Non-profit news site Chalkbeat expands into Indianapolis and Memphis, will cover in-depth education news in four states, provide alternative for local news about schools, education policy, education politics

Kendall Sinclair

Kendall Sinclair

Oct 21, 2013 –

October 21, 2013 () – New non-profit news site seeks to expand USA schools coverage

Here's a phrase you don't hear much: newsroom expansion.

That's the goal of a new non-profit news outlet debuting Monday that is gearing up to cover education in-depth in four states, in the process providing an alternative model for local journalism about schools, education policy and education politics.

Created by a handful of refugees from beleaguered — and in a few cases shuttered — print newspapers, the online-only Chalkbeat springs from the unlikely partnership created last January when the New York-based non-profit news site GothamSchools merged with Denver-based EdNews Colorado. Mostly foundation-funded, it gets about one-fifth of its revenue from local sponsorships and job ads for teachers and administrators.

On Monday it's expanding to two more cities with fraught school politics: Indianapolis and Memphis. The network plans to add others as funding from local philanthropists comes calling; it already plans to hire a reporter to cover Nashville schools.

That's encouraging news, said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Journalism Project. "I think this is further evidence of the growth potential of the non-profit news sector," he said.

A Pew survey last June uncovered 172 non-profit news outlets, most of them tiny startups. What Chalkbeat could represent, Jurkowitz said, is the next step in their evolution as a non-profit essentially franchises its news-gathering model in different cities. "Clearly here is a place where there is a perceived need for coverage of local schools and local school systems that may not be covered as well in the legacy publications," he said.

Media critic Jeff Jarvis, director of the City University of New York's Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, sees the effort as a way of "getting back some of the reporting beats that we have lost" as traditional newsrooms shrink. "We know those beats can be businesses now."

With projected revenues this year of about $2.3 million, Chalkbeat is already bigger than most non-profit news outlets, though a few such as ProPublica and The Texas Tribune are quite a bit larger. The Pew survey found that of 77 digital non-profit news outlets willing to disclose revenue, only 14 reported incomes of more than $1 million. Of the 93 willing to reveal staffing levels, most said they had no more than five paid full-time staffers.

When its Indiana and Tennessee bureaus are fully staffed early next year, Chalkbeat will have 22 full-time employees.

That stands in stark contrast to recent trends in newspaper hiring. Though no firm figures exist on the drop in education reporting positions, the American Society of News Editors' most recent annual "newsroom census" found that for the first time since 1978, the overall number of full-time editorial jobs dropped below 40,000. In 2012, newspapers employed about 38,000 reporters, editors and other journalists, nearly one-third fewer than 2000. Just last year, they cut an estimated 2,600 editorial jobs.

In each bureau, Chalkbeat plans to cover the state legislature and state board of education, as well as the day-to-day developments of schools and districts. They're also demanding that local philanthropy help cover costs as a "public good," much as it would support an art museum or symphony. The network also wants to scale back the role of philanthropy, making each bureau more self-sustaining as it grows.

Chalkbeat's expansion represents a quiet triumph for its founders, among them the editor and publisher, respectively: Gotham's Elizabeth Green and EdNews' Alan Gottlieb, two journalists bent on social justice and fascinated by education's role in making cities work. Both covered education at big-city newspapers and both have seen their beats slashed by downsizing.

Green, 29, began her journalism career as a student at Montgomery Blair High School, a top-flight school in Silver Spring, Md., where one day in 2000, she recalled, the principal announced over the loudspeaker, "You black and Hispanic students need to get your test scores up!" It was the first time she realized that her school had an achievement gap.

Green began spending her lunch hour interviewing classmates "on the other end of the cafeteria" and wrote up her findings in the school newspaper. Three years later, studying at Harvard, she wrote a nearly 5,000-word expose in Fifteen Minutes, the weekend magazine of The Harvard Crimson, that took aim at the hollowness of the university's "oft-touted commitment to diversity."

That piece, plus her unabashed wonkishness — Green wrote her senior thesis on Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's failed campaign to make the state's tax code more progressive — landed her a job at U.S. News and World Report. In 2007, she began covering city schools for The New York Sun, but the paper imploded in 2008. She and partner Philissa Cramer founded GothamSchools later that year as part of an existing non-profit, OpenPlans.

Gottlieb, 57, came to Denver in 1988 to work at The Denver Post, where he covered the city's schools, which at the time were operating under court-ordered busing. Gottlieb became so engrossed in issues of school quality, funding and racial segregation that he finally had to quit the Post to write about the issues full time at a local foundation. " He soon moved to EdNews Colorado, founded in January 2008 as a daily blog on education policy in the state legislature.

As with many online news enterprises, Chalkbeat is bristling with veterans: Its Colorado capital editor is Todd Engdahl, a former Denver Postcity editor who had hired Gottlieb in 1988. Engdahl lost his job during Post layoffs in 2007. Chalbeat's Indianapolis bureau chief is Scott Elliott, who's leaving newspapers after 22 years, the last three at the Indianapolis Star.

But among the newsroom refugees are a few who may never know what it's like to complain about the dying news business: One of Chalkbeat Colorado's newest hires is Kate Schimel, a 23-year-old reporter who was a one-time intern. "She's never been in a traditional newsroom," Gottlieb said.

Copyright 2013

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