While the rest of the world was making merry or hanging over from the late-night binges last winter holidays, Bloomberg News education editor Jonathan Kaufman and his team of reporters, Daniel Golden, John Hechinger and John Lauerman were frantically punching away at their keyboards to put together the last stories of their investigative series, Education Inc.
Those last weeks Kaufman referred to as “pretty hair-raising” evidently paid off as the series took home the prestigious Gerald Loeb Award for Beat Reporting this year.
Before joining Bloomberg, Kaufman spent 15 years with The Wall Street Journal where he oversaw the expansion of the China Bureau into Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong and also helped launch “Page One” of The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Weekend Edition.
As education editor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kaufman oversaw the series that spanned about a year and a half, with several investigative pieces and a “steady drumbeat” of over 60 daily stories on various aspects of for-profit colleges including Congressional hearings.
Education Inc. exposed abuses and questionable behavior in for-profit colleges, a huge part of the education sector providing what many consider substandard education. The $30 billion industry had grown partly by taking advantage less fortunate people like the homeless and military veterans. The reporters faced resistance from elusive company executives and employees, and had to track down former employees, go to the campuses to find students and professors who would talk.
1) Where did the idea of Education Inc. come from?
The idea actually started when the Editor-in-Chief of Bloomberg News Matthew Winkler called me and one of the reporters into his office in 2009, and said he’d been to a conference where someone had said that for-profit education was the future of higher education. And he was curious if that was true and wanted us to look into it. It was a five-minute meeting that ended up being golden. The more we looked into for profit colleges, the more we realized that there was a tremendous amount of reporting to be done. And Dan Golden-he is a terrific investigative reporter- when he feels that there is something going on, we tend to listen.
This is a $30 billion industry; it was affecting millions of people. The for-profit colleges were taking a lot of government money, there were a lot of loan defaults going on, and there were real questions about how good these colleges were, and questions about their recruiting tactics.
Overtime, we added two more reporters to the investigation so that at its height, there were three reporters working full time looking at the for-profit colleges. We felt that it was an important enough national issue that it was worth committing those resources to. It was an incredible commitment of resources from the part of Bloomberg.
2) What qualities do you look for in a journalist you would assign such a big investigative story?
It’s a combination of skills. You need someone who is very experienced and very dogged. Because a story like this not only means going out and talking to students, it means going out and tracking down former employees of a company. It means having the financial acumen and the skills to go through balanced sheets and financial documents to understand the way these companies are financed.
I think when you have a big story like this, you want to have one or two veterans working on it, and then you want to have some people who have not had the experience, who can learn by doing it and in the course of working with the more experienced reporters will learn how you break a story like that. I think that’s probably the most effective way to do it.
In this case we had three reporters on it. Two of them were seasoned investigative reporters, the third was a very good reporter but had not done investigative work. So that was a situation where he learned a lot working with the more seasoned investigative reporters about how to go at it. So I think that’s a good model.
3) What expectations do editors of business stories have of their reporters?
The main things are accuracy and fairness. One of the things I was proudest of in these series is that we wrote more than a dozen long narrative stories and we didn’t have any correction in any of them, which is a testament to the reporters. But it also shows how important it is that when you are doing an investigation, you have to assume that you are going to come under a microscope, so going the extra mile of accuracy is important. Another thing is you have to make sure that your story presents both sides because by doing that that the reader is going to trust that what you’re saying is wrong is really wrong if they believe the other side has been able to explain their view of what’s going on.
My role as editor is to make sure each story is the best story it can be. One of the things that every editor knows when dealing with investigative reporters is that they always have huge amounts of investigative material and at a certain point, they get so wrapped up in the investigation. Part of the editor’s job is to step back and have an ongoing dialogue with the reporter to figure out what’s the best story to tell and how to tell it and work with the reporter to give birth to that. My role working with the reporters who were doing the hard work of being on the front line getting the information was working out what was the best way to tell the story. We want to ask all the hard questions to make sure there are no holes in the story. We have to act as the reader and say ‘What’s missing here? Have we covered all the bases?’ You want to be the in-house critique to make sure before the story runs, we’ve asked all the tough questions so we are not surprised after it runs.
4) How should reporters on the other hand relate to their editors in the courses of a long investigative series? What should they expect of their editors?
It’s very much a two way street. An editor’s job is to ask questions and I think good reporters respond to those questions. We had lot of fights about stories but in the end, the fights were about how to make the story work. Sometimes I won and sometimes the reporters won. You are on the same side, which is to produce the best story. The reporter should expect that the editor is going to take the reader’s side in terms of making sure the story is clear. I’ve done both sides of it and I know when I was a reporter, I liked the rigor of a good editor and I think most reporters do. The one thing you have to be careful about, as a reporter is to produce copy that is accurate and reflects the story the way it is.
It’s the reporter’s job to fact-check the story. It’s a realistic expectation to say that an editor may be able to help with the organization and the direction of the story. Good reporters go to editors and say ‘I am having trouble, I don’t know how to write this story, who do I talk to next?’ But when it comes to accuracy, that’s really the reporter’s job because they are the ones gathering the information. We may ask technical questions, but in the end we are trusting the reporter to do a professional and thorough job to make sure the info is correct.
5) Any lessons other business reporters can learn from the experience of the Education Inc. team?
I think anytime you can combine a big investigation with breaking news on the same topic, it increases the impact. Secondly, you have to choose your topics wisely. If you are going to ask your newsroom to commit these kinds of resources, you want to make sure it’s a subject that has sort of a public profile or scandal or something that’s going to justify the amount of resources you’re going to pour into it. In this case I think it was. I think it’s something that everyone has to think about before committing huge resources to a topic.