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.