss a letter that Linda Lutton had written them championing the education coverage and warning it was at risk.

Managing editor Sally Eisele "has to make a lot of decisions," Ash told me. "Sally really, really respects what [Vevea's] brought to the table. She's been top-notch. Sally would love to do more than what the budget allows. We have a growth budget, but she'd like to grow more. I'm trying to raise a million dollars."

The future of the education coverage is the subject of a lot of conversation within WBEZ, and what I'm asking is if the public should be cut in on it. If the pitch were altered—from "keep what's wonderful wonderful" to "this is gone unless you give"—would the million be easier to raise? I put the idea to Ash, and he said asking listeners to earmark pledges is something WBEZ does not want to do. "It's a slippery slope," he said. "Every beat in the city room would want the same thing. It's not the most effective way of pitching our services. We want our audience to know it's about the collective."

But the collective is the sum of many parts, and over the past year education has been so central to the affairs of Chicago that it's difficult to imagine a local news report WBEZ listeners would put up with if the education coverage were not superior. For the past year, Lutton and Vevea were the straw that stirred the drink. But maybe it's a matter of perspective. If the station's city room paid less attention to education, some listeners would assume it was simply because the subject had become less important.

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