An inside look at the making of a news story
Posted on May 12, 2013
Warning: this is a very long reflection on a recent Bloomberg news story about SNHU, my deconstruction of that story and experience with the reporter, and some broader, rambling thoughts about what it means for a university to deal with the media. Some may accuse me of sour grapes because I didn’t like the story very much (I didn’t, it is true), but really it does not read so badly in the end. Others might say it’s pretty dumb to criticize a reporter (What’s the old adage about not picking fights with people who buy ink by the barrel?), but a reporter who wishes to hold higher ed accountable should be similarly held accountable and this blog post will probably be read only my mother and handful of others who follow my campus blog. If it comes to be read widely, then maybe ink by the barrel no longer trumps so fully electronic ink.
If I was offended by the story or thought it was really bad, I’d be calling the editors at Bloomberg instead of rambling on about it in a campus blog post. It was not so bad, just poorly done, and it is more interesting for the insights it provides than for the actual story. I’ve decided to share this inside look at a news story gone awry a bit because I think the actual way stories get written is inherently interesting, the work of journalists is so important, and after working with them for 17 years in two presidencies I care that it be done well.
But really, for most people, you might just skip this post.
I like journalists. Generally, I find them smart and curious and I admire their ability to tell stories. In college I was editor of my campus newspaper and I worked as a stringer for the Westfield Evening News (35 cents a column inch back then) and spent a summer as a reporter for the Palmer Journal. Even my dissertation was an ethnography that in many ways collected stories and tried to “report” on the ways technology was reshaping my discipline.
For both the institutions I’ve served, Marlboro College and now Southern New Hampshire University, I’ve worked hard to get them the media attention I thought they deserved. I do so because I think they have genuinely interesting stories to tell, media coverage helps raise the brand identity of a school, and I like the give and take with reporters. I also favor a very “open book” approach with interested reporters. We don’t control access, we don’t have public relations staff escorting them around, we tend to let reporters deep into the weeds, and we readily share our problems. As some will attest, I even usually provide them the names of our harshest critics (saves them time and if they are any good they’ll find them anyway). In return, I simply ask that when there are problems to be cited or described I be given an opportunity to tell our side of the story.
This makes some people on my campus nervous. Reporters sometimes get it wrong (in their defense, staffs have been cut back, they are asked to do more with less, and editorial guidance at many media outlets is not what it was in more stable years for the field) and when they do I have to do a little post-story damage control. For example, in 2009 the Chronicle’s Eric Kelderman, an experienced and capable reporter, did a story on our decision not to pursue AACSB accreditation (http://chronicle.com/article/Struggling-Colleges-Questio/48685/) and it ran with this headline: “Struggling Colleges Question the Cost — and Worth — of Specialized Accreditation.” We were actually enjoying one of our best years ever financially and our decision had a lot less to do with finding ways to cover the cost, which we could have readily done, and more to do with an analysis of what value AACSB accreditation would have actually brought us. We weren’t struggling; we were growing and thriving. They got our story wrong and we had been portrayed in a factually inaccurate and unflattering light (who wants to be called “struggling” in the industry press?). To their credit, when I raised the issue with the Chronicle they promptly ran my letter of response (http://chronicle.com/article/Specialized-Accreditation-Is/48902/) and we were able to share our actual story.
I have a list of these stories that went (usually) slightly wrong. Sometimes it is in a simple fact or two or a statement that was quoted only in part (and thus skewed) or in highlighting only a contrarian voice to give the story a bit of drama or conflict. No big deal and it’s a small price to pay for getting one’s school high profile media attention, but any time I know a story is coming out soon I give my campus community a heads up and remind them to not overreact if the story gets some of the details wrong. It’s okay.
When Bloomberg News reporter John Hechinger said he wanted to do a story about our growth in the online education market, I was pleased and invited him to campus. We spoke at length about SNHU, we toured both the traditional campus and our online operations, and we gave him free and unfettered access to anyone he wanted. He asked some provocative questions and I shared my perspective. However, people with whom he met started reporting a worrisome tone to his questions, a sort of negative slant implied in the framing of questions — something beyond healthy reportorial skepticism. We then got online and started reading his past stories on higher ed and almost every story seemed highly critical of the subject under scrutiny. There were almost no positive stories. A member of my leadership team asked, “This guy has never written a positive higher education story, so why are we giving him any access to us?”
So I emailed John in March:
Sorry for the slow response. I’ve been traveling and I’m now on vacation in Berlin. I’ve had Steve catch me up on your back and forth and heard from a handful of others and been thinking about the story you want to do and have some reservations with which I’ve been wrestling. This is strange territory for me because I always operate with a very open attitude towards the media. You can ask Paul Fain at Inside Higher Ed, Jeff Selingo at the Chronicle, Tracy Jan at the Boston Globe, and others and they will all readily attest to the “open book” invitation we extend to interested reporters. Because I’m proud of the work we do and our mission and focus on doing the right thing, I have always been willing to share and trusted objective reporters to accurately report what they find.
While I enjoyed our conversation and sensed an authentic desire to understand what we do, the concerns that have arisen include:
1. Some with whom you have spoken have felt that you were “fishing” for more and there was an air of “what’s really going on here” in your questions;
2. In looking at your previous stories we could find not one positive depiction of higher ed or an individual institution;
3. While you affirm that you are interested in more than the business model, when you were invited to take a closer look at areas like advising or academics, you showed limited interest.
Taken as whole, there is a worry that you might be approaching this story either with a pre-constructed narrative in mind (and a negative one at that) or a desire to look for the negative. As someone posed the question, “ If John is looking to slam us no matter what he actually finds, why should we participate in our own put down?” That wasn’t my sense from our time together, but I have to say that in looking at the list of your recent stories I was a little worried.
I don’t mind tough questions (such as your “Couldn’t you take a smaller surplus and charge online students less?” question) and I understand the need to dig down and triangulate and make sure you have the facts right, but I want to know that you will be fair, that you’ll place us in context (because we do think we are better than the for-profits and a lot of non-profits and getting better), and that if you come to have criticisms we’ll have a chance to respond. I want to know you’ll listen to our narrative and the facts we marshal behind that narrative. If an objective and fair-minded examination of those claims and the facts lead you to very different conclusion, so be it.
Sorry to be so blunt, but I feel compelled to share the concerns. We can probably work out the FIRPA issues and other items Steve mentioned regarding access and protection of students, but this larger set of concerns needs to be first addressed for us to invite you more fully into what we do.
John, a smart and easy to talk to guy, by the way, responded promptly:
Thanks for sharing your concerns. I just had a similar conversation with Steve at the MIT conference. I can certainly assure you that I’m approaching the story with an open mind. The editors at Businessweek are looking for a feature story that shows the process of online education — what it’s like to take a course, to teach it and to provide support, such as academic counseling — and also profiles the people behind the program, including you and Steve, students, teachers and advisors. That’s why I’d like to come back soon and spend some time with a counselor, observe new student orientation, visit Salem and find out more about the $10,000 degree. That kind of piece relies on telling a story through scenes and, eventually, photos. I’ll, of course, also want to discuss your business model, explore issues of cost and, as we discussed, the debate over the merits of online versus face-to-face education.
My recent stories have indeed included many investigative pieces about student debt and for-profit colleges. I’m, in fact, very interested in how you and Steve said you’ve borrowed from their successes while avoiding practices — such as paying recruiters for enrolling students — that have gotten for-profits into trouble.
I’ve also written a great variety of stories over 25 years that may not show up in your initial search.
Here’s a piece about for-profit colleges losing ground to online public universities — another article that led to my interest in Southern New Hampshire University http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-20/for-profits-losing-to-better-rated-cheaper-state-schools.html
Here’s a link to a Businessweek feature about John Sexton, president of NYU:
Here’s a story from my last job — at the Wall Street Journal — about Maryland schools using technology to improve results, especially among low-income students.
I do tend to ask many questions, some pointed. It helps me understand what’s going on and get the detail I need. If I hear anything that might seem critical, I would certainly make every effort to ask you about it, discuss it and put it in context. I value fairness, as does Bloomberg.
I enjoyed meeting you and my visit. I do hope we can continue our conversations. Please let me know if you’d like to discuss this further or perhaps talk about his on the phone.
With those reassurances from John, we allowed him continued access to staff and students, supplied him with data and “inside” information, and quickly responded to his inquiries.
So his story finally ran on Friday of this week (it is attached below). In the end, it is largely positive I suppose. That is, we sound like we know how to grow our online programs, our traditional campus sounds very positive (if pampered), it ends on a positive anecdote of a student feeling well served by us, and it’s another SNHU story in the national media. But unlike other stories that get some of the details wrong, John’s final product does not accurately tell the story in the big ways that feel important to me.
I’ll do a bit of analysis with it, inserting my commentary in bracketed italics, and then offer a few final reflections:
Tiny College Following Harvard’s Christensen Reaps Profit Online
2013-05-09 21:00:00.13 GMT
By John Hechinger
May 10 (Bloomberg) – Southern New Hampshire University’s
quaint, red-brick New England campus is home to 2,750
undergraduates, making it the size of some high schools.
[Okay – -true depiction, but a little patronizing in tone. He could have also said “making it the size other small New England colleges like Wesleyan, Babson, and Amherst” and not only would that be a better apples to apples comparison (i.e. college to college), but the tone would read quite differently. While I might be accused of inflating our status by choosing those schools, they are at least colleges. There are many others under 3000 students. Comparisons matter as they connote certain qualities. This one deflates.]
A casual visitor would never suspect that an additional
25,000 students are enrolled online, Bloomberg Businessweek
reports in its May 13 issue. That’s about how many are in the
bachelor’s program at the University of California at Berkeley.
Harvard University, Stanford University and the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology have gained attention with
their MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which are free and
feature famed professors. Critics of the programs say that, with
no business model, they’re little more than a branding exercise.
Southern New Hampshire’s College of Online and Continuing
Education is no vanity project. The school’s management
forecasts that revenue will reach $200 million in the next
academic year – four times what it took in for 2010-2011 –
making it one of the biggest and fastest-growing online
operations at any nonprofit college in the U.S.
[All factual and accurate. No issues with the above.]
“They are one of the most important players in the online
space,” said Robert Lytle, co-head of the education practice at
Parthenon Group LLC, a Boston-based management consulting firm.
“They’ve painted a pathway for other schools.”
Online, Southern New Hampshire offers standardized courses,
a factory-style approach that has as much in common with Henry
Ford as John Harvard.
[So note the opposition set up here: assembly line versus the standard setting brand name and the associations with “cookie cutter” and “uninspired” that “assembly-line” evokes. There is no attempt to describe the ways our course development offers superior quality control or, if he doesn’t buy that argument, to at least share the claims we make for superior quality. This is an implicit judgment statement not supported by the facts unless one confuses well developed courses and an effective process for creating them with the factory-line.]
Classes are designed by subject-matter
experts – a professor of English or accounting – and taught by
part-time instructors typically paid $2,500 per course.
[Fair enough, but no mention of the fact that we just hired 25 new full-time faculty for our online programs with more to come? That’s a significant investment and change and omitting that fact makes this part of the story factually incomplete.]
Classes don’t meet; students read online materials or watch
a video of a lecture, which they can do at night or during their
lunch hour. A classroom discussion translates into posts on a
[Again, what a report omits is as important as what he or she includes. The description above is accurate, but incomplete. We shared the ways we are including new adaptive learning technology into our courses, for example. Students discuss course topics, but they also do group projects, write papers, take exams. In other words, in terms of learning activities, these courses are the same as traditional courses. Doesn’t his depiction suggest something more paltry? Maybe I’m being overly sensitive here.]
The price of Southern New Hampshire’s online bachelor’s
degree, $38,000, isn’t cheap, but it’s far less than the
$112,000 – not including housing or meals – the university
charges undergraduates for four years at the brick-and-mortar
[Time out: what standard is John using for saying something “isn’t cheap”? In fact, a $38,000 four-year degree would be considered affordable by most people and is less than even many public institutions. We take pride in keeping the prices of our online degrees low, but as you’ll see, John’s building narrative would be undercut by framing this cost as attractive.]
For the current academic year, the university is projecting
a $29 million profit from the online college, which amounts to a
22 percent margin. Some of the money is being plowed back into
the online operation, which will soon have a dedicated faculty
of 25 full-time professors.
[He uses “profit,” though as a non-profit the accurate word here is “surplus.” But most people don’t distinguish the two. Also, the margin is again factual as far as it goes, but a more complete picture would also point out that the university’s overall margin is less than 10% — on par with normal non-profit universities of our type and size. Admittedly, a quibble and he is trying to illustrate our online program’s success in financial terms. And he does mention the full-time faculty. Yet in the structure of the story, it is the ready acknowledgement that sets up the “Oh but…” transition. Here it comes.]
There’s still plenty left over for a campus building boom.
A new student center features a pub, big-screen televisions, and
exposed stone walls, while a revamped dining hall boasts a sushi
bar. The school will soon open a 308-student dorm and break
ground on a 50,000-square-foot library, also largely paid for by
profit from the online operation.
[Not accurate really. The Student Center renovation and new pub was paid for by a $500k gift from a donor and $500k provided by our Student Government Association. Online students did not pay for the stone walls or big screen televisions. That new library and the dining hall? We issued bonds for those. When I shared this with John, he rightly pointed out that the financial strength provided by online operations made such borrowing possible and reassured S&P (who reaffirmed our credit rating even as we borrowed $60m for construction projects.”). But that is at best an indirect link. Reread the passage and decide: does it sound like online “profits” directly paid for these campus improvements? If you think “yes,” then the story has misled.]
“This is why college is so expensive,” said President
[Ah…sure. But that is a small part of what I was describing to John. Debt service is a very small part of our annual budget: 1.66% this year. What I actually described to him was the expense of providing a residential “coming of age” education that includes a lot of exposure to full-time faculty (so we are adding ten more to make sure that all undergraduates have 66% of their classes with full-time faculty), more opportunities for growth and leadership through extracurricular activities such as student organizations and service learning, and our expansion of women’s sports to remain Title IX compliant. But if you look at the juxtaposition of the paragraph on buildings and then that one small quote from the longer discussion I just outlined, what impression do you take away?]
As the architect of the university’s online strategy,
LeBlanc has been influenced by the ideas of Clayton Christensen,
the Harvard Business School professor who coined the phrase
“disruptive innovation” to describe the process by which
companies at the bottom of the market use new technologies to
displace more established competitors. In Christensen’s view,
higher education, with its skyrocketing costs, is ripe for a
revolution; he predicts that in 15 years, half of all
universities will be out of business.
LeBlanc sees no contradiction in using the fruits of the
Internet to lavish attention on the 80-year-old university.
[“Lavish attention” might have been “invest in” and it would read differently. Also, John ignored a key point I made more than once: online’s success is based on taking the academic programs developed and stewarded on the main campus and extending them to the world through online delivery. That some of the surplus helps underwrite the cost of the traditional campus seems only fair. When I pointed out to John that in this year the main campus was wholly self-sufficient — needing no help with breaking even – he asked “But most years it does, right?” and I confirmed that fact, but it is hardly “lavishing” attention which connotes excess. The greatest portion of “cross-subsidy” or “royalty”, as we prefer, is for the millions of dollars of grant aid we provide needy students on the main campus. That feels mission-driven and right to me, not “lavishing.”]
Many students, particularly recent high-school graduates, are looking
for what he calls “a residential coming-of-age experience.”
Southern New Hampshire’s real-life campus is also key to
its virtual success. It’s a way to distinguish the online
college from for-profit institutions such as Apollo Group Inc.’s
University of Phoenix, whose high student-loan default rates and
aggressive marketing have drawn scrutiny from Congress as well
as state and federal authorities.
LeBlanc said prospective applicants to the online college
are often sold when they learn that the school is a full-service
university, complete with a basketball team – even if they’ll
never watch it play.
The college’s website and 24-hour call center bear more
than a passing resemblance to those of the University of
Phoenix, the nation’s largest for-profit chain.
“We have borrowed shamelessly,” LeBlanc said. “We don’t
mind saying so.”
[This one feels disingenuous to me. The whole quote was that we borrowed shamelessly the for-profits’ attention to operations, customer service, and metrics AND that we held onto a non-profits’ focus on quality, academic values, and student success.” That is in many ways the real story to my mind: how a smaller non-profit has learned to compete with for-profits head-to-head in terms of operational prowess, but outperforms them in terms of quality. I shared our 50% graduation rate and ever improving persistence rates, far better than those of Phoenix, which he cites above. Keep that in mind and reread the passage. ]
Like the for-profits, Southern New Hampshire markets itself
aggressively, spending $20 million a year on TV ads.
[It’s “like the for-profits” in that there are television ads, yes, but as a percentage of overall budget we spend far less than the for-profits. We wanted to become a national university, so we advertise nationally now and I suppose that is “aggressive,” but we do not advertise at the same rates as a Phoenix or Kaplan. We want people in California and Texas to know about us and that requires advertising, but as a % of budget we do far less. Adjust for Phoenix’s much higher tuition costs and we are less again. One doesn’t get that sense from the comparison.]
For its online operations, which are housed in an old textile mill
several miles from the regular campus, LeBlanc has hired
veterans from Kaplan Inc., the for-profit higher-education unit
of Washington Post Co., and Education Management Corp., the
second-largest for-profit chain.
[Here again is critical omission that skews the reader’s sense. We also pointed out that we have hired as many or more people from Western Governor’s U, UMass Online, Drexel, and other non-profits. Why omit that fact? It would undercut the growing narrative: these guys are just like the for-profits, though in case after case here we have factual basis for arguing otherwise.]
At the same time, LeBlanc is undercutting for-profits on
price, charging half as much for some types of degrees.
Concerns about quality hang over online college education.
Recent Columbia University studies of tens of thousands of
community college students in Virginia and Washington State
found that those taking online courses earned lower grades and
were more likely to fail or withdraw.
[Okay, but John said he was interested in how we deliver quality and we gave him a mountain of data and endless examples of how we do better than the poorly designed and delivered online programs out there. He showed little interest in learning about any of that and while he may be right that concerns linger in general, he ostensibly wanted to tell our story and failed to so on this pretty critical point.]
Using profits from the online college to subsidize the
regular college suggests the nonprofit institution could be
charging online students less, considering the cost savings,
said Kevin Carey, an education expert at the New America
“Who benefits from that savings?” he said. “So far, the
[I’m a big Kevin Carey fan and I’m not sure how the question was posed to Kevin. But this is just plain wrong. How so:
§ Our students pay less for their degree than most others;
§ We had NO tuition increase this year in online programs;
§ We have invested millions in improving quality (I’ve mentioned just some of those investments earlier);
§ We’ve added robust career services;
§ We instituted a new student advising model that is driving up persistence rates.
So are online students benefiting? Absolutely.
§ While online students enjoyed no tuition increase, other students — those on campus — have enjoyed higher levels of aid.
§ The surplus in online is funding the development and launch of our new competency-based program which is offering a degree at extremely low prices and to the least well served of adult students.
I could go on. The main point is that students are benefiting enormously, including online students.]
Even some of the beneficiaries of Southern New Hampshire’s
online push are uneasy. John Wescott, a 19-year-old sophomore at
the physical campus, expects to graduate with only $15,000 in
student debt, thanks to financial aid. Yet he recalls a
discussion at a student-government meeting: “There was a sense
that we were turning into the University of Phoenix and the
value of our degree was going down.”
[John had promised a balanced report and I was the one who had shared this student concern. I also shared our response. That with a national brand reputation and an easy answer to any question about our institution being like Phoenix, the value of an SNHU degree has gone way up. He can disagree, but I would argue that we deserved a “LeBlanc counters that by saying…” inclusion in the story. But that too would undercut his narrative.]
Southern New Hampshire is offering a $5,000 two-year
associate degree, a stripped-down online offering that lets
working adults earn a diploma for showing competency, rather
than for class credits.
[John is the first person to use “stripped down” to describe our College for America program. It is certainly different and he can defend his term, but it is a pretty impoverished description and what it doesn’t include is also balanced with what it does and it is not the “stripping down” that makes it most notable. I’ll put this on the more of a quibble end of the spectrum in John’s defense.]
The Obama administration in April made
Southern New Hampshire the first school eligible for federal
financial aid using that approach.
To fight the notoriously high attrition rates in online
programs, LeBlanc relies on a corps of 131 “academic sherpas.”
The guides monitor students’ progress, calling them if they see
a poor grade or if they fail to log on to their computer for
days at a time.
Dean Young, a 23-year-old from Skowhegan, Maine, whose
parents didn’t graduate from high school, credits his counselor
with helping him keep up with the demands of his forensic-
psychology bachelor’s program.
Without that prodding, Young said, “I probably would have
[This is a nice success note on which to end. We think our advising and student success initiatives are a major differentiating factor for our programs and I was pleased to see that John acknowledged them as such or at least pointed in that direction. He evokes “notoriously high attrition rates” and fails to give the data point that shows us as a stark exception to those trends, but the anecdote helps. ]
In my deconstruction of John’s article, I’ll go back to the standards he affirmed for his work:
“If I hear anything that might seem critical, I would certainly make every effort to ask you about it, discuss it and put it in context. I value fairness, as does Bloomberg.”
“The editors at Businessweek are looking for a feature story that shows the process of online education — what it’s like to take a course, to teach it and to provide support, such as academic counseling — and also profiles the people behind the program, including you and Steve, students, teachers and advisors.”
“I can certainly assure you that I’m approaching the story with an open mind. “
I’ll let you decide if he lived up to his promise, but want to reflect on that third statement from John. My conclusion after working with reporters from just about every media outlet I value (and I read them regularly) is that while all reporters begin a story with some roughly formed narrative in mind, they break into two groups.
The first, the great majority in my experience, may come with a story idea in mind and some notions of what they will find, but they then let the facts shape the story they write. They try to tell as complete a story as space and editors will allow. They don’t shy away from the negative or controversial (in fact, those are the spots that offer some drama to any story), but they usually give all sides.
The second sort comes with a narrative in mind and finds the facts and anecdotes and quotes that flesh that narrative out and support it. They tend to ignore that which alters the narrative they want to write. They cherry pick quotes or half quotes and can properly say later, “you did say that,” conveniently ignoring what else was said.
In our post-modern world it’s hard to say that the former tells a truer story or that there is an objective truth to any story, so I’ll say instead that the former possesses great curiosity to see what’s out there and to give it shape while the latter comes with greater conviction that they know “what’s really going on” and simply need to find the details to confirm it.
It’s not my place to say which of the two types of journalists John might be in general, though in the case of our story he lapsed into the second. The open minded approach he promised would have yielded a more complete story and thus a more accurate story.
Do I mind much in the end? A little (I produced this long reflection after all), because:
1. We work really hard to do the “right thing” and to learn the genuine lessons to be had from the for-profits while avoiding their sins. No non-profit wants to be compared to Phoenix University and in the ways that matter most we are not remotely similar, but John’s story really does suggest otherwise.
2. We offer journalists a particular high degree of access, unusual I think for most places, and do so with a fundamental faith that they will simply be fair. In this case, I was reassured by a reporter who then went on to betray that faith.
3. I care about journalism and language and narrative. Part of why I like so many reporters is that the best of them seem to be holdouts against a distressing erosion of idealism and mission in their profession. Read David Simon’s stunning and depressing testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee as he says it far better than I can (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/05/09/david_simon_testimony_at_the_future_of_journalism_hearing_96415.html).
So I want the reporters who cover the world of higher education to be great and most are really. There are so many things not working well in higher education that we need their scrutiny and their hard questions. The irony of John’s piece on SNHU is that he at least intuited some of the hard questions he might have asked of us:
1. If you copy operational practices of a place like Phoenix, how are you not becoming like them?
2. Given that there are still skeptics about the quality of online education, how do you ensure quality?
3. Given the growing conviction that traditional delivery models are not sustainable (an argument your own Board member Clay Christensen makes), how do you justify investing into making your campus model even more traditional and thus even less sustainable? Isn’t the fact that our discount rate has climbed to 45% evidence of a failing financial model on the traditional campus?
4. As well developed as your online courses are, isn’t the fact that all instructors have to teach the same version of the course a violation of the academic freedom that has been a centerpiece of American higher education?
There are more and there was a good story to be written here. And God knows we get things wrong often enough, but John wasn’t interested in our answers and our actual work. He wasn’t really interested in our story, he was in the end interested in his.