How Chalkbeat is trying to build a bigger audience for education news

Photo Credit: Ben W via Flickr

In the one-woman newsroom of Chalkbeat Detroit, Erin Einhorn spends her time making calls, reaching out to principals, attending parent meet-ups, and arranging classroom visits, documenting the efforts to respond to the decades-long deterioration of the city’s school system.

Public schools in Detroit are among the most troubled in the country: Schools are bleeding enrollment, frequent closures mean some students transfer multiple times a year, and chronic absenteeism is worse than in any other city. Now, the district is undergoing a sweeping and politically divisive transformation. State legislators voted last month on a $617 million rescue deal, part of a controversial plan that left local lawmakers fuming. 

It’s a whirlwind of a story for Einhorn, who moved to Detroit from New York with her two young children less than two years ago, and began launching Chalkbeat Detroit in March of this year. It’s also a story with personal significance.

“I am a Detroit parent,” she said. “It’s hard to predict the future of Detroit schools, which seem to be perpetually in a state of upheaval. And I figured that if it was this difficult for me—an education reporter—it must be much more difficult for families that don’t have my resources. Parents and educators need new ways to get information about what’s working, what’s not, and what solutions may be available.” 

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That’s an attitude that fits in well with Chalkbeat’s broader approach: local journalists, in cities around the country, reporting on strategies to improve schools and address inequity in education. Over the past few years, the nonprofit news outlet has won admirers and awards while attracting a solid base of financial support. Along the way, it has had to navigate the ethics of nonprofit funding, grapple with how to measure the impact of its reporting, and respond to critics.

Now, as the outlet looks to expand, it faces the challenge of extending its reach beyond ed-world insiders—while also serving a niche community that can be sharply divided over the very issues Chalkbeat covers.

Chalkbeat grew out of a partnership between two local education sites, EdNews Colorado and the New York-based Gotham Schools, which each were founded in 2008. In 2013, the sites officially joined forces to launch a new digital network; later that year, local sites were launched in Memphis and Indianapolis. Einhorn’s Detroit bureau, still technically in the pilot phase, will likely be Chalkbeat’s fifth local site.

The founders—editor-in-chief and CEO Elizabeth Green, managing editor Philissa Cramer, board chair Sue Lehmann, and former editor-at-large Alan Gottlieb*—wanted their network to be a place for stories that might have fallen to the wayside in other newsrooms. The vision was heavy on policy shifts and broader trends, but with a grounding in local knowledge and relationships formed through beat coverage.

At Chalkbeat New York, for instance, reporter Patrick Wall last year used his classroom sources to cover the city’s school renewal program, which pumped nearly $400 million into struggling schools. In a multi-part series, Wall followed twin sisters at one of the renewal schools to track how the changes played out in their lives. It’s an example of the textured local reporting that has won praise for the outlet. 

“They’re not just telling a series of anecdotes, or stories that fit into this larger negative narrative,” said Cornelia Grumman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is now director of education at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. “I hear all these conversations where people say, ‘Oh these schools are such a disaster,’ and they’re not all disasters actually. There is still some really good teaching going on. I think in some ways [Chalkbeat] humanizes schools.”

The goal now is to bring that reporting to a bigger audience. Chalkbeat has about a quarter of a million unique visitors per month, according to Green, and most readers are education insiders of one sort or another. Nearly one-quarter of readers work for education nonprofits; another 25 percent are teachers. About as many are researchers or policymakers (11 percent) as are parents (10 percent). 

That breakdown reflects Chalkbeat’s policy-heavy approach. But while insiders will always be part of the core audience, they aren’t the only target. Chalkbeat also wants to reach “curious citizens”—people “who care about educational equity but don’t work on it professionally,” Green said.

Late last year, the network hired Ryan Sholin as its new director of product and growth. The quest for “curious citizen” readers happens at both a national and a local level, Sholin said. Locally, it means helping people who are “looking for answers but don’t know where to start”—like when the Chalkbeat Tennessee team used publicly available criteria to identify the Memphis schools most likely to be slated for closure by the local district. The highly-read story was shared by teachers, parents, and others, with nearly all of the readership coming from people who were new to Chalkbeat.

Nationally, it could mean more stories about students or teachers succeeding against the odds. But Chalkbeat is also doing more to try to synthesize what its reporters see in different cities, looking for common threads to contextualize the issues. Earlier this year, the network launched a new national homepage and named a national editor, Sarah Darville.

It’s a story that’s playing out differently in different places, but one story that is of vital importance to the future of the country.

The efforts to expand the audience could bolster the impact of Chalkbeat’s reporting and also, the site’s leaders hope, its bottom line. “The more people we reach, the more we’ve informed, and also the easier it will be to sustain diverse revenue over time,” said Green.

About 10 percent of the $3.1 million operating budget for the 2016 fiscal year is covered by sponsorships, a paid jobs board, and some advertisements. But most of Chalkbeat’s revenue comes from foundation support and major individual donations. National foundations alone accounted for 30 percent of Chalkbeat’s revenue—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation each gave between $200,000 and $400,000 annually. Another large chunk comes from local foundations based in the states and cities where Chalkbeat has sites.

That’s not uncommon in nonprofit media, but it underscores a recurring tension: The institutions that are interested in supporting coverage of a niche topic are often also trying to influence policy about that topic. In fact, says Green, when she and Cramer started Gotham Schools, the prospect of taking money from foundations was initially irksome. “The [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation, Walton, Ford—those are institutions that have shaped education policy, and I was wary of creating that relationship with them. I kind of resisted.” 

Today, Chalkbeat addresses those concerns with a public code of ethics, which states that the outlet won’t accept funding for specific stories, nor will funders obtain any editorial privileges. In a show of transparency, Chalkbeat also posts all its major foundation and individual supporters online. For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, nearly 40 donors gave $1,000 or more, and the site’s leaders continue to work on diversifying the funding base. “If any one person walks away, we can still do our jobs,” Green said.

Still, in the polarized world of education policy, Chalkbeat’s list of supporters has drawn notice from critics. Many of the outlet’s major funders have advocated for school reform measures, such as linking test scores to teacher evaluations or swift implementation of the Common Core curriculum standards, and some skeptics argue that Chalkbeat is too oriented toward a reform-minded policy community.

“One of the weaknesses that I’ve seen and that other people have seen is that there are certain sources that they go to repeatedly, and others that they leave out,” said Leonie Haimson, a parent advocate and executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit group that advocates for smaller class sizes in NYC schools. “They’re less good at searching out grassroots groups and parents.”

Chalkbeat’s staff, which is keenly aware of criticism about the funding model, is adamant that the sites maintain editorial independence. And they note that while they often cover policy changes that are linked to reform efforts, coverage isn’t always positive. One of Einhorn’s stories in Detroit, for example, highlighted the daily odysseys some families make to get to quality schools under the city’s school choice program, and the “extreme sacrifices” that can entail.

Cramer, the managing editor, said the sites do have to fight the tendency to “wonk out” or use too many expert voices. One tool that could help in that effort is MORI (“Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence”), an impact tracker that Chalkbeat launched in 2014. The tool offers ways to catalogue the impact each story has had, from links in other coverage to lawmakers enacting legislation. In the nonprofit journalism world, it’s a way to demonstrate return on investment. 

But MORI also shapes coverage at the front end: Reporters must identify what kind of a story they’re writing, who they’re writing it for, and what the storyline is. Scott Elliott, who worked in newspapers before helping launch Chalkbeat Indiana, said that simply thinking about audience and impact that way was an “incredible moment”— aside from being a selling point for potential funders.

“As a reporter, you probably ought to have in mind who you have in mind and who you’re writing it for,” Elliott, now Indiana’s bureau chief said. “But never did once in my career did I think about that till I came here.”

With this kind of impact in mind, as well as a new national focus, Chalkbeat’s founders are hoping to spark an ongoing conversation about equity for the country’s youngest generation.

“We’re reporters in all of these places, but we’re all covering one story,” Cramer said. “It’s a story that’s playing out differently in different places, but one story that is of vital importance to the future of the country.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story did not list Sue Lehmann as a Chalkbeat co-founder and incorrectly described Alan Gottlieb as an editor-at-large. CJR regrets the errors.

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Lauren Steussy is a reporter based in New York City. She was previously an education reporter at the Orange County Register and her work has appeared in San Diego Magazine, Marie Claire, and Columbia College Today.