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Jan. 25, 2021, 9:40 a.m.
Reporting & Production

From “pop-up” to “pilot,” Votebeat hopes to stick around until 2022

“This blend of local reporting and issue expertise is extremely powerful. We think it’s one that can respond to the local news crisis quickly.”

A little more than a month before Nov. 3, Votebeat was launched as a pop-up newsroom covering voting amid Covid-19 changes and misinformation about election administration. Even with 2020 in the rearview mirror, those issues aren’t going away. Votebeat, it turns out, plans to stick around, too.

Seemingly willed, or tweeted, into existence by Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green, the news organization got off the ground quickly by building on the education-focused news organization’s existing business and fundraising infrastructure. (Chalkbeat covers education in nine states with a staff of 66 and “has become a $9.4-million-a-year venture,” Poynter reported.)

Votebeat has announced they’ll continue through the midterm elections in 2022, but Green said they are still nailing down the funding to keep the project afloat for that long. “Our ability to go through the 2022 election depends on the success of the campaign,” Green said. The Institute for Nonprofit News has supported Votebeat, along with a number of other donors.

To help the pop-up over its next finish line, Votebeat has hired Jessica Huseman.

During Election 2020, Votebeat grew to 15 reporters stationed in 10 newsrooms in Michigan, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Articles by Votebeat-funded reporters appear in outlets — including Spotlight PA, NJ Spotlight News, and Bridge Michigan — that have already earned a local audience and reputation.

“Our goal was to reach a lot of people with local reporting in trusted outlets that was not about the horse race or fear-mongering about how voting works,” Green said.

Moving forward, Votebeat will continue to partner with local newsrooms — mostly nonprofit, public interested-focused ones — in key states. Chad Lorenz, Votebeat’s project director, said their approach gives participating newsrooms wide latitude in hiring and crafting a editorial chain of command.

“We basically developed a bespoke relationship with each of these newsrooms, because they each had different processes, different standards, different expectations, and different preferences for how they wanted to put these reporters to work,” Lorenz said.

Votebeat has remained laser-focused by knowing what they cover and, perhaps even more importantly, what they do not. “A Votebeat story is about the infrastructure of the election, the people’s access to the vote, how voting actually works, all of the machinery of the election outside of the campaigns, the candidates, the polls, and the campaign financing,” Lorenz noted. “Those stories are amply covered.”

There are just a handful of local and state elections in 2021, leaving Votebeat free to cover the once-a-decade process of redistricting scheduled to unfold in state legislatures across the country. Lorenz expects the election reform beat to be active, too.

“2020 was a huge experiment that was, in many ways, successful as far as extending mail-in voting, instituting drop boxes for ballots, and opening up voter registration in ways that resulted in a historic turnout,” he said. “You would think that it would lead to a golden age of voting but actually, what we’re seeing is the opposite, because of the fraud narrative, with a lot of states preparing to take steps backward.”

Green said she sees Chalkbeat and Votebeat as ways to add dedicated, issue-specific reporting during a critical time for local news organizations — and that she’s already thinking about other ways to adapt the model.

“This blend of local reporting and issue expertise is extremely powerful. We think it’s one that can respond to the local news crisis quickly,” she said. “This project teaches me that we’re more than capable of doing things really quickly at an ambitious scale. I’d love to do more topics in the future.”

Photo taken at a drive-in rally in Georgia by Sue Dorfman.

POSTED     Jan. 25, 2021, 9:40 a.m.
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