December 17, 2020

New York City schools were in crisis during the 2008 recession with deep budget cuts and a teachers’ strike. Elizabeth Green and Philissa Cramer, two reporters barely out of college, thought mainstream coverage of the conflict and other education news was mediocre and that they could do better.

They had a point. Gotham Schools, their nonprofit digital site that was started in a shared basement office, took hold. In 2013 it merged with a similar site in Colorado to form Chalkbeat. Now Chalkbeat is in nine states with a staff of 66 and has become a $9.4-million-a-year venture.

While continuing to run Chalkbeat, Green teamed with John Thornton, The Texas Tribune’s main funder, two years ago to found the American Journalism Project. It has raised $50 million so far for venture philanthropy, early-stage funding of local news nonprofits. The target, Green and Thornton said as they launched, is to get to $1 billion.

This fall, on short notice, Green pulled together a three-month “pop-up” newsroom, Votebeat, to cover the mechanics and issues of registration, balloting and counting the results, with partners in eight states.

Its budget was just under $1 million. On gig contracts, Votebeat brought onboard former Slate news editor Chad Lorenz as project director and three additional editors. It also paid the salaries of 15 reporters based at 10 partner organizations.

I spoke to Green about all three projects earlier this month and found (not to my surprise) that her appetite for expansion remains undiminished.

Might she hit the pause button on Chalkbeat’s growth? “Oh no, stay tuned,” she said. “We have 60 cities on the waiting list.” Chalkbeat has an impact both on the localities where it operates and as a model for national-local structure (both for news and as a business model), she continued, “but we’re way too small.”

Votebeat grew out of a feeling that Chalkbeat’s formula of subject-matter expertise, paired with boots on the ground for a local twist, could work for the November elections. Especially with an emerging set of questions about how the shifting mix of live and mail-in voting would work and about supporters of President Donald Trump “embracing challenges to the integrity” of the outcome.

Drawing on her network of funders and teaming with respected partners like CalMatters and NPR stations in Charlotte and Atlanta, she pulled together a plan in a matter of weeks and began publishing Oct. 19.

Despite the absence of long Election Day voting lines and any big glitches in the ballot tallies, Green counts the experiment as a success. “I learned a lot about the story itself” — from explainers about how the process worked, varying state by state, to profiles of election supervisors who had never had that level of attention.

She also liked features such as ones on how multiple vans are used to securely drive ballots from place to place in California, or a North Carolina woman who unintentionally voted twice (and was detected by the system).

Votebeat headlines Wednesday included “Dominion CEO: Michigan vote fraud claims ‘beyond bizarre’ and ‘dangerous;’” “‘How the Milwaukee elections chief led a high-pressure vote count;” and, from California, “If he had a home, he might have voted.”

The three-month run continues up to Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.

Green said that she and her Votebeat collaborators have not decided on the future. But she sees the case both for continuing now and coming back for the next cycle with issues looming like redistricting, legislation and speedier tabulation of results.

Her second takeaway was increased confidence that the Chalkbeat structure could be applied to voting and maybe in the future to other topics — public health, criminal justice or policing.

Since meeting Green at a Pew Research Center conference years ago, I have been intrigued by what makes a Chalkbeat story a Chalkbeat story, with public K-12 education a subject any mid-sized newspaper covers.

In a word, I would say context — a level of detail and analysis that gets past standard education story frames. Green, always an enthusiast for transparency, has a 21-page paper on Chalkbeat’s purpose and approach posted on its site.

I visited Chalkbeat’s offices during the summer of 2016 then in a sprawling space adjoining an after-school classroom in a nondescript building on Broadway, 10 blocks south of Times Square.

I met Rebecca Ross, then just starting as COO, and co-founder Cramer, who edited New York City stories until she left in January to become editor-in-chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Ross told me that as Chalkbeat kept growing, Green was facing becoming a manager as well as a leader — a formulation that seemed to startle Green when I asked her about it. If she was not already a delegator, she is now. I don’t see evidence that she is overextended (though she is the mother of a 2-year-old and found time to publish a book on what makes an excellent teacher).

As another side product of Chalkbeat, Green and her colleagues developed the open-source Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence, or MORI, to document changes their work helped instigate.

A facet of the Chalkbeat and Votebeat structure is that stories from the regional hubs are collected in one place for those who want a national news snapshot.

For its business model, Chalkbeat has thrived on foundation and benefactor funding, perhaps benefiting from a topic that attracts interest groups of all stripes who are drawn to the site’s even-handed approach (Chalkbeat has had support both from teachers’ unions and charter school advocates). The MORI documentation of successes helps, too, in landing grants.

The American Journalism Project, despite its eye-popping fundraising goal, is, in some ways, the simplest part of Green’s portfolio. Co-founder Thornton told me in an interview, as he and Green were starting, that they might disappoint some by investing entirely in management and development capacity.

The project has built professional staff on a traditional model with CEO Sarabeth Berman, whose experience was in international teaching projects, along with grantmakers and funding prospectors. Green said that she remains co-chair of the board but has no day-to-day involvement.

In a year of rising interest in some sort of federal subsidy of local journalism, Green is in the camp that it should be done and can be with suitable protection of journalistic independence. “It’s good to find taxpayer dollars to keep democracy informed,” she told me.

Green favors the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, in which the government would cover up to $250 per taxpayer for a subscription or donation to a favorite news outlet. While not opposed to the growing number of philanthropically-funded special reporting units at newspapers, Green said that she adamantly objects to industry-backed bills that “are just a subsidy to hedge fund vultures.”

I was hoping by talking with Green to get a dose of optimism at the end of a difficult year. She didn’t disappoint. “I’m really encouraged every year to see the progress in the movement,” she said. “Where will local news be? I see 2021 as a turning point” of accelerating expansion.

When meeting with potential funders, she added, “I tell them that whatever else they are doing, journalism is a better investment to build democracy.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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