There’s a new byline — and bureau chief — at Chalkbeat Colorado.
Erica Meltzer started in the role Jan. 8. As part of her duties, Erica will cover the state government beat for us, continuing a legacy that began a decade ago with the launch of EdNews Colorado.
EdNews founder Alan Gottlieb and statehouse reporter Todd Engdahl had no shortage of things to chronicle that year, including the passage of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, a sweeping bill that has had a lasting impact on public education in Colorado.
What was once EdNews Colorado is now Chalkbeat, a national education news organization dedicated to covering efforts to improve education for all students, especially those from low-income families.
We introduced Erica briefly before, and explained how her arrival coincides with a number of exciting changes at Chalkbeat as we continue to grow. Now, with Erica officially on board and four stories already to her name, we thought you should get to know her a little better.
We talked with her about how she got started in journalism, her favorite stories, and how she’ll approach the job.
Let’s start with your journalism origin story. What inspired you to become a journalist?
When I was in sixth grade, we had an assignment to pick a job and research it and give a presentation. I can’t actually remember what prompted me to pick reporter, but by the time I was done with that assignment, I wanted to be a reporter, and I still can’t think of a better job. I’ve met so many people I never would have met otherwise and been privileged to hear and tell their stories. I get to ask all the questions I’d be too polite or shy to ask if I didn’t have a notebook in my hand. And every day is different.
I worked on my high school paper, where we took our job as the only journalists with access to the student community very seriously. We wrote about air quality problems in our school, and we wrote about how the administration responded when a student murdered his parents. Asking tough questions from the relatively powerless position of a student taught me a lot.
What are your favorite kinds of stories to tell?
I really like stories that combine human interest with policy issues. Fortunately for me, there are a lot of stories like this in education. I really believe in the value of journalism to help people be informed citizens. We can do that through stories that show how policy will affect ordinary people and through stories that put faces to these questions we all wrestle with.
And then sometimes I like to take off my policy nerd hat and do something weird and fun. At my last job, I interviewed an Elvis impersonator who serves as a kind of unofficial historian for Colfax Avenue. He had this crazy, stream-of-consciousness style of talking, and I just wanted to channel that for readers so they could enjoy him as much as I did.
In your introductory newsletter, you relayed an exchange you had with a local TV reporter of your acquaintance about joining Chalkbeat. This person said, “Chalkbeat, huh? You’re going to be getting into the minutiae.” And your response was: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Then you went on to explain that you’ve found some really good stories in small things. Does anything in particular come to mind, an example you can share?
When I worked in Tucson, I covered county government, and I would keep an eye on all sorts of lower-level board and committee agendas. At some point I noticed something like the fourth horse property coming before the Zoning Board of Adjustment in six months and called up a source who worked in the planning department to ask if there was any particular reason these horse properties all needed variances. It turned into a really good story about how the community was changing. All these properties with livestock had once been way out of town where nobody cared what they did, and now they were surrounded by subdivisions and all sorts of things that had never been a problem were suddenly a problem.
Sometimes journalism involves noticing a loose thread and pulling on it and seeing what happens.
You came to us from Denverite, a local news startup that has done some creative things inviting readers into the news conversation. Can you give an example of that working well, and maybe share some lessons you’ve learned about how to better involve readers in stories?
Denverite has an occasional feature called Readers’ Choice that involves asking readers what stories they’d like to see covered — sometimes we did this as a poll with a discrete set of options — and asking readers to submit questions on those topics. This served as the springboard for a lot of good stories — everything from why Denver has these flagstone sidewalks that trip us up to what’s so bad about gentrification.
Sometimes people who work in the policy realm bring certain assumptions to the table, and those assumptions bleed over to the reporters who spend a lot of time hanging out with those insiders. Hearing from readers provided this reality check about what people know and don’t know and what they’d like to see explored further. It’s a way of getting outside that “everybody knows” trap, and it opens us up to new ways to approach familiar topics.
And of course, readers know a lot of things that we don’t know. They live and work in the communities we cover. They’re teachers, or they have kids in school. So they’re a great resource.
You covered the legislative session for Denverite last year, and now you’ll be covering education issues under the dome for Chalkbeat. How would you describe your approach to covering the statehouse beat?
Covering any government body, I like to keep the focus on how people will be affected by what that body is doing. Sometimes that requires a turn-of-the-screw story on some action at the committee level, but more often, I’m going to be looking for the big storylines and themes of this session and trying to put bills into context with the larger discussion of school quality and equity in access to education. By nature, I’m more interested in policy than in political intrigue, but of course politics is how we get things done in a democracy, so sometimes the political story is the story.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers as you begin this role?
I’ll be frank. I haven’t covered education in-depth in a long time, and a lot has changed. I’m reading a lot and trying to talk to as many people as I can get up to speed. If there’s something you’d like to see covered or if you have feedback — positive or negative — about something I or someone on our team has written, please get in touch with me. I want to hear from you.
Erica Meltzer can be reached at [email protected] or 303-446-7635. Follow her on Twitter here.