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

Inside Chalkbeat

I’m Chalkbeat’s new audience engagement editor. Here’s how I think about community and impact.

PHOTO: Sam Hodgson / Voice of San Diego
A throwback to 2014; Catherine Green co-hosting a live podcast recording for Voice of San Diego

Technically my first day at Chalkbeat was January 7, but I hope you’ll forgive the delay in saying hello. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been meeting people left and right, bookmarking community organizations and movers-and-shakers in the seven locations where we operate, and getting up to speed on our audience engagement strategies. Now that I can catch my breath, I wanted to take a moment to share my own perspective on engagement and what I’m hoping to do at Chalkbeat.

A lot has changed since I started working in engagement six years ago, but plenty remains the same. Comment sections are still prone to devolving into petty fighting without rigorous moderation. News organizations are still sorting out which traffic metrics they pay attention to, and which ones define success. The role of “engagement editor” in newsrooms, unlike “City Hall reporter” or “editor in chief,” can still resemble an amorphous blob, containing as much or as little as an outlet cares to hear from its audience.

Chalkbeat lands on the upper end of the spectrum, and its engagement-centric approach is part of what drew me to work here. I first learned about Chalkbeat back in 2013, when I was engagement editor at Voice of San Diego.

What immediately stood out: Chalkbeat’s MORI system, which remains the most thoughtful approach I’ve seen for measuring impact in the communities a news outlet covers. This isn’t the case everywhere, but to me, and most importantly to Chalkbeat, engagement and impact are intertwined; journalists’ work doesn’t yield impact if readers aren’t part of the conversation. While growing our audience is important (have you told a friend about Chalkbeat yet? We’d appreciate the help!), and will be a significant part of my job, our bureaus are motivated by doing work that matters, that informs debate and spurs action that results in better schools — not necessarily work that will go viral.

Since then, Chalkbeat has grown to seven bureaus with national coverage on top of that, and there are plans to expand to even more cities around the country in the future. Though my career path had carried me away from mission-driven nonprofit newsrooms, I found myself checking back in on Chalkbeat.

I spent 2018 as a senior editor at The New Republic, focused on engagement; before that, I was assignment editor and managing editor for the website of The Atlantic. I’d spent three years at legacy institutions, and though I’d known going into those experiences that the audiences would be bigger, and the metaphorical walls surrounding the newsrooms higher, than they had been in the nonprofit world, I don’t think I appreciated how different the mindsets around engagement — and impact — would be.

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard about several Chalkbeat stories that came directly from community engagement. One in particular stands out in my mind: the story of Javion, a 16-year-old in Chicago’s public school system who reads at a second-grade level. Our reporter Adeshina Emmanuel learned about Javion’s difficulties during last year’s listening tour, a series of in-person events where Chalkbeat staff aimed to empower people in the community to share their own stories.

Here was the engagement I cared about, where journalists sought to report with and for communities, not just “on” them; here was the commitment to driving impact by working with our readers, aiming for results above and beyond a CNN chyron name-dropping our cover story or Donald Trump tweet-ranting against our work. Here was journalism as public service.

So what will I be doing at Chalkbeat? I’ll be making it easier for us to reach more people in our communities, in person and online. I’ll be fine-tuning our social media practices, establishing and maintaining partnerships with other media outlets and community organizations, and helping our bureaus pull off events that amplify diverse voices. Generally, I’ll be managing how we talk to and hear from our audience — which includes you.

As I get started, I’d love to hear from you. What do you want to see more of from Chalkbeat? What are you hoping to get out of the newsletters? If you live near one of our bureau locations (especially Indianapolis, where I’m currently based), I’d love your suggestions for potential partners: Who’s doing good work in your city to improve education and build a stronger sense of community? Let’s chat: cgreen@chalkbeat.org

growth plans

Now hiring: Chalkbeat Newark is set to expand

PHOTO: Bene Cipolla/Chalkbeat
A Chalkbeat Newark focus group in 2018. The nonprofit news organization will add a new reporter in June.

Chalkbeat Newark has some breaking news of our own to report: We’re expanding.

Less than a year after Chalkbeat opened a new bureau dedicated to New Jersey’s largest school system, we’re adding another reporter in June. We’re expanding through Report for America, an innovative program that places beginning journalists in communities that need — and deserve — more on-the-ground reporting, and we especially welcome applicants from Newark.

“We are thrilled to have support to add more reporting capacity to our team in Newark,” said Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat’s co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief. The bureau is the organization’s seventh; Chalkbeat also has reporters in Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, New York, and Tennessee, and is continuing to grow.

“We launched coverage in Newark at the request of a diverse group of community members,” Green continued. “Since then, more and more members of the community have told us they value the work we are doing: holding officials accountable, keeping the conversation honest, and shedding light on the consequences of major decisions that affect public education.”

The new reporter will bolster Chalkbeat’s coverage at a pivotal moment for Newark, as the district completes its transition from decades of state oversight back to local control, and as a new superintendent begins to make his mark on the 36,000-student school system.

The reporter will be partly funded by Report for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening local news coverage. The group, which is modeled on Americorps, is helping this year to place 60 journalists in newsrooms across the country — from Puerto Rico to Wisconsin to California and now New Jersey. Report for America will split the cost of the journalist with Chalkbeat and local donors.

Report for America was founded by two media veterans, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, who worried that the downsizing of newsrooms across the country threatens democracy. The nonprofit organization receives funding from a number of donors, including the Ford Foundation, Facebook, and Google.

Newsrooms that host Report for America-funded journalists have complete control over their work; donors play no part in the editorial process.

“Like all support to Chalkbeat, this gift comes with no strings attached,” Green said. “Our ultimate responsibility is always to tell the truth.”

Journalists interested in covering Newark schools (or any of the other RFA-sponsored roles) have until Feb. 8 to apply for the position. Along with their normal reporting duties, Report for America hires must also participate in a community-service project, such as mentoring student journalists.

We especially welcome Newark-based reporters to apply. If you know someone who’s right for the job, please encourage them to submit their information.