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May 29, 2019, 10:07 a.m.
Business Models

“Inextricably linked”: How Chalkbeat works with local funders to start its local bureaus

To choose its newest place of focus, the nonprofit education network asked supporters to nominate their own cities — and to help find local funders long before launch.

In the world of working with local foundations to drum up support for local journalism, Chalkbeat has been schooling others since it launched more than ten years ago.

The education nonprofit news site works as a network, with overhead and national reporting managed by a core team, and has grown to a 50-plus person staff across its seven metro-based bureaus. Where the money comes from matters for any news outlet, but especially for nonprofits trying to, well, stay alive. By setting up relationships with both national and local education and journalism funders, Chalkbeat has built a system for community support in multiple forms.

“We require our bureaus to have the majority of their funding come from the local community,” Maria Archangelo, Chalkbeat’s senior director of partnerships, said. “The thinking of that is, if the local community wants us there, that’s better for all of us.”

Chalkbeat was born from the merger of local education news sites in New York City and Denver and expanded to Indiana and Tennessee in 2014. Now trying to spread the nonprofit model via venture philanthropy for local news more broadly, Elizabeth Green, a cofounder and now editor-in-chief and CEO, has grown the organization’s product and business development teams, in addition to a ten-person editorial hiring spree last March. Archangelo joined almost a year ago from the Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Alison Go is Chalkbeat’s senior director of growth after product management at Facebook. As a network, the soon-to-be-four-person fundraising team (they’re bringing another staffer on board in July) led by Archangelo assigns three or four local markets per member.

And it’s working: In the last two fiscal years, 110 foundations and philanthropists have given Chalkbeat $1,000 or more. Last year it pulled in $6.8 million in revenue. Smaller-dollar donations began to ratchet up with 450 inaugural participants of its membership program, which features tiers from $35 a year to $500 and up. (Overall, Chalkbeat brings in money from five revenue streams: national philanthropy, local philanthropy, earned revenue/sponsorship, and membership. It’s all about revenue promiscuity, as Green’s AJP cofounder John Thornton once put it.)

How did Chalkbeat convince these donors to come on board? For Chicago, the newest bureau at a year old, they switched up the formula.

“In the early days of Chalkbeat, we had lots of people ask us to look at places [for potential expansion]. But we had no system for thinking about criteria for where we should spend our time, or prioritizing which places we should try to do first,” said Scott Elliott — Chalkbeat Indianapolis’s founding bureau chief, who has since turned into the outlet’s site development director and manager of the Indy, Detroit, Chicago, and Memphis markets. “The key insight for us was having people on the ground who want us to come who can make sure we know the right people.”

In November 2017, he and Green determined the criteria:

  1. Is there an important and interesting education story there?
  2. Is there a gap in coverage, a need for better education reporting?
  3. Is there funding in the community interest, either from education or journalism funders or both, or could we raise funds to sustain ourselves there?

They went back to folks from five places who had expressed interest in bringing Chalkbeat to their cities and asked them to fill out a nominating document to make their case. Three submitted it, and Green and Elliott narrowed it down to Chicago and the Bay Area by spring 2018. Spoiler: Chicago won. While supporters of a Bay Area site had quickly assembled, they were scattered across the region and didn’t have many funders co-signed — whereas in Chicago, program officers at two locally-based foundations who knew Green and Elliott in their own days as education writers took the lead.

“We just felt there wasn’t enough coverage simply because of the lack of people to be covering it,” said Stephanie Banchero, the Joyce Foundation’s education program director and a former education reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune. Since the Joyce Foundation already funds Chalkbeat in Indianapolis, the site was on the organization’s radar. She teamed up with Cornelia Grumman, the education program director at the McCormick Foundation who had worked as an education reporter at the Chicago Tribune as well, and Louise Kiernan, now ProPublica Illinois’ editor-in-chief (and former editor of our sibling site Nieman Storyboard). “They gave us the options: We could either have a one, two, or three-person bureau and here would be the price. We brought it back to funders and got early commitments.”

Banchero and Grumman organized a panel with around 100 Chicagoans from local education, civic, and media leadership (including the CEO of Chicago Public Schools) and brought Green and Elliott in to make their case in person around the start of 2017 while the nominating process was still underway. “We said, let’s have a broad conversation about education coverage in the city — not that this is a turf battle,” Banchero said. “We didn’t want it to be competitive but additive.”

Chalkbeat’s board requires enough local operating funds to last three years before the site can officially launch a new bureau. The process was already dragging on in Detroit, where “the first time we went to Detroit [in 2015] we didn’t really know anybody,” Elliott said. “We got connected with [now bureau chief] Erin Einhorn because she knew everybody in Detroit and suddenly we were in the door with the right people.” They hired her and as they worked to solidify funding, Einhorn edited Chalkbeat Indiana while writing Detroit stories as “more or less my side gig,” she told me. The bureau didn’t officially launch until 2017. Chalkbeat is hitting similar obstacles with getting local funding in order in the disjointed Bay Area, which unbelievably only has one full-time education reporter (there were two before Chalkbeat hired the Bay Area Newspaper Group’s education reporter as story editor!).

“What foundations have to understand is that even for a startup or expanding operations, there needs to be an investment in general operations for a media organization to find its footing so that it can start innovating,” Archangelo said. “You can’t diversify revenue streams if you’re so worried about keeping the lights on.”

Throughout the whole process, Chalkbeat is keeping its national, network, and other bureaus afloat with cycles of fundraising. The Revson Foundation, based in New York City, is one of the donors that has provided a general operating grant to Chalkbeat (it’s also funded the new hyperlocal site The City, News Literacy Project, the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and other media programs). Revson’s president, Julie Sandorf, gave Chalkbeat a “relatively small discretionary grant” two years ago when Green introduced the mission to her.

“When Elizabeth approached me, I started calling around to people I knew who were knee-deep in public education and asked them if they read Chalkbeat,” Sandorf said. “They said, ‘Yeah, it’s our go-to place.'”

The relationship with Chalkbeat, and other media outlets, deepened. “In late 2017, we realized that our support to help keep whatever remains of a news ecosystem alive and to support local news was like putting our finger in the dike,” she said. “Funding education journalism more broadly goes hand in hand with school reform or advocacy efforts. They are inextricably linked.”

So how did Chalkbeat make the connection with all these local funders? What can other local newsrooms learn from this?

“They have a good product. They have something that is very unique and needed in the public discourse around education,” Banchero said. “They know how to talk about and ‘sell’ that thing and explain it to foundations and people who know less about the media.”

“They are very responsive and trying to be on the cutting edge of revenue generation,” Sandorf said. “They’re fearless, and that’s what we need in this business right now.”

Photo of a December 2018 Chalkbeat Chicago panel — from left to right, Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Kids First CEO Daniel Anello, Journey for Justice Alliance national director Jitu Brown, the Joyce Foundation’s Elizabeth Swanson, and Chalkbeat Chicago’s bureau chief Cassie Walker Burke — courtesy Chalkbeat.

POSTED     May 29, 2019, 10:07 a.m.
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