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Published in Print: August 5, 2015, as Chalkbeat's Model Extends Local Ed. News Via Web

Chalkbeat Wields Web to Boost Local Ed.-News Coverage

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Two years ago, Scott Elliott was an education reporter at The Indianapolis Star, where he focused on education improvement at the state policy level as well as in local schools. But he had become dispirited by trends buffeting the newspaper industry, including newsroom layoffs and belt-tightening for those able to keep their jobs.

“Newspapers have become a pretty difficult place to work,” said Mr. Elliott. “When things have to be cut back all the time, there is less and less focus on a specialty beat like education.”

He began a conversation with Elizabeth Green, the New York City-based founder of an online news site called GothamSchools, which by 2013 was expanding into a multi-city network under a new identity—Chalkbeat.

In New York, the nonprofit Chalkbeat scraps with any number of old-school competitors (including three daily newspapers and a public radio station with an education-focused blog), as well as one major online competitor, Capital Education, which is owned by Politico.

The Chalkbeat brand was born after GothamNews merged with a Denver site called Ednews Colorado and the combined entity was building bureaus from scratch in Memphis and Indianapolis.

New Wrinkle

Such local online education sites are the next-generation iterations of education-specific print publications that have been around in years in a few cities, such as Catalyst Chicago and The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

Other local online sites include LA School Report, which has no shortage of meaty stories to report about the Los Angeles school system, and Idaho Education News.

Mr. Elliott weighed a job offer to take over the new Chalkbeat Indiana site. A key concern for the now-47-year-old father of three was not only leaving an established news organization for what is essentially an Internet startup, but whether Chalkbeat would be a place he could spend 20 more years or so in his career and then retire.

“She convinced me,” he said of Ms. Green.

Ms. Green said in an interview that Mr. Elliott brought the right level of talent and experience to head up one of Chalkbeat’s first two expansion sites two years ago. (The other brand-new site was Memphis, while the existing sites in Denver and New York City also took on the Chalkbeat brand.)

Tracking ‘Change Efforts’

“We want to be on the ground in places where there are a lot of interesting educational change efforts,” Ms. Green said, and Indianapolis and Memphis fit the bill. For now, the non-profit organization, which is backed by a broad array of philanthropic donors, is focusing on the four sites, but it hopes to expand in the future.

After establishing the Chalkbeat Indiana bureau, the next job for Mr. Elliott was to convince The Indianapolis Star and other news outlets in the city that the new Chalkbeat Indiana bureau was not a pure competitor, but that it wanted to partner with them to more widely disseminate good journalism about education.

“We’re not going after their advertisers, and we’re not trying to get their page views,” Mr. Elliott said.

In April, Chalkbeat Indiana teamed up with The Star and WFYI, the public radio and TV broadcaster in Indianapolis, on an eight-part package of stories about English-language learners. Mr. Elliott and other Chalkbeat journalists wrote six of the stories, while the newspaper and the public broadcaster each wrote one. Each outlet published all eight stories.

“After our series, the state legislature decided to double the amount of funding for ELLs in the state,” Mr. Elliott said. “That was a great example of the power of collaboration.”

Alvie Lindsay, the news and investigations director at The Star, said that the newspaper’s familiarity with Mr. Elliott meant “that we know he’s going to do great work and that it’s going to be up to the standards that our readers expect.”

Besides collaborating with Chalkbeat on larger projects like the English-language-learner series, Mr. Lindsay said, the newspaper has even begun to pick up some school board meeting coverage from the online site.

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“That frees up our education reporter” to pursue enterprise stories, he said. “We’re not ceding our education coverage. We see this as an opportunity to augment our coverage.”

Caitlin Hannon, an Indianapolis school board member, said that Chalkbeat has brought a greater level of nuance to coverage of policy issues in the district and the state.

“The level of detail they are able to provide is incredibly helpful to me as a board member,” said Ms. Hannon, who also deals with education policy in her full-time job, as the executive director of Teach Plus, a teacher-advocacy group.

“But they have told some pretty tough stories, too, that aren’t always easy things to hear,” she said.

Vol. 34, Issue 37, Pages 14-15

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the news sites that merged as part of the formation of Chalkbeat. They were GothamNews and Ednews Colorado.

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