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Sept. 19, 2019, 10:18 a.m.
Business Models

Here’s Chalkbeat’s vision for local education news by 2025

The network’s pitch to local funders: “By the time the school reforms reached their zenith, there was not a single local education reporter dedicated to covering them.”

As the number of journalists on the education beat drops, Chalkbeat is — slowly — expanding and trying to recoup that loss.

The nonprofit education reporting network, now six years old, has mini-newsrooms in seven cities and a national layer of reporters. Chalkbeat is the Texas Tribune-level example of the local news network model rather than the deep dive that the Trib offers; the founders of Chalkbeat (Elizabeth Green, current CEO) and the Texas Tribune (John Thornton) are now plotting a way to build up a network of philanthropically supported local news outlets across the U.S. with $42 million already committed. And now Chalkbeat, created by the merger of the Denver and New York City sites, is aiming at an 18-city network by 2025, according to its recently released strategic plan, developed by Green and head of growth Alison Go.

We wrote about Chalkbeat’s model of connecting local nonprofit dollars to its local reporting in May. “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 then. “The thinking of that is, if the local community wants us there, that’s better for all of us.”

Chalkbeat’s revenue is diversified across contributions from 100-some foundations and philanthropists both nationally and locally focused, earned revenue/sponsorship, and most recently membership. Its model shadows the findings of a pair of nonprofit news reports including the Institute for Nonprofit News’ annual report on the state of nonprofit media Wednesday (it was one of 108 respondents), pointing out that journalism philanthropy, especially locally, is on the rise though nonprofit outlets aren’t relying as heavily on foundations anymore.

Interestingly, in the midst of the industry’s push for reader money, the word “member” only shows up three times in the whole plan; once is about school board members and the other is about Chalkbeat’s employees themselves. (The network employs 60 total — 39 percent people of color — with 39 directly producing or distributing its journalism, and sees 40 percent of its readership as teachers or principals.) “Subscribe” and its variations are only present in the site’s newsletter subscription box and when referring to other news outlets’ approaches. The 15 mentions of “reader” start with: “We’ve reimagined what local news can be as we’ve rebuilt it, elevating a subject that was previously a stepping-stone beat for rookie reporters, treating readers as partners, and focusing exclusively on the education story that matters most: the almost 30 million children in America who live near or below the poverty line.” The Texas Tribune’s strategic plan, by comparison, outlines goals of doubling its readership and paying members, the latter with hopes to hit 10,000.

Chalkbeat’s strategic plan is clearly written for the local nonprofit supporters it has attracted (207 foundations and counting, with 83 percent first-time journalism donors and 72 percent of gifts renewed in 2018). Its anecdote about the relationship between Newark’s philanthropic overhaul of the education system and the loss of its education reporters doesn’t even mention the main donor himself, Mark Zuckerberg:

In 2010, Newark, New Jersey, embarked on an ambitious project to transform its public schools, fueled by a historic $200 million philanthropic gift. In the four years that followed, the city’s newspaper of record went through two rounds of gut-wrenching layoffs. By the time the school reforms reached their zenith, there was not a single local education reporter dedicated to covering them. In place of what might have been an informed debate about the direction of public education, the conversation was laced with confusion, conspiracy theories, and polarized accusations.

Hey, foundations: Wouldn’t your area of focus be better attended if there were journalists there to cover it? Especially the community fabric of public education? Broadly speaking, local newspapers still outpace online outlets at producing the greatest amount of significant journalism — so far — according to Duke University research by Philip Napoli and Jessica Mahone you may have seen here at Nieman Lab last week. The potential is there, they found, but the capacity is not yet. How is Chalkbeat planning to fill this gap?

MARS = mission-aligned revenue stuff

I’m just starting with this part because the acronym is fun. The plan’s writers tease a “new content offering with outsize sponsorship potential” that will rely on its journalism quality and its regular readership of education professionals:

We can cater to this audience with content that is aligned to but separate from our core local work, enabling us to sell sponsorships geared to this large and focused audience. For instance, while our local news offerings help teachers make sense of developments in politics and policy, MARS stories will offer teachers across the country insight on life in the classroom, from fundamentals on how to navigate new open-source curriculum resources to lighter (but no less significant) questions about work-appropriate wardrobe options and strategies for squeezing in lunch.

A major giving program and more commercial revenue ventures (adding to its sponsorships and jobs board) are also in the works.

Build out more local philanthropy, probably with the American Journalism Project’s help

That aforementioned $42 million venture philanthropy effort is trying to catalyze hundreds of millions of dollars in support of local news. Chalkbeat sees this as an opportunity for collaboration rather than competition, an issue that extends into grant challenges beyond commercial ratings battles.

We will also work to inspire local news organizations that do not yet exist by providing a replicable local news blueprint for other topics of major civic importance — like health, safety, social welfare, and criminal justice…. As we raise awareness about the need for Chalkbeat’s work, we will also raise awareness about the broader need for strong local journalism. Chalkbeat’s success depends on the success of our peers.

Choose expansion sites wisely and consider non-metropolitan opportunities

Chalkbeat currently operates in Chicago, Newark, New York City, Detroit, Indiana, Tennessee, and Denver, along with its national bureau. They’re very metropolitan areas where local philanthropists — and lots of potential readers — live.

In the next five years, we can add stories from swaths of America beyond our founding bureaus: from rural regions where persistent poverty and massive economic change make reshaping public education uniquely challenging; from states struggling to educate large immigrant populations still learning to speak English; and from regions with shrinking populations, where public school districts are making severe cuts and attempting sweeping reorganizations to stay afloat. …

On top of news-gathering need and financial viability, our expansion selection criteria also includes top storylines nationally where strong local reporting can have the highest impact — from regions experiencing the dislocation that comes with rapid gentrification to regions with shrinking populations and crumbling infrastructure.

Use the existing bureaus to cycle Chalkbeat trainees through

As our founding bureaus grow in impact, readership, and support, they can host future Chalkbeat bureau chiefs and reporters during their training phase, coaching them on how to work with communities to create high-impact reporting that engages readers and breeds loyalty.

Connect locally and nationally

This includes an increase of its national reporting team:

The decentralized nature of America’s public schools can be a challenge, but it also provides an opportunity for each state and school district to serve as a laboratory of learning. We will capitalize on this potential by making it increasingly easy for communities to learn from each other’s experience — both by sharing lessons learned through storytelling and by facilitating dialogue and exchange.

The full plan is available here.

Illustration by Fede Cook and Ray East used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 19, 2019, 10:18 a.m.
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