Saturday, February 13, 2010

Millot: Sound Decision or Censorship at TWIE (II)


by Marc Dean Millot


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,

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edbizbuzz/2007/11/education_blogs_and_the_school.html


excerpted below:

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 occasionally 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 series 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 naive – 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.


Ed Note: by Norm Scott

See part 1 in this series at Schools Matter:
Millot: Sound Decision or Censorship at TWIE? (I)

Millot put up a complete email communication transcript between he and Russo at:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/26695687/Millot-Russo-Email-Communications-February-5-9-2010

Background information on this story and how I came to be involved at Ed Notes:


Oh What a Tangled Web: Millot, Russo and Rotherham Battle As Millot Charges Arne with Conflict of Interest


This story is more important to regular Ed Notes readers than might appear on the surface. It exposes fault lines in the relationship between the education business model supporters and profiteers and their ability to control editorial content telling the story. Millot tells us exactly where he is coming from and exposes the leash Scholastic has on Alexander Russo (who I met for the first time at the Gotham Schools party in December).


Ed Notes reported on Millot's story at TWIE on Dec. 3, 2009 exposing the gap between the Toch original report and what was published at the Ed Deform EdSector as I tried to connect a bunch of dots for readers of this blog:


School Closings, ATRs, Charters, Rubber Rooms Are All Snakes in the Same Basket


Millot and I may be on different sides of the street (many readers will ask why we need more lawyers commenting on education) but he is not necessarily a narrow ideologue (like I am). He has

"enormous skepticism in the new philanthropy’s keiretsu" and has "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."

This excerpt is extremely interesting and shows where Millot is coming from:

"I proceeded to write a series of series 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, andEdsector 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."

Well, we think they are mostly all bad actors no matter how benign they may appear, with the NYCDOE being the baddest actor of all. And, yes. Ed Notes, GEM and so many others who are "opponents of charter schools, privatization, and Edsector" and yes, as the infantry of The Resistance movement, will use this to our advantage as we are in hand-to-hand combat. But how can we not appreciate Millot when he says: I don’t want a market dominated by bad actors, and I’m not going to sit on my hands and let it happen."


[One interesting side panel to this story is how some vehement charter school parent supporters have been coming to us anti-charter activists in NYC with stories of horrible treatment of kids by charter school operators and want it exposed because they feel the charter school movement as a whole will be compromised.]


[Second interesting side panel is the contrast between how these discussions at the policy level differ from those at Ed Notes, GEM, ICE, etc. where the rubber meets the road as we battle charter school invasions on a daily basis. Our latest is over Girls Prep -look for my video, see the parent video on the side panel and see accounts of that Feb. 11 meeting and some interesting stats I just published on the GEM blog (Girls Prep Charter and District One: Who is at risk?) put together by parent activist Lisa Donlan (no, not all people opposed to charters are union flunkies).

Alexander Russo actually lives in Brooklyn and has the opportunity to do some real reporting by attending the numerous charter school and school closing hearings and PEP meetings. But now we have to ask: could he really report on what he sees and still keep his gig?]


Andrew Rotherham, who Millot will savage (I hope) in part 3, is a Democratic party ed deformer who worked in the Clinton administration. 'Nuff said for education progressives who have a shred of hope in the Democrats for true ed reform.

When all parts of this story are out I'll put up links in the sidebar. It might turn into a book, especially if we don't lose sight of the fact that Millot's original post that was pulled exposed Arne Duncan's conflict of interest. Are we heading to Duncangate, Arnegate? Andy(Rotherham)gate, Russogate? I hope old buddy Eduwonkette is following this trail and getting a few chuckles.

More blogger reactions here and here.


7 comments:

  1. I have real problems with Rotherham, even as I try to pay attention to what he writes because of his connections. I think he is given far too much credibility and attention. He has no real experience in the nitty gritty of schools and teaching, and his most substantive role, on the VA State Board of Ed, is a result more of political connection than activism. The one time I heard him speak, in an event at the National Press Club which I briefly attended while on my way to another event, I was appalled.

    I am however more appalled by Scholastic. IT would be very useful to know who was Russo's contact who ordered the spiking/removal of the piece in questions.

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  2. I feel certain that the taxpayers are about to be fleeced out of RttT money. We need someone like Mr. Millot to keep a sharp eye on the money. His lawyer skills are exactly what is needed at this time.

    I'd like to know how Andrew Rotherman got so much power in education. His negative attitude towards teachers is almost a guarantee that our educational system will get worse before it gets better.

    Linda/RetiredTeacher

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  3. Calling snark "edgy" gives it a legitimacy it does not deserve. It is arrogance disguised as knowingness. Russo and Rotherham refuse to take a stand on curricula and lack thereof in today's education, except now that the topic has gained political currency they do pay it lip service. They are part of the long line of dilletantes, amateur bitches and mens room attendants who rule the roost in DC. In their world-view Teach for America can do no wrong, all other teachers are idiots, and Sara Mead is someone whose research is never to be questioned.

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  4. Prior to this recent fiasco, I wouldn't have said that about Russo. Other than that, I love "J.D.'s" post.

    It would be really useful if Marc Dean Millot or someone else could write up a SHORT but clear version of what happened here, to circulate on the blogs etc. There's so much detail in these posts that only an obsessively dedicated wonk can absorb it all, so it will remain obscure, and it really shouldn't.

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  5. I have asked a high-ranking slashdot geek to track all the links as this story develops, and get them permanently cached.

    Unfortunately, The broken "hogwarts" link to eduwonk's dishonest congratulations to Scholastic for caving in to his pressure doesn't appear to have been caught in a cache, although they are still hunting. However, the comment page it links to is still up in the eduwonk archive (I'm hoping its one of many Rotherham oversights in covering his tracks): http://www.eduwonk.com/2010/02/hogwarts-on-the-hudson.html/comment-page-1

    Don't worry if that's also broken now because, by God, it is cached.

    The 2008 Keiretsu link to Marc's edweek blog also was broken this morning, but that is easy to retrieve. I also agree we need a running synopsis: the slashdot community gets it about internet censorship, but don't necessarily follow the narrative arc.

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  6. No matter whether Millot's post is *asking* or *charging* -- and I will add that it's not censorship for a private blog owner to decree what it wants on its blog -- we still have to note that there have been two high-profile cases of stifling voices critical of the ed-reform machinery in the past couple of weeks. I'm referring to the editing of Bill Turque's Washington Post blog as well.

    If there are any sincere, honest, ethical and independent-thinking supporters of the ed-reform machinery out there, shouldn't they be asking themselves WHY they feel they need to stifle critical voices? If your ideas are sound and the forces behind them pure, Mr. Rotherham et al., shouldn't they stand up to sharp questioning and criticism?

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  7. Don't disagree with the various issues mentioned in the comments, but it needs to be said that Millot comes off as a self-rightous ass here. Any private communication to him appears to be public by his standard.

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Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating). Or because your comment is irrelevant or idiotic.