A Five-Year Plan to Build the News Our Democracy Demands
Originally published August 28, 2019
What we’re up against
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.
What happened in Newark is now happening across America. In the last 15 years, half of all American newspapers have shut down after losing tens of billions of dollars a year in advertising revenue. The Chicago Tribune, the largest paper in a city of 3 million people, once employed 13 education reporters; today, it has one. Fifteen years ago, a dozen editors and reporters covered the public schools in Silicon Valley. Today, there are no reporters assigned to the education beat there. The consequences of this dramatic deterioration are clear in emerging research on the effects of local news. Declining local coverage leads to lower voter turnout, a decreased sense of civic agency, and increased consumption of ever-more polarizing national news. Efforts to improve public education, which are intertwined with this political system, inherently suffer.
While digital publications for national and global audiences proliferate, local news is so scarce that when Facebook recently created a new feature to deliver users geographically relevant stories, the company found there simply weren’t enough stories to share.
Understanding why the industry unraveled is the key to a brighter future. Before the rise of the internet, local newspapers survived on a bundled model, with public-interest stories about education, city government, and the environment packaged alongside lifestyle topics like sports, weather, entertainment, and classifieds. The total package attracted a high volume of readers, and readers in turn attracted advertisers, who poured $49.4 billion annually into newspapers at their peak.
“Local news is so scarce that when Facebook recently created a new feature to deliver users geographically relevant stories, the company found there simply weren’t enough stories to share.”
Over the last decade, the internet broke this bundle apart, creating cheaper, algorithmically targeted ways for advertisers to reach potential customers, while also enabling new, more streamlined digital businesses to capture the most profitable parts of the newspaper. Some of these businesses are ad-supported. Others are backed by subscriptions. What they have in common is that they all tie together a single lifestyle offering across multiple regions. The Athletic covers sports in 48 locations, Eater covers food in 24 cities, and weather apps and Craigslist provide their services in every locale with an internet connection.
The casualty is local public-interest topics, particularly for low-income communities. No longer subsidized, these subjects are covered sparsely, if at all, by a shrinking number of employees at the remaining newspapers, leaving critical decisions uninformed and unaccountable.
What we’ve made possible
The local news businesses that work financially have embraced the new economics of the internet. Because sites like The Athletic and Eater serve a clear community of interest, they cultivate focused and competitive revenue models. They also recreate the cost efficiencies of a general-interest local newspaper by turning the model on its head — uniting multiple geographies across one topic rather than multiple topics across one geography. Perhaps most important, their dedication to a single topic, and to the community that cares about it, produces a laser focus on quality and builds trust with readers. As a result, they go beyond merely replacing what’s been lost as newspapers die. They improve upon it.
Chalkbeat takes this approach and applies it to our public-interest topic: a network of bureaus covering the same issue — education — in different locations. Each bureau has between one and five local reporters and shares services with other bureaus across the network, such as HR, revenue generation, and technology.
Traditionally, the education beat was often relegated to the most junior reporters. At Chalkbeat, we’ve elevated the topic to center stage, covering education with care, experience, and dedicated resources. The end result is high-quality journalism that diverse readers find uniquely credible, and that inspires a new kind of education debate.
Returning to the Newark example, before Chalkbeat launched in the spring of 2018, educators, students, parents, and voters sparred frequently and passionately over the future of the city’s schools. The end of 22 years of state takeover was an exciting milestone, but some worried the city might botch the opportunity. Could the rancor and rampant mistrust imperil Newark’s transition to local control? Since Chalkbeat’s arrival, heartfelt arguments remain, but thanks to the injection of dedicated reporting, participants can now cite carefully reported stories when advocating for issues they care about. They can make sense of what otherwise would have been an abstruse shift in authority. The new lead actors — the school board and its handpicked superintendent — have been forced to operate more transparently, their claims explained, fact-checked, and held to account. Student activists can now voice their concerns to reporters, with some later invited by state lawmakers to testify at hearings. Parents from low-income backgrounds trust Chalkbeat’s reporting after seeing their own thoughts, words, and questions in our coverage. Our readers share stories frequently and pay our coverage the highest journalistic compliment: In our last survey, 20% reported that a story had changed their mind in the last month. “Every time an article comes out, I have 10 people sending it to me,” one local education leader said.
Chalkbeat is telling a unique story that drives the conversation at the local and national level
of readers we surveyed said that if Chalkbeat ceased to exist, they feel they would have lost a source of news they can’t find anywhere else
of readers we surveyed changed their minds based on something they read on Chalkbeat
of our readers are teachers or principals
are policymakers or state/district officials
Chalkbeat is regularly republished and cited in top publications
The powerful, tangible impact of Chalkbeat Newark has expanded support from donors and sponsors, which in turn has enabled us to invest more reporting resources in Newark. Initial impact, additional support, heightened impact — it’s a virtuous cycle that has powered Chalkbeat’s fast-paced growth across the country.
Chalkbeat’s largest revenue source is philanthropy. Despite the relative dearth of local news philanthropy — between 2010 and 2016, just 5% of the (meager) donations made to newsgathering went to state and local coverage — Chalkbeat has leveraged its singular focus on education to raise $25 million in philanthropic support since its founding, the vast majority of which comes from local sources.
While education donors may not yet be accustomed to supporting journalism, we have helped these donors realize the essential role of local news in improving education, and they have stepped up accordingly. Local supporters are particularly generous and loyal because they see the need and the impact. In our two most mature bureaus, New York and Colorado, local philanthropy covers 85% of all local costs (member donations and sponsorships cover the rest).
We are recruiting new and sticky support to journalism
of our funders were first-time donors to local news
of our philanthropic gifts that were up for renewal in 2018 renewed
Philanthropic support allows Chalkbeat to focus on the most interesting and important story in American education: the nearly half of U.S. children who live at or below the poverty line, many of them students of color. Whereas historic newspaper economics put more affluent communities at the center of reporting in order to attract advertising revenue, Chalkbeat can cover issues that affect the communities who stand to gain the most from improvements in public education.
The rest of Chalkbeat’s support is commercial. Like our single-subject, multi-region, for-profit counterparts, we reach a niche audience at national scale. In doing so, we’re creating a viable alternative to Google and Facebook for sponsors trying to reach the millions of education professionals in the trenches.
Our support is broad, protecting our independence
have awarded grants to Chalkbeat
is the mean annual grant amount
191 corporate sponsors
have partnered with Chalkbeat, including AT&T, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill Education, and Purdue University
Our support comes from across the ideological divide
The result of this work is a level of civic impact only possible with local news, but buoyed by the stability and strength of a national organization. As a Tennessee reader put it, “If every region of the country had journalism with the quality Chalkbeat brings to education, we’d be a healthier country.”
We share that Tennessee reader’s vision. But we also know that, at our current pace of growth, we will take too long to achieve it, putting our education system and our democracy at risk. That’s why over the next five years we are committed to an acceleration of our work that will allow us to answer the demands of the times.
Today, we have the capacity to add just one new local bureau every 18 months. In the next five years, we will expand more aggressively, adding three new bureaus a year. Today, we serve seven regions. By 2025, we will serve 18.
Today, we are the country’s leading outlet for coverage of public education as it plays out at the city and state level: the acceleration of charter schools and school choice, with its opportunities and challenges; the ongoing story of enduring race- and class-based school segregation in large and mid-sized cities, even amid opportunities presented by rapid gentrification; and the rapid expansion of public education to the nation’s youngest children — to name just a few of the topics we cover.
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. In doing so, we will serve more local communities while telling a powerful national story of how public education is being reconceived and remade across America.
”The result of this work is something remarkable: a level of civic impact only possible with local news, but buoyed by the stability and strength of a national organization.”
At the same time, we will strengthen our philanthropic base as we continue to mobilize a new movement of support for local news. We will also build upon our early progress with commercial revenue (sponsorships and a jobs board), creating an even stronger foundation for long-term health and growth. We will create a major giving program. We will inaugurate an effort we call the MARS Mission (Mission-Aligned Revenue Stuff) by combining two of our strengths — rigorous journalism and a loyal audience of teachers and education professionals — into a new content offering with outsize sponsorship potential.
Finally, today Chalkbeat is one growing organization in an ecosystem characterized by decline. In the next five years, we will work with peers to reinvent and resuscitate local news.
To carry out this vision, we will undertake a six-part plan.
We’ll start by strengthening. We serve devoted communities of readers in the seven locations where we already work, thanks to loyal communities of support. By strengthening each bureau’s work, we will deepen that service in each location and create exemplars and training grounds for the expansion work ahead.
Deepen our impact. Across our seven bureaus, we are learning what type of work has the biggest impact. It’s a mix of the mundane (showing up where no one else does) and the lofty (identifying important lessons learned, bringing transgressions and challenges to light, and offering sharp analysis that fosters understanding). That distinct approach is how we’ve built trust in communities where the mainstream press lost it, if they ever had it at all. Finding ways to do consistently high-quality work is a priority in the years to come.
Expand the local movement supporting education news. For 83% of local supporters who have made a grant to Chalkbeat, that grant was the first time they ever gave to journalism. In our next phase, we need to turn those early adopters into evangelists and broaden our sources of support.
Create exemplars and training grounds. 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.
We’ll also grow. As we expand to a total of 18 communities in the next five years, we’ll be smart about selecting our locations and responsible about serving them.
”If every region of the country had journalism with the quality Chalkbeat brings to education, we’d be a healthier country. From Chalkbeat Tennessee Reader”
Select the right places for growth. Constraints of money, time, people, and organizational capacity force us to make difficult decisions about which communities we can serve in the next five years. 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.
Make growing smoother and easier. Setting up a new bureau is a difficult, multi-step process that we still need to improve. We will create a streamlined, repeatable process that sets up new bureau chiefs and reporters for success.
As we strengthen and grow, we will constantly connect. Connecting advances both our impact and our sustainability.
Help local communities learn from each other. 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. Already, school board members share Chalkbeat stories from other communities with their colleagues; we can make that information exchange more common.
Ground the national education story in local realities — and the local story in national lessons. Conventional wisdom about what is and isn’t happening in education and what does and doesn’t work is strongly shaped by national media — too often in ways that do not reflect local realities. Meanwhile, when making difficult decisions, local communities often lack appropriate national context, such as conclusions from the latest research. We will increase the size of our national team, making it easier to marshal our local reporting to inform the national dialogue, while injecting appropriate national context into local stories.
Provide top-caliber resources to local newsrooms. By bolstering our shared support infrastructure (e.g., technology, human resources, fundraising), we will continue to attract talent and provide tools that no single local newsroom could afford on its own.
Simultaneously, we’ll maximize our revenue diversity, providing cushion and flexibility as we take on bigger and bolder challenges.
Capitalize on our widening audience to grow earned revenue. In the past two years, Chalkbeat’s audience has almost doubled, leading to a significant rise in interest from sponsors, including large national companies such as McGraw-Hill Education and AT&T. As we continue to grow our audience, we need to invest in sponsorship sales accordingly, adapting technology and adding capacity to capitalize on new opportunities.
Create content that teachers and education professionals will love (aka, the MARS Mission). The 7 million educators in America feel isolated and underappreciated. One brand they repeatedly tell us they trust to make them feel understood and connected is Chalkbeat. 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.
All along the way, we’ll prepare ourselves for the work ahead by creating a culture ready for growth.
Proactively foster diversity and inclusivity, starting with internal changes to promote equity in our organization. Chalkbeat writes about people who have historically lacked access to a quality education, as well as other types of power and privilege. To do this well, we have strived to build and support a team that reflects those we seek to serve. We are proud that 39% of our team members are people of color. The next step is to formalize our vision for diversity and inclusion, defining clear goals across all roles at all levels, and committing resources to achieving them. We will also engage in continuous accounting of our hiring, culture, writing, sourcing, funding, and audience from a DEI lens.
Learn together, quickly and with humility. At Chalkbeat, we know from experience that the best ideas emerge from those working closest to problems. We also know that humility, data, and evidence are critical to solving problems quickly. We will invest in bolstering a culture and creating process in which everybody at Chalkbeat is encouraged to propose novel approaches, raise important questions, and hold ourselves accountable.
Finally, we’ll teach the field as we learn, extending ourselves to create a stronger news ecosystem that grows along with us.
Learn along with our peers. As a new local news ecosystem emerges, we will work hard to share what we are learning with our peers, and to learn from them in turn — embracing collaboration opportunities over legacy newspaper wars and ratings fights. 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.
Proactively recruit new resources to the local news movement. 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.
We know many people today feel called to serve this country and the ideals upon which it was founded. These are the people we invite to join us in a public-service mission that, for the sake of a healthy democracy, simply has to succeed.
If our vision inspires you, we would love to meet you. Not sure what you bring to the table? Maybe it’s financial support, skills and talent, valuable connections, or business services you can donate. We’d love to hear from you.
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