introducing ourselves

Hi, we’re Chalkbeat. Here’s our commitment to you as we tell the story of Detroit’s schools

Dear Detroit,

A little over a year ago, an old colleague, Erin Einhorn, reached out with a proposal: Might Chalkbeat consider covering schools in her home, Detroit?

Since then, as we tested out the idea with Erin, we met Monique Johnson and her son Shownn, 13, of Brightmoor, who were commuting six hours every day just to get Shownn to and from a school they trust. We met Yolanda King, a Detroit Public Schools teacher whose faith in the district was so strained that she vowed never to send her own child to DPS — but who is now doing exactly that, driving her 4-year-old son in from the suburbs to attend a new public school she believes in. We met Nir Saar, a determined principal leading a school on the rise that nevertheless faces an uncertain future as state officials move to shut down long-struggling schools.

We also reached out to Detroiters, asking whether this was the kind of news coverage you wanted more of. You answered with a resounding yes, signing up for our newsletter, reading and sharing our stories widely, and even donating to our nonprofit newsroom to help us keep the stories coming.

Today, we answer you by officially putting down roots in Detroit. Effective right now, Chalkbeat is up and running in Detroit — led by Erin and our new colleague Julie Topping, a longtime Detroiter who most recently served as senior director of content strategy at the Detroit Free Press.

We can’t wait to get started. But before we do, let me tell you a little more about Chalkbeat. Because as we go forward, we’ll be asking you to share your stories with us. So we might as well start by sharing our own.

Meet Chalkbeat

Chalkbeat has two birthdays. The first is in 2008, when our cofounders — me, Elizabeth Green (hi!), and Alan Gottlieb — created two very small, very scrappy newsrooms to cover schools in our own communities of New York City and Denver, Colorado. We didn’t know each other yet, but we shared the same belief: That our local schools mattered, and that fair, honest journalism could help everyone who cared about schools come together to strengthen them. Because getting better starts with understanding what is happening, and that is not a simple task.

Over the next several years, we built a new kind of news organization. Like traditional reporters, we did not push for any agenda on how to promote schools. We just told the full and complete story of what was happening — good, bad, and ugly. And we tried to do that at the moments when people most needed good information to make important decisions: the school board votes, the budget debates, the major policy twists and turns.

Even as we pursued old-fashioned truth telling, we also did a few things differently. For one, we focused our reporting exclusively on a single story — the story of public education, particularly public education in the low-income communities where schools matter most. We also invested the bulk of our resources into local reporting. The story of education, after all, is local. Yet at just the time public education has undergone significant change in our country, local TV, radio, and newspapers have sadly seen significant cutbacks that made it even harder for communities to follow what is happening.

Finally, instead of pursuing a commercial model where newsgathering is supported exclusively by advertising and subscriptions, we opened as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, mixing traditional ad revenue with reader donations and major grants. We did this because we knew from our own experience working at commercial newspapers that coverage of low-income communities is the first to go when for-profit models have to cut costs. To support reporting about those with the most to gain or lose as public education evolved, we needed to create a new business model.

With every grant maker, from $5 donors to $500,000 ones, we entered a sacred agreement: They would not attempt to influence our coverage, and we would base our truth-telling on nothing but that, the truth.

Thankfully, a growing community of donors has fully honored their side of the bargain. And with their help, in the winter of 2014 we marked that second birthday I mentioned by joining the Denver and New York newsrooms together under one 501(c)3, taking the name Chalkbeat, and expanding to two new communities — Memphis, Tennessee, and Marion County, Indiana.

The result: We’ve reported thousands of stories, reaching hundreds of thousands of people each month. And those stories have brought people together. Armed with a common understanding of what’s happening on the ground in school and communities, as well as in the halls of power, Chalkbeat readers have turned knowledge into action, doing what they can to make schools better.

Because of our reporting, lawmakers in Indiana learned about the growing disconnect between the number of students who come to school not speaking English and services to support them. And in response, they doubled funding for English language learner services. Because of our reporting, parents in Memphis learned about plans to close their schools and why officials thought that was necessary, and they mobilized to learn more and take action. Because of our reporting, New York educators learned about a policy that would weaken high school graduation standards — and the state Board of Regents responded by studying it. Because of our reporting, Denver school board members learned about serious challenges facing principals that were affecting families, and they took steps to make sure principals had better support.

Along the way, our work has always been a community effort. Our readers help steer the questions we ask, the people we reach out to, and the donations that help us keep our work going. We can’t do any of this without you, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Which brings me back to stories. As I said upfront, in the weeks ahead, we’ll be asking you to tell your stories of navigating Detroit’s public schools. I’ve kicked us off by telling you about Chalkbeat. And today, the two leaders of our Detroit team, Julie Topping and Erin Einhorn, tell their stories. I hope you’ll read their bravely honest personal essays, published today in honor of our launch.

Our commitment to Detroit

The last thing I want to share is the most important, and that’s the commitment we make to you, our new Detroit readers, going forward. The commitments are rooted in Chalkbeat’s core values — the kind of corporate mumbo jumbo many of us skeptical reporters quietly rolled our eyes at before we started Chalkbeat, but which we now see are vital to rooting any enterprise in what matters most.

We share these commitments with you today as we get started because we want to hold ourselves accountable to them. We also share them because we want you, our readers, the people who care most about the future of education in Detroit, to hold us accountable to them.

Here are our commitments:

  • We will focus on the story we care most about, the education of low-income students and families who stand the most to gain from better schools.
  • We will stay vigorously independent, taking no predetermined position on how to achieve better schools, and never letting anything but the truth influence our coverage.
  • We will put down roots and work with our readers, as well as for them. With the help of our community, we will stay in Detroit for as long as we can sustain our work — a long, long time, I hope.
  • We will seek impact, always working to get the full truth to the maximum number of people at the moments of greatest consequence.
  • We will make our newsrooms open to and representative of the diverse communities we cover.
  • And we will invest in our team, because to build a lasting community institution, we need to make sure we are all always learning and growing.

That point about openness — we mean it. We want to hear from you. Please reach out with story ideas, feedback, and questions. Sign up for our newsletter, if you haven’t already. And stay tuned for details soon about an exciting event we’re holding this winter to introduce ourselves in person. We’re looking forward to getting to know you better.

With gratitude,

Elizabeth

introductions

Get to know Chalkbeat’s new Colorado bureau chief

Erica Meltzer (photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat).

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.

a look back

The seven Chalkbeat stories from 2017 I’ll be re-reading this holiday season

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier

Holidays are about family, food — and best-of lists. As you step into your holiday, let me humbly suggest seven Chalkbeat reads from 2017 to make your break more delightful.

  1. Step into Olga Montellano’s child-optimized home — and get to know a neighborhood that is much more than the “child care desert” label it’s earned — with this excellent longform piece by Ann Schimke and Yesenia Robles.
  2. Get mad, but not in the I-just-spent-too-long-on-Twitter way. In that energized way, where you learn a lot at the end, with this lively and readable investigation by Shaina Cavazos, about a virtual charter school in Indiana. (Then read the sequel: the Republican governor’s response to Shaina in a one-on-one interview.)
  3. Look at Detroit’s school district through the eyes of a new superintendent who is both one of the district’s toughest critics and, at the same time, perhaps its most optimistic defender. A great profile by Erin Einhorn.
  4. Witness democracy in action, or maybe retreat?, with this story by Monica Disare — which helps you see why Monica finds the arcane-but-super-powerful governing board overseeing New York’s schools fascinating.
  5. Get inside the heads of some of the nation’s most powerful philanthropists, who are increasingly coalescing on a single idea for what public education should look like. Spoiler: it’s pretty different from what we see today, and — signature Matt Barnum — it’s a story told with scrupulous fairness and care.
  6. Follow educator Tami Sawyer on her journey from a buzzing cell phone as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville to Confederate monuments toppled this week in Memphis, a gripping, emotional story courtesy of our own Laura Kebede.
  7. We resurfaced this 2016 gem after Charlottesville, so I’m saying it counts for a 2017 list. It’s a roundup of advice from teachers about how to talk about race, and you should just bookmark it forever. Because in 2018, we all need to keep getting better at having this conversation.

Enjoy. And don’t forget to donate to Chalkbeat if you haven’t already. You know this, but I’ll say it anyway: Even tiny donations make a big difference to securing our independence. The more supporting readers we can point to and say, don’t mess with them, the better.

Thank you, and happy new year!