Growing Up

Chalkbeat expands: Why we’re putting down roots in Detroit, and our commitment to you as we grow

Chalkbeat is proud to announce we're now in Detroit — our fifth location!

Dear readers,

Exciting news from Chalkbeat land: Today, effective as soon as I hit “publish” on this letter, we are launching our fifth reporting site in one of this country’s most storied and vital cities — Detroit.

Our launch traces back to the fall of 2015, when I got a note from Erin Einhorn, a reporter whose scoops I chased, mostly without success, when we both covered New York City schools under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After living for years on the east coast, Erin, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs, had recently moved back to Michigan.

She wanted to talk to me about the schools in her new city, Detroit. “Parents are just completely lost trying to figure out what’s happening in schools,” she wrote. Even she, a professional finder of information, was at sea searching for schools for her own young children. Might we want to help her tackle the problem by adding news coverage to shed some light through the chaos?

A few months later, we were working with Erin to launch a test drive of Chalkbeat coverage in Detroit. We created a weekly newsletter and tried writing a few stories a month. Through 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 one of its schools — but who is now doing exactly that, driving her 4-year-old son from the suburbs to 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.

When we asked readers if this was the kind of coverage they wanted more of, the answer came back in hundreds of signups for our newsletter, tens of thousands of readings of our stories, a slew of republications by local and national media alike, and hundreds of dollars of donations to our nonprofit cause.

Then the election happened, Donald Trump nominated Michigan education activist Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education, and our exploration took on expanded purpose. If DeVos is confirmed, as appears likely to happen next week, the whole country will need to better understand the education policy changes DeVos advocated for in Michigan and the consequences they wrought for families, teachers, and communities.

One way to do that is for national newspapers and thought leaders to swoop in for a few days to study and summarize the Michigan and Detroit story — a well-intentioned parachuting that has already begun.

But the reason we created Chalkbeat is that we think there’s a better way. Because if you really want to understand a place, and serve it, you need to live there. You need to show up, day in and day out. And you need to stay, not just for the political fireworks, but through the fallout.

For all these reasons, today, with the support of local foundations, we are officially putting down roots in Detroit — just as we did in Memphis and Indianapolis back in the fall of 2013, and New York City and Colorado in 2008.

Our pledge to Detroit readers, outlined in a letter to the city’s education community that we are publishing simultaneously with this one, is the same as our pledge to you, our existing readers in Colorado, Indiana, New York, and Tennessee. Here’s the condensed version of our core values:

  • 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 each place we work for as long as we can sustain — 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.

Detroit will not be the last place we expand. Indeed, we invite members of communities where Chalkbeat doesn’t yet exist to nominate your cities, towns, and states for future coverage.

As we grow, we know our existing readers might worry that we’ll lose our focus on the places where we started out and have built incredible communities of readers. We aren’t naive to the challenge ahead. We are working hard to protect against the danger of spreading ourselves thin. And we hope to prove in the weeks to come that we can serve you even better by expanding to Detroit and new locations to come.

To start, let me introduce you to the incredible team that is launching our work in Detroit. Our editor, Julie Topping, joins us after a stellar career at the Detroit Free Press, where the long list of topics she supervised included education. She is also leading our coverage in Indianapolis.

Julie joins Erin Einhorn, who will now cover Detroit schools full time, adding more in-depth reporting and daily news analysis to the occasional features that have already had an impact.

Julie and Erin are launching our work today by introducing themselves and their own Detroit education stories. We hope this is just the first step in a conversation we’ll keep up for a long time to come. And we hope you’ll join that conversation. You can start by signing up for our new Detroit newsletter here.

Thank you as always for being part of our community and for everything you do for schools and families.

With gratitude,

Elizabeth

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.