Chalkbeat Wields Web To Boost Local Ed.-News Coverage
Two years ago, Scott Elliott worked as an education reporter at The Indianapolis Star. He focused on improving education at the state level and in local schools. However, he became disheartened by the challenges facing the newspaper industry, including layoffs and budget cuts. Mr. Elliott believed that there was less emphasis on specialized beats like education when resources were limited. During this time, he began discussing his concerns with Elizabeth Green, the founder of GothamSchools, an online news site based in New York City. In 2013, GothamSchools expanded and rebranded as Chalkbeat.
Chalkbeat faces competition in New York from traditional news outlets like newspapers, a public radio station with an education-focused blog, and an online competitor called Capital Education. The Chalkbeat brand was established after GothamNews merged with Ednews Colorado and created new bureaus in Memphis and Indianapolis.
Local online education sites like Chalkbeat are the modern iterations of print publications like Catalyst Chicago and The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. Other online sites, such as LA School Report and Idaho Education News, also focus on reporting stories about their respective school systems.
Mr. Elliott considered a job offer to lead Chalkbeat Indiana. One of his concerns, as a father of three, was whether choosing an internet startup over an established news organization would provide long-term career stability. However, Ms. Green convinced him that Chalkbeat was the right place for him. She believed that Mr. Elliott’s talent and experience made him the perfect fit for one of Chalkbeat’s expansion sites. Alongside Indianapolis, Chalkbeat also expanded in Memphis, while their existing sites in Denver and New York City adopted the Chalkbeat branding.
Ms. Green stated in an interview that Chalkbeat aims to be present in areas where educational change efforts are happening. Indianapolis and Memphis fit this criteria. Currently, the nonprofit organization, which has support from various philanthropic donors, is focusing on these four locations, but they hope to expand in the future. Once Chalkbeat Indiana was established, Mr. Elliott’s next task was to convince The Indianapolis Star and other news outlets in the city that Chalkbeat Indiana was not a direct competitor. Instead, they wanted to collaborate to distribute high-quality journalism about education more widely. Mr. Elliott assured them that Chalkbeat was not targeting their advertisers or trying to steal their page views.
In April, Chalkbeat Indiana collaborated with The Star and WFYI, a public radio and TV broadcaster in Indianapolis, on a series of stories about English-language learners. Mr. Elliott and other Chalkbeat journalists wrote six of the stories, while The Star and the broadcaster each wrote one. All eight stories were published by each outlet. As a result of this collaboration, the state legislature decided to double funding for English-language learners in the state. This example demonstrated the power of collaboration. Alvie Lindsay, the news and investigations director at The Star, expressed confidence in Mr. Elliott’s work and believed that it met their readers’ standards. Aside from larger collaborations, The Star also started using Chalkbeat’s school board meeting coverage, which allowed their education reporter to pursue more in-depth stories. This partnership was seen as an opportunity to enhance their coverage rather than give up on education reporting. Caitlin Hannon, a school board member in Indianapolis, appreciated the nuanced coverage that Chalkbeat brought to policy issues in the district and state.
"I greatly appreciate the immense level of information they offer, as it proves invaluable to me as a member of the board," expressed Ms. Hannon, who also handles matters concerning education policy in her occupation as the executive director of Teach Plus, an advocacy organization for teachers. "However, they have also shared some exceptionally difficult narratives that are not always comfortable to hear," she added.