One rap against some of the larger hyperlocal news networks is that they produce news content with an editorial cookie cutter. Well, sometimes a cookie cutter works just fine. DNAinfo.com’s NYC Public Schools Guide is a very good example. I’m sure that Julie Shapiro, DNAinfo New York’s schools expert, and Michael Ventura, the site’s managing editor, would never say they used a cookie cutter to put together the easy-to-use, information-packed guide they oversaw editorially. But would it make sense to report on 94 neighborhoods in New York City’s five boroughs – which is how many DNAinfo New York covers – without some sense of uniformity?
I defy anybody to examine the DNAinfo Schools Guide and claim that the content for Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side in Manhattan – where DNAinfo began in 2009 – is better than that for Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, Woodside in Queens, the South Bronx, or Tottenville on Staten Island.
What Ventura, Shapiro and other DNAinfo staff have done is created a guide that lets users zoom in and out so they can get the nitty-gritty about their children’s school, then compare it to other schools throughout the city, and finally browse among the latest on hot neighborhood issues like the shortage of public pre-K seats at desirable schools. The way the design uses dots and arrows to retrieve many pages of articles is a singular achievement in user-friendliness (see image at left).
In addition to all that, DNAinfo once again commissioned Battery Park resident and community leader Tom Goodkind – an accountant by profession – to rank the city’s 743 city-operated elementary schools. You can be sure that Goodkind’s report card is a must read for many DNAinfo users, and not just parents of rising middle schoolers.
New York City’s data-rich school site was a big help to DNAinfo. Not only does the official city site have a wealth of material going far beyond test scores, but, as Ventura said, much of it is archived in Excel, which makes it easy to be formatted.
Ventura and Shapiro were able to mobilize DNAinfo’s neighborhood reporters to do many of the special reports from the rich stew of communities throughout the five boroughs. That gave the Schools Guide depth and context. “Our reporters are out there all the time,” Ventura said. “We have people who know the landscape and the players.”
The site’s advertising team sold what looks like about 30 “sponsored posts” that run in the right-hand rail. The company wouldn’t disclose how much was raised from those ads or give revenue specifics, but I would imagine it was enough to cover at least a big chunk of the guide’s costs, which were kept modest with those in-house editorial contributions.
Leela de Kretser, DNAinfo’s publisher and editorial director, told Street Fight: “As NYC’s neighborhood news source, we recognize the importance of reporting on local schools, and we saw that there was an opportunity to dig deeper on these subjects than other blogs or newspapers have done before. As a result, our education coverage has been enormously popular with our target audience of New Yorkers living and raising families in the five boroughs.
“We’ve sought to simplify and demystify the daunting process of identifying and applying for public schools — in every neighborhood and every borough across the city. Our schools coverage has enabled us to recruit new advertisers that cater to New York parents, including tutoring companies, charter schools and summer camps.”
Now, for some fault-finding. DNA and Goodkind rank the Anderson School on the Upper West Side as No. 1 among the city’s 743 elementary schools. Fair enough, since they use 4th-grade English Language Arts tests as virtually their only criteria (because that’s what middle schools focus on for admissions). But they don’t point out that not a single black or Hispanic 4th-grade student scored in Anderson’s top 4th level of ELA tests, while 27% of Asian and 18% of white students did so. So what is Anderson doing about that glaring achievement gap? There’s no answer in the DNAinfo Schools Guide.
I also wonder why DNAinfo didn’t add the city’s 142 charter schools to its guide. The site’s users in Harlem and East Harlem, where many of the charters are located, would have especially benefited from information on charters, some of which outperform city-run schools academically. For example, Harlem Children’s Zone/Promise Academy Charter scored a B in its Progress Report in the previous academic year, while city-run P.S. 133, serving the same neighborhood, got an F. Adding charter schools would not be a huge additional undertaking for DNAinfo. The NYC school system database of test scores and other statistics includes all of them.
Asked about her guide’s missing charter schools, and not reporting minority scores, Shapiro said: “We’re just starting. We want to do more. We’re going in that direction.”
When that happens, the DNAinfo NYC Schools Guide might very well raise its own grade from Very Good to Excellent.
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.