Millot: Sound Decision or Censorship at TWIE (II)
Please be assured that this isn't really about you or the substance of your post. ?Issues of transparency and accountability have been raised by several folks including hess and edweek…
you try and make it seem to yourself like this is about some higher issue, but it's really just ego and refusing to acknowledge your role.
Readers might reasonably guess that the first quote is from someone who supports the argument I made on February 10 in School Matters http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2010/02/millot-sound-decision-or-censorship-at.html; the second from someone who does not. Both quotes can be found here. In a sense they would be right. The first is part of This Week in Education (TWIE) http://www.thisweekineducation.com/ Editor Andrew Russo’s email to me of 11:06 AM (Saturday the day after he pulled “Three Data Points. Unconnected Dots or a Warning?” . (http://borderland.northernattitude.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/millot_warning.pdf) from his blog. The second, his email of 11:55 PM Monday, sent after firing me from TWIE. (A complete email record can be found here. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/26695687/Millot-Russo-Email-Communications-February-5-9-2010)) A new man can emerge over 60 hours – especially when he’s under pressure.
Why did Russo pull the post? The short answer, at least the short answer Russo offered over the phone Saturday, lies in his contract with Scholastic. TWIE is not editorially independent. Scholastic decides what will remain on his blog. On Friday afternoon, Russo’s point of contact at Scholastic (I was not taking notes and can’t remember his name) received a call from Andrew Rotherham with the charge he made on Eduwonk (LINK NOW BROKEN) (http://www.eduwonk.com/2010.02/hogworts-on-the-hudson.html)). Russo thought the relationship might have a personal dimension. The contact called Russo and told him to pull the post, a call Russo had received three times since he moved TWIE to Scholastic in late 2007. This was Friday afternoon, Russo was on his way to a mountain weekend, so he did what he was told, hoping to walk the cat back by Monday.
Why did Russo decide to keep my post off TWIE on Friday and fire me Monday? That’s a longer story.
As I’ve admitted before I have an interest in the case. This is why I released a complete record of our email communications to the education media and posted on the web. With the exception of a Saturday morning phone call - that I will do my best to recall in this post, email constitutes the complete record of our discussions. I also believe that there’s more at stake than my reputation. This case offers an unusual opportunity for readers to look at the sausage factory of debate over federal education policy, the role of the new philanthropy in education reform, and the idea of commercially viable, editorially independent “grass roots” or “small business” sites for news and commentary in public education – sites that are not the web extension of mainstream print media.
I’ve known Alexander Russo for several years. Our relationship has been conducted almost entirely by email. We’ve never met face-to-face, and rarely used the phone. We are not social acquaintances, but business colleagues, and asynchronous communications have worked well. We are different, yet similar. Aside from the usual differences in age and experience, our styles differ. Alexander once described his blog style as “snark,” I’d call it “edgy.” He didn’t define snark, but based on observations of his blog, I’d characterize it as brief comments, narrowly tailored “zings” that hit the best or weakest substantive point of the object of his writing and the very button of the object most likely to elicit pleasure or pain. I’d describe myself as more linear and formalistic, and more inclined to nail every point to the floor with every argument, form every perspective I can think of.
We manage to share something of a “bad boy” image, although he’s probably more in the style of Billy Idol (to date myself). There’s an insider quality, but also a flavor of the guy who slipped into the party through the back door, and allowed to stay because no one has to accept responsibility for his invitation. He’s the guy who portrays himself as part of the establishment but independent of it. I too have an inside/outside image. I’ve held reasonably senior positions in some well-established institutions on matters of market-based school reform since the early 1990s. I’ve been called “pugilistic.”
Russo and I also share a real interest in the commercial possibilities of web-based media in public education, its potential for opening up the communications infrastructure affecting policy decision fora, and enormous skepticism in what I’ve called the new philanthropy’s keiretsu.
(http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edbizbuzz/2008/02/deconstructing_a_social_keiret.html) I am not entirely sure of the basis for Russo’s doubts. Mine are based on strong doubts about the financial viability of the organizations and models that have received their investment, the broad implications of their failing investment strategy for the kind of market in public school improvement I’ve worked for and – strongly related to my business assessment, the social implications of their top-down centralized management philosophy.
Russo’s and my experimentation with business models led to different outcomes. Based on my experience at New American Schools, I started K-12Leads and Youth Service Markets, a low-cost (and of course high-quality) RFP reporting service for organizations providing school improvement and similar niche-market services. Russo developed This Week in Education into a web-based news and commentary business, ultimately sponsored by Scholastic.
Start: Friday, April 13, 2007
Move to Edweek, September 10
I tried to get a k-12 news and commentary business going, tried School Improvement Industry Weekly,” a web-enabled publication, tried a podcast, and wrote a market-oriented blog on my own (http://archive.edbizbuzz.com/blog ) and for edweek.org called edbizbuzz. (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edbizbuzz/2007/09/) I enjoyed them immensely, but my style of blogging is simply too costly to be a hobby. In the end I could not find a plausible financial model, and wasn’t as savvy about the business as Russo.
I admire Russo’s entrepreneurship, and the way he’s built a business around his “edgy” style. The difference between TWIE and every other k-12 news aggregator has been Russo. I’d say he is edgy, chose to cultivate an edgy personae, attracted a growing readership that likes him edgy, and found a source of competitive advantage in the media business in the perception that he is edgy. Scholastic’s decision to invest in him surely had something to do with the fact his edgy approach has appealed to the demographic of young, internet-dependent educators that will be making the big purchasing decisions within the next decade.
I moved edbizbuzz to edweek.org in September 2007..When Russo announced his move from edweek.org to Scholastic in 2008, I posted a comment,
What Russo has done, in effect, is to launch what I think is the first independent commercial blogsite sponsored by a direct relationship with one advertiser. … Over the next several years a teaching force that got its information via paper media is being replaced with one that relies far more on the internet. Buying into a blog like TWIE is cheap. If it takes off, the investment will have a disproportionate payoff….. (Uncompensated) unaligned bloggers' value-add/competitive advantage has been adopting the independent strategy. As the first professional k-12 blogger to choose free agency in our market, Russo has a special responsibility to stay on the straight and narrow.Little did I know that I’d be a test case.
Over the years Russo and I read and occaissionly cited and commented on each other’s blogs. I stopped blogging in October of 2008. My one-year agreement with edweek was up, I had several family issues taking a great deal of my energies, and the time required to maintain a daily blog had hurt my business. I decided to stop for a while, but Russo and I stayed in touch.
My agreement in November, 2009 to write a weekly or so column for TWIE was prompted by the fact that the original draft of Tom Toch’s report on CMOs for Education Sector had come into my possession. The differences between Toch’s draft and the final report issued by EdSector were so vast, the events leading to the second draft so unethical, and the fact both so well-hidden that I felt obligated to make the original draft public. I emailed Russo intending to provide him with a scoop, and ended up agreeing to his offer to write a weekly column, over which would have complete editorial control, for $200 a month, for six months.
Did I mention that I’m a lawyer? My view is that if people intend to do what they say, they’ll put it in writing. The monthly payment was relevant to me in that I did not want to write for free, but it was important to me to reinforce that we had a contract that gave me editorial control. The six-month period was enough time to see how this arrangement would work, and not long enough to stick one of us in a position we didn’t like. In my view, Russo’s willingness to do this was based on a sense that I might help keep his blog interesting with original content, that he knew my approach and trusted my judgment, and that it was another manifestation of his edgy style.
I proceeded to write a series of [stories] on problems in the charter school markets the academic fraud of EdSectors CMOs report, Imagine Schools violation of state laws concerning charter a nonprofit governance, and the Massachusetts Board of Education’s abuse of the chartering process. All were pretty aggressive. I was under no illusion that opponents of charter schools, privatization, and Edsector would use them to advantage. But I’ve never thought that pretending bad actors don’t exist served a helpful role with the vast majority of people who have no made up their minds. Moreover, I don’t want a market dominated by bad actors, and I’m not going to sit on my hands and let it happen. None of my work led Russo to suggest he should have a formal role in the editorial process. And neither Russo nor I were niaive – we expected push back from the subjects of my posts.
This lengthy discussion provides a context for Russo’s decisions during the February 5-9 period. They are not isolated events, but a predictable point in the trajectory of his business model.
TWIE readers and I had every reason to believe Russo retained editorial control under his contract with Scholastic. He didn’t publish the contract, but TWIE seemed to operate pretty much as it had at edweek.org and as a standalone blog before. And there’s this November interview with Scholastic Administr@tor Executive Editor Kevin Hogan in Publishing Executive’s INBOX (http://www.pubexec.com/article/scholastic-administr-tor-enters-blogosphere-executive-editor-kevin-hogan-adding-popular-blogger-his-team-83070/2) column:
INBOX: What contractual/payment arrangements were made with Russo?
HOGAN: His arrangement is essentially the same as you would find for contributing editors in the print world.
INBOX: What process have you established for comments on the blog? Are they moderated by someone on the magazine staff, or does Russo handle the moderating/posting of comments?
HOGAN: People are free to leave comments, anonymous or not, on the blog page. Russo handles any moderating that needs to happen. Also, it’s important to note that Alexander is his own editor, and his blog is completely independent from the opinions of the rest of the magazine staff or of Scholastic at large. (Millot’s emphasis)
So why did Russo keep my post off TWIE and fire me from the blog? As a business matter he had no choice. His contract required him to pull it. He could not persuade his contact at Scholastic to change his mind. Forced between two contractual breeches, economics required him to breach mine. As he approached that point of decision he began to reconsider the substantive merits of the matter.
I understand his business decision. There’s a moral element to all this, but in so far as Alexander Russo is concerned I’m prepared to set that aside. I think he made a bad business decision. Russo cultivated an “edgy” independent image. TWIE’s popularity is based on Russo. Taking my post down on Scholastic's orders rather than the merits undermines Russo’s “bad boy” personae. People might see him as someone who did not demonstrate independence when it mattered, and gave way to Rotherham’s charge without a fight. That image offers no competitive advantage to TWIE.
Next: on Tuttle SVC (http://www.tuttlesvc.org/) – Andrew Rotherham’s role or, the tip of an iceberg.
Marc Dean Millot Part II
The whole saga, including previous posts and this one, are on the dedicated Marc Dean Millot page found here: Today's Millot post is being hosted at Ednotes. Go there for all the links I have removed here.