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First Person: Dale Mezzacappa, Board Chair, Education Writers Association

Dale MezzacappaDale Mezzacappa, Board President of the Education Writers Association, talked with Community Wealth Vanguard about sustainability and refining the organization’s mission to reach a broader audience.

What factors led the board and leadership of EWA to engage in a planning process?

Obviously the main factor is that the journalism profession is changing rapidly. EWA felt that we had to adapt to see how we could better serve the members of our organization, who are essentially people who write about education. Historically, we’ve been sort of a trade group within the journalism profession in which people became members and they paid dues. We had full members who worked for traditional news organizations and we had associate members who worked for organizations that wanted to have access to education writers, like college public information officers and things like that. We also realized that we had an annual national conference, we had some other regional conferences, and newspapers had traditionally paid for their employees—the reporters who cover education—to come to these conferences. And what was happening was that . . . newspapers weren’t paying anymore for reporters to come to the conferences.

We had to figure out how do we sustain the organization and also, frankly, how do you define a journalist? So many people were working independently, for nonprofits, as bloggers, so we just felt that we needed to adapt both to the changes in the profession and from the point of view of financial sustainability. Also, because the technology was changing so rapidly, were there other platforms besides making people gather together in one place physically to promote the professional development mission of EWA? So that was the main thing, adapting to the changing world of journalism, newspapers, news organizations, etc.

Did you feel like that was a threat to EWA’s sustainability?

I think so. We are primarily financed by foundation money, our dues, and also the contest that we run (although the contest actually loses money). Our dues, which are relatively inexpensive at $65 a year, newspapers even stopped paying that for individual reporters. Membership was dropping somewhat—not precipitously and not a lot compared to other organizations, but it still was going down. So we felt that financially, we had to. Foundations are always looking for the next new thing; they don’t necessarily just give you money for continuing to do what you’ve always done or for your basic operating costs. . . . [We were] looking for ways to not just sustain EWA, but maintain its relevance and its value. We also felt that it was crucial that we do so because at the same time the newspaper industry was changing so much, the field of education and the need for high-quality reporting on education had never been greater, because of all the education reform and upheaval that is occurring. . . . There are other organizations in the space, like the Hechinger Institute, but we thought that EWA . . . had an important service to provide to make sure that the people who are writing about education in their local news organizations knew what they were talking about and had good access to the right kind of information and skill-building activities and so on, so that they could report on education knowledgeably.

Did EWA change its mission or the impact it seeks to have as part of this process?

I don’t think we changed the mission. I think we tried to refine the mission. The major change was that we stopped charging membership dues, in hopes that we would expand our reach. . . . Then, our strategic plan called largely for us to become more of an online community. We are, frankly, still trying to define that and what it means . . . We’re continuing, for the time being, our regional conferences. We have a statistics bootcamp at which reporters can come with a particular story idea and then get help in accessing data and statistics to make that story happen. A lot of local events were already paid for based on the funding cycle. So we are still developing a new focus on becoming more of an online community. We have a LIST-SERV now in which a few hundred reporters are able to exchange ideas on a daily basis about important education topics. . . . So there’s a conversation among education reporters on our LIST-SERV, but it seems that the technology allows for so many different ways for that to occur—podcasting, video, interviews with people. . . .

We have a public editor [Linda Perlstein] who is a reporter who is available to other reporters to help them with the stories they’re writing, because another function of the newspaper world has been that there is a lot less editing going on. [When] reporters needed top-flight guidance on an education story, there really wasn’t anybody at their newspaper who could actually do that. So the public editor is available and she gets many, many queries from reporters helping them shape their stories. . . . She has a searchable source database and now reporters can go online and whatever they’re learning about—school funding or teacher quality—they can get a list of sources.

What are some ways that you’re reaching out more to those people?

We stopped charging members dues. What’s available to people on the EWA website is free, you just have to register. . . We are trying to develop web-based resources, like podcasts. We have two different blogs now, the public editor blogs regularly and then we have another blog. We have Edmoney.org, which helps reporters track education stimulus spending in their states and school districts. . . . [W]e are looking at other things like that that we can do to be a clearinghouse for information . . . Along with us trying to change, there’s also been an incredible proliferation of information that’s available online to people who cover education. So we’re trying to help them sort through it all and know how to use it well and point them to the places that they can get information online, such as student data.

How are you going to measure success?

That’s a good question. Whether we continue to get grant funding for what we’re trying to do. We measure how many people are making use of Edmoney.org, how many people are making use of the public editor. The LIST-SERV continues to be vibrant and viable, and we have several people who Twitter constantly . . . So there are some ways that we can measure. How many people are registered on our site? Have we expanded our base of people who are interested? How many people come to our national conference? Do we continue to get a lot of entries into our contest? So our fundraising goals, our registration/membership, use of the public editor, and use of our website, and the ability to get a new website up that would have a lot more resources for the online community.

Can you share key lessons learned from defining EWA’s desired impact and creating a focused business strategy to achieve it?

The key lesson is that it’s really, really hard. . . . To try to get yourself down in the weeds and the nitty-gritty and figure out this is what we’d like and the step-by-step process of actually getting there. You just assume that EWA has been around for 60 years and it’s going to be around for however many more—there’s no other time in history when it’s more needed. And then [you] realize that keeping it viable and satisfying your stakeholders and developing a step-by-step strategic plan and actually putting that plan in place, finding new leadership—it’s really, really hard. Community Wealth Partners clearly was invaluable to us in trying to think through all those things. . . So far, I think we’re doing okay. But the next year will be crucial, to see how we’re able to make our plan more specific. As I said, the staff is going through some degree of transition, and as the new executive director figures out on more of a day-to-day basis what’s needed, our ability to move forward. . . . It was a big learning curve for me, a working journalist my whole life—not a board president, not an organization leader. But it was an invaluable experience and Community Wealth Partners was great to have and really helped crystallize the thinking process and get from point A to point B.

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