Education in the News Wasteland
Elizabeth Green — author, co-founder, and edtior-in-chief of Chalkbeat. Photo by Daniel Deitch.
Even as a high school student in Silver Spring, Maryland, Elizabeth Green noticed that education policy needed more scrutiny. The seed had been planted for what would become Chalkbeat — a nonprofit news organization that’s bringing high-quality local education journalism to areas of the United States that need it most.
Green recalled her Montgomery Blair High School principal, who was black, announcing over the loudspeaker during lunch that black and Latino students needed to improve their test scores. In that diverse but self-segregated cafeteria, Green crossed race lines to interview a girl for a school newspaper story about why kids lie to their parents, but the conversation took an unexpected turn.
“She said she had to work to prove us all wrong about our low expectations,” Green recalled. “I said, ‘Prove to who?’ ‘You!’ she said.”
She meant white people, said Green.
This interview led to others for a series of stories about the often insidious dance between the ambitions of black and Latino students and their teachers’ frequently low expectations for them.
“I wanted to fight for kids like her,” Green said. “I changed my story topic to the achievement gap, and I changed my plans for myself. As I kept writing for the school paper, I saw that journalism had power. It forced conversations, even among administrators.”
She had envisioned writing fiction and poetry. Now she aimed for journalism. But journalism was increasingly troubled financially, and she would find that she needed a new business model to catalyze the kind of journalism that could inform education policy.
Journalism jobs, she found, were unstable and diminishing in 2006, when she graduated from Harvard. Her first job was an internship at U.S. News and World Report, where she became the K-12 education reporter when the reporter in that position left. Editors changed four times in the turbulent year and a half she was there, she said.
“I didn’t think I should be a national education reporter right out of college,” Green said. She was also dubious about “parachuting” into communities, as the role required. She recalled writing a story about prize-winning improvements in Boston schools and worrying that, with just preliminary phone interviews and a brief visit there, she would miss key factors that led to those improvements.
“Decision makers and stakeholders in Boston would already know the story in a more textured way than I could tell it; to inform them would require living in Boston and writing about its schools day in and day out. I also worried that readers outside Boston including people who influence every other school system — would mistake my story for gospel truth and, given the limitations of ‘parachute’ reporting, glean the wrong lessons from it. I have since seen that distortion happen repeatedly, when outsiders descend into a place and write the supposedly definitive narrative about it, often missing important context,” Green said. “I wanted to report at the local level, where change is possible.”
Green took a job at the New York Sun, where she valued the chance to examine Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education strategies.
As the mayor responded to her stories, she said, “I had a sense of impact that was profound.”
She started a blog to deepen her coverage in ways that the paper could not accommodate. Space to follow up on complex issues became scarce, as news and advertising moved online, independent of newspapers, depleting their revenue.
“When the Sun folded in 2008, that convinced me that the journalistic mission wouldn’t be supported by a business model,” Green said. “I wanted to do digital journalism. I saw how political coverage had been changed by the internet. Education deserved that treatment. So much in education wouldn’t fit in a newspaper.”
As conflicts about distribution of school funding that had been in courts for a decade were resolved in favor of providing more for more populous districts, Green said, “There were big stories to write about how money was and wasn’t going where intended. On the internet, that could be addressed in detail.
Erin Einhorn, then a Daily News reporter, remembers calling to let Green know about an opening there at that time.
“I thought she was crazy to turn it down for a blog, when everyone had blogs,” Einhorn said.
Green collaborated with Philissa Cramer, who had answered a Craigslist ad for an education reporter under the nonprofit wing of entrepreneur Mark Gorton. He had founded the Open Planning Project, which produced StreetsBlog. This “campaign for livable, healthy streets and public spaces,” the ad read, “has changed the city’s approach to street and transportation planning. We aim to do the same thing for New York’s schools.”
Cramer, who studied education policy and history at Brown, had been writing for a local education website but wanted work with more heft, she said. Rather than compete with each other, Cramer and Green decided to join forces. They created GothamSchools as a nonprofit to cover New York City schools in depth.
“Given what I knew and cared about, the nonprofit was right,” said Green. “My goal had once been to get a job with the New York Times or Daily News. When I chose something from Craigslist, people thought I was crazy. I did too. Coming into a room and saying I write for the New York Times would be nice. My heart pounded when I walked in and said, ‘I write for Gotham Schools.’ But I was surrounded by people doing weird digital projects.”
Cramer and Green organized supplementary events to engage their audience.
“We tried a range of approaches to see what engaged our audience most,” said Cramer.
At one event, a panel of math teachers talked about teaching the Common Core curriculum. At another, the speaker was Joel Klein, New York City Department of Education Chancellor.
Initially, Green said, “I felt conviction about GothamSchools, but I wasn’t sure about its durability.”
While she and Cramer reported for and managed GothamSchools, they also pursued other opportunities. Cramer headed for a graduate program in history, and in 2009-10, Green was a Spencer Fellow in education at Columbia. Then, in 2011, an Abe Journalism Fellowship allowed her to study education in Japan. She was particularly interested in the Japanese approach to training teachers. A New York Times Magazine assignment on teacher training then led to a book deal for Building a Better Teacher (W.W. Norton, 2014), which became a bestseller.
These digressions enriched Green’s understanding of education, but as she and Cramer strayed, Gorton threatened to discontinue GothamSchools, to their dismay.
“It was a passion project,” said Green.
Cramer returned after a semester in graduate school, realizing that journalism was the work she wanted to do, and Gorton continued to fund GothamSchools. But they looked for other sources of funding, which was also an instructive endeavor. Green assembled an advisory board of veteran organizers of education ventures. Sue Lehmann, who advised Teach for America and Americorps, and Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children’s Zone president, helped design a long term plan that would allow them to expand, with bureaus around the country.
“We’re lucky to talk about growth, how to do more with more,” said Cramer.
In their first expansion, they merged with Alan Gottlieb’s EdNews Colorado, a similar operation that was several years old, calling themselves Chalkbeat New York and Chalkbeat Colorado. They could not afford to hire more reporters with just one bureau, but with more bureaus and economy of scale, they could, Green said.
“It was a low cost model of coverage, and others reached out to us to come to their city,” she said.
They offered their stories to other news organizations at no cost, as their measure of success became the impact of providing information, rather than profit from advertising and subscriptions. Memberships, job boards, and occasional ticketed events brought in some money, but their main sources of funding were nonprofits and philanthropists.
Meanwhile, newsroom cutbacks left veteran reporters looking for better opportunities. By 2014, newsroom jobs had declined from 56,900 in 1990 to 32,000, Green said, citing statistics provided by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Corporate and hedge fund media owners, seeking ever more elusive profit, had decimated staff.
When Chalkbeat opened a bureau in Memphis and offered education stories at no cost to the Commercial Appeal, the city’s over 175-year-old daily, reporters initially rebuffed them, defending their territory. But that changed, recalled Jacinthia Jones, who was then the paper’s content strategist and metro editor.
Reporting for the Commercial Appeal had been her childhood goal, and she had been there 20 years, she said. Her parents read the paper, watched the news and discussed it. Members of her church who were reporters gave her guidance.
“Passing the building, I’d see lights on and people moving inside,” she recalled. “I knew I would work there.”
But, in 2015, a year after Chalkbeat arrived, Gannett bought the Commercial Appeal from Scripps, and it became “corporate heavy,” she said.
“Three K-12 reporters and a higher education reporter were replaced by one ‘children’s issues’ reporter. Stories were edited in Nashville, even though the difference between Memphis and Nashville is night and day,” Jones said. “Editorial decisions were not based on what’s best for the city.”
Jones gave Chalkbeat stories a place in the Commercial Appeal, and Green offered Jones a job at Chalkbeat.
“I said I was worried about where I’d be in five years,” Jones recalls. “Elizabeth said, ‘Where will you be in five years at the paper?’”
Jones thought of friends and colleagues who had been laid off. Although she had been through many of those layoffs and felt “immune,” she said, “I weighed the pros and cons. I couldn’t see a future at the Commercial Appeal.”
She made the change in April of 2018. Soon afterward, an exodus of about a dozen Appeal employees to the web-based Memphian reaffirmed her decision, as did her new role at the Chalkbeat bureau.
In addition to writing and editing, she said, “A big part of my role now is engagement, hosting forums and doing outreach. It’s nice to get out and talk to parents, education groups, and lobbyists. I learn a lot, and not just me, all of us. One reporter has office hours at a community center.”
Chalkbeat has booths at festivals and recently held a political forum with school board candidates, drawing 200 people, including the superintendent, Jones said. During “listening tours,” she hears from people about issues they want covered. She was in the process of setting up a storytelling event, where students, parents, and teachers describe their experiences with restorative justice.
“A reporter wrote about suspensions and expulsions, and principals felt pressure to reduce suspensions,” said Jones. “Now suspensions are down, and expulsions are up.”
To allow people in the community to talk about their experiences with school discipline, Chalkbeat partnered with Spillit Memphis,” a nonprofit that organizes thematic storytelling events, providing rehearsals and parameters.
At a previous “listening” event, when students and parents visited the Chalkbeat office, they brought up the unequal distribution of advanced placement classes, Jones said.
Chalkbeat Tennesse was an early Chalkbeat outpost, launched in 2014. The person charged with opening new bureaus is Scott Elliott, associate editor and site development director. When Green invited him for a beer and suggested that he come to work for Chalkbeat, in 2013, he was president of the Education Writers Association and had been an education reporter for 16 years, the last three at the Indianapolis Star.
Scott Elliot is a former Indianapolis Star reporter who is now in charge of opening new Chalkbeat bureaus across the country. Photo by Scott Elliot.
But Gannett Publishing was scaling back resources for covering education at a time when the Indiana charter school voucher program had become the largest in the country, Elliott said. Questions about how charter schools were evaluated and gained authorization loomed. At the same time, teachers union bargaining had been limited, as they resisted A to F grading of schools. Green agreed when he suggested that they start a Chalkbeat bureau in Indianapolis.
“Chalkbeat raised enough to hire me, and for seven months, it was just me,” Elliott said. “My office was my car. I put a box of stuff from the Star in the back of my Prius.”
At 8 a.m. he would be at state education committee hearings. In the evening he would be the last one to leave after local school board meetings, working in the empty meeting room and chatting with the janitor, Elliott said. But after seven months, Green had raised enough money to hire two more reporters. They have an office in a building where they share a kitchen with a dozen other entrepreneurs, similar to other Chalkbeat bureaus.
However, two years later, in 2016, Elliott shifted from reporter and bureau chief to site development director.
“I feared being told what to do by organization heads, but they’re community minded and know the rules of journalism,” he said. “We care about the same things. They know everyone and what goes on behind the scenes.”
He has led efforts to launch bureaus in Chicago, Detroit, and Newark. Several more sites are in development..
“Now I go to organizations and ask for money, but I’m not selling, I’m evangelizing,” he said. “Every day I pour out my passion for education journalism. I hope to keep journalism from disappearing.”
By the time he left the Star, he said, “Many friends had left papers, gone online and failed. Most online news sites are small and local with one or two revenue sources, such as a grant and sponsor’s ads. We have three sources—local philanthropy, national philanthropy organizations, and earned revenue from membership, ads, and ticketed events.”
Earned revenue is a small portion now, but that could change, he said. Meanwhile, Green and other Chalkbeat staff developed an algorithmic tool, “Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence,” or MORI, a WordPress plug-in, to evaluate the impact of Chalkbeat on engagement, informed action, and decision making, and the characteristics of stories that contribute to those outcomes. When reporters find out that a Chalkbeat story influences actions, they put information about the story into the database.
In their white paper, Green and her cohorts say, “The key was not to determine what sort of actions and conversations our reporting directly caused. What we wanted to know was whether or not our stories influenced the complex stew of ideas, predispositions, and understandings that build community debate and individual actions.” Their intent is to use the information for planning as well as evaluation of their accomplishments.
Asked how decisions are made about which locations will have bureaus, Elliott cited three criteria. First, he said, local education issues must be “interesting and important.” Second, a case can be made that a gap in coverage needs attention. And, last but not least, local philanthropists would support Chalkbeat.
A location that recently fit that criteria was Detroit. Green’s friend from the Daily News, Erin Einhorn, moved there in 2014, when her once friendly and familial New York Daily News realm became tense and competitive, following layoffs.
“When I came to the Daily News in 2005, we were a team,” she said. “By the end, layoffs were so frequent, we tried to one-up each other. We were in survival mode.”
Living in an 800 square feet Brooklyn apartment with her husband and two young children, she wanted a lower cost of living and more time with her kids. Detroit, which was in a resurgence, is near her hometown.
She left her job as Daily News deputy managing editor for politics to freelance. But she called Green about launching a Chalkbeat bureau in Detroit when she discovered the public school system there was a maze needing attention and coverage.
“One in three elementary students changes schools yearly, often mid-year,” she said. “No goodbye. They just vanish. By eighth grade, they’ve been in five to eight schools.”
To attend their chosen schools, many students spend six hours commuting daily, she found. Einhorn wrote these stories for Chalkbeat in partnership with Bridge magazine and NPR.
“At Chalkbeat, I could focus on who has access to education rather than teacher-student sex scandals,” Einhorn said, alluding to her Daily News experience.
Another recent Chalkbeat recruit is Sharon Noguchi, who had been a San Jose Mercury News reporter for 33 years, the last 12 covering education. Her paper and most other large papers and weeklies in northern California were acquired by Digital First Media, owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that stripped newspapers of staff for maximal corporate profit.
When Noguchi took a buyout and left last year, she said, support staff were gone and top editors were distributing mail. They struggled to fill even the shrunken paper, 18 pages on Tuesday, including local, state, national, and international news, obits, weather and comics, she said.
“When I left the Bay Area News Group, it was down to one education reporter, me, for its two dailies and a bunch of weeklies that together cover four counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara,” Noguchi said. “Those areas include 90 public school districts, four county offices of education, dozens of charter schools, more than 10 community colleges and several major universities. My job was not filled.”
She noted how lack of news coverage plagues those many school districts where multiple languages are spoken — Spanish to Urdu, and a large percentage of students are homeless—23 percent in the district just across the freeway from wealthy Palo Alto. The state funds schools with chunks of money and requires districts to consult with “engaged” community members about spending plans, she said. More money goes to districts with more students who are low income, homeless, have special needs or are English language learners. But the dearth of coverage is conducive to ignorance, “disengagement” and misconduct, said Noguchi.
In 2017, she revealed that mismanagement of millions of dollars for repairs left schools without heat and ventilation in the Alum Rock Union School District, serving 11,000 K-8 students, of whom 81 percent are low income, 41 percent are English learners, and 98 percent are children of color. In some schools, classrooms were so hot in the afternoon that teachers let students rest with their heads on their desks. In cold weather, children often kept their coats and gloves on all day. She quoted a nine year old boy who said he only took off a mitten to write. Her stories resulted in county, state, and federal investigations.
Meanwhile, Alden Global Capital hedge fund executives spend their profits on multi-million dollar mansions, Noguchi notes, as she follows them in publications elsewhere. Scott Elliott says Chalkbeat is working on putting a bureau in California in the next year.
A $200,000 initial investment created GothamSchools, and Chalkbeat now generates $6 million a year, with seven bureaus, Green said. To generate more “venture philanthropy” to reinvigorate local news, she and Texas Tribune founder John Thornton created the American Journalism Project in 2017. In their project outline, they point to a 2011 FCC report that “established news adequacy at 50,000 reporters across the U.S.,” and note that only about 25,000 reporters have jobs this year. They estimate that $1 billion is needed to solve the “news crisis.”
AJP has raised support for the planning phase of their organization, with a goal of raising $50 million to assist promising community news organizations to succeed in “doing good,” sustainably, Green said. Their business model for sustainability entails one third corporate sponsorship, one third audience support, and one third philanthropy. Their outlined aims include “reframing journalism as public service” and “evangelizing journalism as philanthropic priority.”
Jessica Cohen is a freelance journalist based in New York.
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