Education Week, Looking to Video Storytelling, Buys TV Production Co.

Senior Editor

Cross-posted from the Education and the Media blog

Education Week has acquired Learning Matters, the TV production company founded by longtime PBS correspondent John Merrow, who is retiring after more than 40 years of reporting about education for radio and television.

The move gives Education Week, the flagship print and online publication of the Bethesda, Md.-based nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education, the opportunity to expand its existing video storytelling and move into broadcast-quality coverage of education.

“We’ve got a lot to learn ourselves, but I really see video as a powerful medium to engage folks,” said Virginia B. Edwards, the president of EPE and editor-in-chief of Education Week.

“I’m thrilled that the work will continue,” Merrow, 74, said in an interview, referring to the video reporting and production by the Learning Matters team. “It’s a great opportunity for Education Week to reach a much bigger audience.”

Merrow and Learning Matters have been the key contributors of education reporting to the “PBS NewsHour” for many years. Education Week is in discussions with the NewsHour to maintain and expand on that collaboration.

Meanwhile, the acquisition of New York City-based Learning Matters gives Education Week hundreds of hours of archives of news reports, documentaries, and other programming.

“The archives include NewsHour pieces, documentaries, other long-form video pieces, and even audio,” Edwards said. “It’s not catalogued, and it’s not all digitized yet. But it’s a wonderful resource.”

Most importantly, Edwards said, the acquisition means Education Week is gaining the experience and expertise of seven remaining Learning Matters employees, including senior producer and correspondent John D. Tulenko, supervising producer David Wald, and producer Cat McGrath.

Edwards said the current staff members will remain in New York, effectively giving Education Week a bureau in the Big Apple. No money is changing hands in the deal, she said. Future work by the video team will carry the Education Week brand.

In addition to broadcast-quality reports, Edwards envisions that Education Week will produce more digital video on its website, Such digital production could involve, for instance, a Capitol Hill reporter shooting a short video segment about the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Education Week also expects to deploy reporters to work on stories with the new video-production team and to appear on air to discuss education issues.

A Bet on the Future

“I think it’s a great marriage,” said Esther Wojcicki, the board chair of Learning Matters and an English and journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School in California. “Education Week has been great in providing reporting and commentary on what is going on in education. And John Merrow has been a pioneer in investigative journalism in education.”

Merrow first reported on education issues for National Public Radio in 1974. He was the full-time education correspondent for PBS’s flagship evening news program in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” 

He founded Learning Matters in 1995, giving himself and his production team more flexibility to work on both evening-news reports and longer-form documentaries. His subjects have included the rise of charter schools, the teaching profession, the progress of New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina, and testing, to name just a few.

Merrow said he approached Edwards about a year ago after he had consulted with some professional colleagues about what type of organization would be best suited to take over and continue the work of Learning Matters.

He said he had a list of four possible candidates, and those he consulted all agreed that Education Week was the best choice.

“I have been so closely identified with” Learning Matters, Merrow said. “But the truth is, television is a team sport. I have these incredibly talented colleagues, and I was concerned that they continue to have jobs.”

Edwards said that while Education Week has done some work with video, such as its Leaders to Learn From series and an upcoming documentary and video-profile package on New Orleans’ schools 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, the acquisition will open a whole new chapter for the organization.

Edwards noted that Education Week had “placed a bet early” on Web delivery of its news products, and has made similar bets on social media and mobile platforms, as other news organizations are doing. The newspaper was launched in 1981 and started in 1996. Most recently, it has moved into social media and mobile platforms in a competitive market that has seen a recent rise in online education news organizations.

“This is another bet we’re placing,” Edwards said. “We think it’s important to get in the game.”

Video content will be available free, in front of Education Week‘s subscription pay wall, she said. 

Talks and Travels

Merrow announced his retirement in his “Taking Note blog on July 31. A few days later, he said, he had a low-key retirement lunch with his Learning Matters staff. His wife, Joan Lonergan, retired as the head of the Hewitt School, a private girls’ school in Manhattan, on June 30 after a long career in education.

“We’re going to do some traveling,” Merrow said. “We’re going to Ethiopia and Madagascar, and we have some beach time in Bermuda planned.”

He plans to give speeches and moderate panels from time to time. His retirement blog post identified a number of education stories that he said require attention, including charter schools, testing, technology, educational leadership, and the federal-state relationship.

“There’s so much going on,” he said. “I wish I were 20 again.”

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