Friday, June 24, 2011

A community of watchdogs

Light a candle; June 25 marks the first birthday of the Your Schools blog.  The past year has blown away my expectations.

I thought a blog would be a chance to give the most education-oriented readers more information than we can squeeze into print, and it has done that.  We've topped 325,000 page views so far.

What I didn't anticipate was the community of readers that has developed.  Based on the flaming and ranting that takes place on stories,  I had a pretty bleak view of online comments, especially the anonymous kind.

Somehow, this forum turned out to be different.  CMS teachers and other employees who felt voiceless during one of the most harrowing years in memory offered tips,  views and insights.  Readers posted links and data to bolster their opinions. The decision-makers have been reading.

Our best-read post was on Jan. 11,  when Superintendent Peter Gorman rolled out a preview of the 2011-12 budget,  complete with plans for 1,500 job cuts.  The staff handed budget documents to reporters just before the gavel banged,  and I started posting live.

I quickly learned that CMS had emailed the same documents to all employees at about the same time -- and that employees had key information that had been omitted from press copies.  As I swapped questions and comments with readers,  the missing material landed in my inbox,  sent by teachers who were following the dialog.  Our online staff quickly got it posted for other readers -- all of this in the midst of a crucial school board meeting.

When I finally caught my breath it hit me:  This really is a new era of reporting.  Having so many new voices in the mix can be exhausting,  but it's exhilarating.   Sometimes it's like having a staff of research assistants -- among the great tips from blog readers was the heads-up that CMS was working on 52 new tests as part of performance pay.  Sometimes it's like having a panel of extra editors -- y'all do not hesitate to say what you think.  Most important:  There's a whole pack of watchdogs empowered to watch public leaders and reporters.  That's a good thing.

The milestone is particularly rich for me because this week also marks the 30th anniversary of the day I reported to work as a reporter for The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph.  No internet, no faxes, no cell phones -- we did have word-processing computers, but they were new and buggy enough that the older reporters viewed them with suspicion.  The ensuing decades have brought a lot of surprises, some of them unpleasant.  But I'm glad to be around for this.  Thanks to all of you for being part of it.

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