As Chalkbeat Detroit grows (again), meet our newest reporter and hear how you can have your voice heard

PHOTO: Getty Images

Chalkbeat Detroit is growing again — and we’d like you, our readers, to help our team cover the story of Detroit schools in new and exciting ways.

Koby Levin, a Detroit-area native who comes to us after a stint at a newspaper in Missouri, joined us as a reporter this week. He’ll be bringing you more of the in-depth coverage of Detroit schools that you’ve come to expect from Chalkbeat.

And, his arrival heralds the start of a new push we’re making here at Chalkbeat Detroit. We are making a more deliberate effort to engage with our readers and the communities we cover. That means Koby will be actively seeking out new ways to elevate the voices of educators, parents and students in our city. He’ll be out in Detroit neighborhoods, and will use social media and text messaging in sophisticated ways to make new connections. He’ll be taking the lead on a partnership we’ve begun with another local journalism start-up, Outlier Media, that finds new ways to deliver information to busy people.

Kimberly Hayes Taylor, who first joined us at the end of January, will continue to dive into critical issues facing Detroit schools and early childhood education, but she also will devote more time to making connections in the community. She’ll be planning events, finding ways to bring people together, and will be looking for stories about the people who work in our schools and rely on them.

Koby and Kim will both be working closely with me, Chalkbeat Detroit’s Bureau Chief, and with Julie Topping, our talented story editor. Please be in touch with all of us. You can find us on email, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

Now, since Koby is the new guy, we thought we’d introduce him to readers with a quick interview. 

Koby Levin

Welcome to Chalkbeat. Let’s get right to it. Why are you interested in reporting on schools?

My mom taught middle school, and I seriously considered becoming an educator myself. I spent my summers in high school and college working with public school students, often in Detroit. If I wasn’t going to be a teacher, I was going to be a journalist. During the school year, I’d work for the student paper. So education reporting always seemed a natural fit.

Which Detroit communities are you planning to cover?

All of them. But since I’m bilingual in English and Spanish, I plan to use Spanish to highlight the issues facing English language learners in schools. I’m looking forward to living and reporting in the same place. I live in Southwest Detroit.

What is your philosophy about engaging readers in your reporting?

Engagement works two ways. Of course there’s the engagement that takes place after the reporting is done. We have to use every tool available to make sure Detroiters are getting the information they need about their schools, from social media to collaborations with other news outlets. But that’s only the tail end of the process. Strong, engaging stories involve readers all the way through. They are for readers, but also about them.

What’s cool is that the two kinds of engagement benefit each other. My goal is to erase the line between reader and community member.

Will your stories based on community input be different than other stories?

Well, yes. Those stories are richer than anything that was cooked up in an office. Above all, they matter more to the people we’re writing about. But also no. All of our stories should be based on community input.

How can I get in touch with you if i have a story idea or want to share information?

Let’s talk! As I get up to speed, I’ll be leaning on people who’ve been around much longer than I have to explain how we got here and where we’re going. Our goal at Chalkbeat is to spur change by shedding light on inequity, but that’s a community-wide project. Please, share what you know — and tell me what you’d like to see covered. I want to hear from you. Find me on Twitter.

listening tour

Tour notes: What we heard when we listened to our communities in a new way

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
At a Chalkbeat Indiana listening session, kids made their own fun.

As with many initiatives at Chalkbeat, the idea started in one location. Our seventh bureau had just launched in Chicago, and our first order of business was to introduce ourselves to the city. But our new bureau chief, Cassie Walker Burke, knew we had to listen as well as speak.

She proposed a listening tour — a roving set of sessions where our top priority would be empowering our audience to share with us. The launch went so well that our entire news organization took up the initiative this summer and fall, holding 14 events in six locations across our network.

A deep belief in engagement has been encoded into Chalkbeat’s DNA from its founding in 2013, and it was one of the aspects that drew me to join the organization last year as executive editor. Our core values include putting down roots in local communities, and working with and for readers. We track shares, retweets, and readership the same as any other publication, but we are most committed to driving impact: bringing stories, people, and stakes alive for readers so they can engage in informed action and debate.

Before our readers can go out there and make their voices heard, we have to listen — to their concerns, their questions, and their critiques of our coverage. We’ve heard from parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, education wonks, legislators, and policymakers since the beginning, and we have appreciated and used their insights. But it’s a constant work in progress. Especially because we report for people who have historically lacked access to a quality education, we always aim to amplify and empower new voices.

Setting off on a listening tour, starting in Chicago and spreading out across our other local markets, emerged as the perfect strategy to make this happen.

Our goals

Before we set out on our tour, we identified four goals for the project. This also helped us think through how to structure the “stops” on the tour, as well as how to measure success.

  1. Generate story ideas
  2. Build and diversify our source network
  3. Deepen the understanding of the Chalkbeat brand as community-oriented
  4. Deepen community participation

The planning process

We shied away from a one-size-fits-all approach, allowing each bureau to tailor the program to fit their needs. An action force that included at least one representative from each bureau met regularly to discuss progress. That group designed a worksheet to help teams organize their listening sessions: by topic, by audience, by location, or by some combination of the three approaches. In some cases, we decided to center listening sessions around topics we knew we wanted to focus enterprise reporting on in the coming year.

We invited engagement-minded folks from other media organizations to share their expertise with us, too. Alexandra Smith of Whereby.Us, Ashley Alvarado from KPCC, and Jesse Hardman from Listening Post Collective helped us mightily during the planning process, answering our questions and offering suggestions. We also partnered with community organizations on the ground to help with logistics, audience-building, and trust. By seeking out established organizations to co-sponsor events, we signaled to potential attendees — especially those who were new to Chalkbeat — that we were to be trusted too.

The results

Chalkbeat put on a total of 14 events across six out of our seven markets (one bureau sat out for logistical reasons), with most teams executing one or two events. Chicago went all-in with seven listening tour stops as part of the bureau’s launch efforts. Here are some other key results:

  • Nearly 400 attendees in total
  • 84 percent hadn’t read Chalkbeat before
  • More than 70 story ideas
  • Close to 150 new sources
  • About 220 email subscribers

In our newer bureaus, we got a lot of questions about our organization: How are we funded? What do we cover? Why and how can our readers participate? In our more established markets, we were able to home in on audiences we wanted to reach in a more targeted way, and topics the community was passionate about.

Following up

Listening is great, but we knew that if we did not carry forward what we heard, we would be failing our readers. So we made sure to follow up by emailing participants to thank them and publishing posts after events when it made sense. Michigan Radio covered one of our Detroit sessions, our Newark bureau designed a survey to keep the conversation going, and Denver used a feedback form to solicit input on how the sessions went. We also used a text-messaging platform, GroundSource, to follow up with attendees in Memphis.

We’re continuing to sort through the 70+ story ideas we gathered, and using those to inform some meaty enterprise work. Whenever we publish stories that tie back to the listening tour, we’ll inform participants. We’re also planning to designate stories on our site that emerged from community conversations, so all our readers have proof that we’re not just listening, we’re acting on what we hear. And we know that listening isn’t a one-time event. We’re keeping up with our tour participants throughout the year to keep the cycle going, so we can report for their communities even better.

One powerful quote from a Memphis reader drove it home. It reminded us that the hard work that went into this project — planning, wrangling logistics, making it happen on a nonprofit budget — was all worth it, and intentionally listening to our communities makes our journalism stronger.

“It was really inspiring to be a part of this. It was also really empowering, like what we say doesn’t just go into some black hole. You’re here and listening.”

— Chalkbeat Tennessee listening tour attendee

the starting line

Chalkbeat’s launching a newsletter all about early childhood. Sign up here.

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post

Our newest newsletter is called The Starting Line, and it’s all about early childhood — those brain-building years from birth to 8 years old.

As the Chalkbeat team has grown over the last five years, so has our coverage of early childhood education. Now, we’re making an even bigger investment in the topic with a monthly newsletter that will feature key early childhood stories from Chalkbeat as well as other news outlets.

In recent months, we’ve written stories about new child care rules that could threaten funding for hundreds of Illinois providers, Teach For America’s efforts to mint preschool teachers in Colorado, and discussions among Indiana leaders about where to find the money for new preschool seats.

Our goal is to keep you informed about broad policy issues in the early childhood world while also sharing on-the-ground stories that provide a window into how it all plays out in the lives of real people.

Expect to see the first issue of The Starting Line in early November. And remember to let us know what you think as it takes shape. If there’s a compelling early childhood topic, trend or study you’d like us to dig into, or an early childhood leader we should profile, let us know.

If you’re interested in receiving The Starting Line, sign up below. Then, send this link to a friend or colleague who cares about early childhood issues, too.

Finally, for those of you who want even more Chalkbeat, we have a ton of other newsletters as well: local dispatches from each of our bureaus — Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York, and Tennessee — plus a national newsletter, one designed especially for teachers, and a Spanish-language roundup out of Colorado. Sign up for all our newsletters here.