August 17, 2019

Local education politics has a watchdog in LA School Report

With her strong background in journalism, Jamie Alter Lynton strongly considers the ethics of covering stories such as the hackers’ release of confidential information from Sony Pictures Entertainment, where her husband, Michael Lynton, is the chief executive. On the one hand, it is a news story that needs to be written about; on the other hand, a lot of the information is highly personal. Where do you, as a journalist, draw the line between reporting and participating? 

It is a question Lynton has asked herself repeatedly since her 2012 founding of LA School Report (, a news website that covers exclusively local education politics. Although often described as a philanthropist, Lynton is a journalist and self-proclaimed citizen-activist whose site — which has broken news stories such as former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy’s departure — has brought unprecedented scrutiny upon the seven LAUSD board members and has been ahead of the curve in its coverage of the scandal surrounding LAUSD’s $1 billion iPad program.

By her own admission, Lynton, 55, a member of Ohr HaTorah synagogue in Mar Vista, did not have a firm grasp on how public education worked in Los Angeles until relatively recently. She spent the first 15 years of her career at CNN, CBS, CNBC and Court TV, where she ultimately served as vice president and Los Angeles bureau chief. In the years between leaving journalism and starting LA School Report, she raised her three daughters, sat on a few boards and became a prominent figure in fundraising. She is currently a trustee at CalArts, and in 2007 and 2008, she served on the Obama for America National Finance Committee. 

It was not until 2011, when a friend mentioned to her that school board races can cost a few million dollars, that Lynton took a first look at the minutiae of education politics. In the year that followed, she repeatedly asked herself: “How is it possible that the public has no way of finding out about these races?” At the time, no news outlet in Los Angeles covered LAUSD on a daily basis with a high level of scrutiny. To remedy this, she began devising a news site whose first goal would be to demystify the inner workings of public education. Her other goals, she said, were “to push the mainstream media to cover the story more,” “to have the principal players in this universe read us and take us seriously” and “to awaken a deeper conversation amid the public and among stakeholders.” 

Early in 2012, she hired Alexander Russo, a well-known education blogger, to assist her in shaping the new online outlet. Bankrolled entirely by Lynton — she declined to say how much she has invested in the venture or how many readers it now has — LA School Report launched in July 2012 with Russo as editor and with one freelance reporter, Hillel Aron; Lynton wrote mostly commentary pieces. Since its inception, the website has posted a combination of aggregated, reported and editorial content. Its official objective is, as stated on the site, “to look beyond the ‘reform vs. union’ debate” and “to provide information and context with one primary question in mind: what is in the best interest of students?” 

Lynton is adamant that she has never tried to promote any particular solution to any given problem. “I’m not advocating iPads or no iPads,” she said. “I’m just trying to look at what the inconsistencies are with the elected officials who make policy and with the administrative officials that are executing them — pushing them to be accountable and pushing them to find answers is my role, not solving it for them.” 

In addition to covering the usual day-to-day occurrences of LAUSD politics, Lynton’s team has paid particularly close attention to a few important stories: the effects of glitches in the MiSiS (My Integrated Student Information System) data management software; the scandal surrounding the misuse of funds by nonprofit charter network Magnolia Public Schools and Deasy’s tumultuous final year as LAUSD superintendent. Lynton also claims that LA School Report was the only local outlet to have a reporter in the courtroom last year during Vergara v. California, a case in which a judge ruled in favor of students challenging the constitutionality of state laws governing teacher seniority, tenure and dismissal (and which is now being appealed). Mark Harris, the reporter, published daily summaries of witness testimony, which the website supplemented with commentary every few days from an assortment of voices.

“LA School Report’s coverage of the trial itself helped to shape and drive what became a media firestorm. Eventually the story took on a life of its own, and it ended up not just shaping the legal landscape of education politics, but orienting the entire national conversation toward how to best serve children,” said Ben Austin, a reform advocate who worked with the plaintiffs, Students Matter, in preparing for the case. 

Michael Escalante, executive in residence at the USC Rossier School Of Education and former superintendent of Glendale Unified School District, said he’s found the website to be an invaluable source of insight into what’s going on in L.A. schools.

“LAUSD is such a large influence on California education, those of us who follow decisions in Sacramento need to know what’s happening in LAUSD,” he said. “It is my hope that LA School Report continues the in-depth observations of what’s happening in LAUSD. No one else seems to have some of the details that are being provided.”

Although Escalante said he believes it provides accurate information, the project hasn’t always been free of controversy. Soon after launching LA School Report to deliver “journalism in the public interest,” Lynton took a personal financial stake in the volatile arena of public education. In December 2012, she donated $100,000 to the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee started by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to support school board candidates without ties to the teachers union, and ultimately to elect a board sympathetic to Deasy’s reform efforts. Despite spending about $4 million in the March 2013 election cycle, only one coalition-backed candidate won a seat on the board. Although LA School Report was first to report Lynton’s contribution to the Coalition for School Reform, it permanently troubled its relationship with union officials and members of the board of education. 

“That was a mistake,” Lynton said. “I quickly realized after making the donation that not only can I not give money to education issues, I can’t give to anything local.” 

Numerous union leaders, including United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) President Alex Caputo-Pearl, UTLA Vice President Cecily Myart-Cruz and former UTLA President Warren Fletcher, either declined or did not respond to requests for comment for this article.  

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who was among the candidates attacked in the 2013 election cycle, said, “When LA School Report started, they were very, very aggressive, and kind of unapologetic about their slant.”

Although Russo said Lynton was not part of the day-to-day editorial process at the time, some of her commentary pieces were sharply worded and politically divisive, such as those over a controversial measure introduced by Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes that would have rewritten teacher evaluation laws. Lynton wrote a strongly worded piece in opposition, noting that its passage would be “catastrophic for the future of education in California.” With political resistance mounting, Fuentes withdrew the bill. 

As the editorial makeup of the site changed over time, Lynton brought Michael Janofsky, a longtime New York Times reporter, on board as managing editor, tasked with improving and expanding the website’s content. 

“It was a blog in the beginning, and I wasn’t really sure what it was going to turn out to be. But ultimately, I really wanted it to be a news site,” Lynton said. 

What Janofsky offered was a strong understanding of how to report a story’s significance and implications over time. 

“It was sort of skimming. I didn’t get enough of the why of things,” he said of LA School Report in its first year. “Since this is such a strong public policy arena, it deserved a little more context and perspective. I wanted to make it serious journalism.”

Lynton and Janofsky hired reporter Vanessa Romo, formerly of Los Angeles public radio station KPCC-FM, and increased the size of the freelance staff. Even Zimmer acknowledges that Janofsky’s and Romo’s résumés lent LA School Report credibility, and that with their arrival it became “less of an opinion blog” — though he still considers the quality to be less than that of a newspaper.

“Not every journalist gets everything right all of the time. I think with a blog — and [LA School Report] really is a blog; I don’t see it as an online newspaper — I think that the rules of engagement and the processes are a little bit different,” he said.

Lynton readily acknowledges that she has her own opinions and that Internet journalism is its own medium, but she disputes the claim that her opinions affect LA School Report’s coverage. 

In the coming year, “We want to refine what we’re doing,” she said. “We want to really get a handle on this space, and see if we can make this grow in a way that would start being self-sustaining. Microjournalism is not a profession to make money on, but I’m just passionate about not having journalism just go away.”