A little over a year ago, an old colleague, Erin Einhorn, reached out with a proposal: Might Chalkbeat consider covering schools in her home, Detroit?
Since then, as we tested out the idea with 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 DPS — but who is now doing exactly that, driving her 4-year-old son in from the suburbs to attend 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.
We also reached out to Detroiters, asking whether this was the kind of news coverage you wanted more of. You answered with a resounding yes, signing up for our newsletter, reading and sharing our stories widely, and even donating to our nonprofit newsroom to help us keep the stories coming.
Today, we answer you by officially putting down roots in Detroit. Effective right now, Chalkbeat is up and running in Detroit — led by Erin and our new colleague Julie Topping, a longtime Detroiter who most recently served as senior director of content strategy at the Detroit Free Press.
We can’t wait to get started. But before we do, let me tell you a little more about Chalkbeat. Because as we go forward, we’ll be asking you to share your stories with us. So we might as well start by sharing our own.
Chalkbeat has two birthdays. The first is in 2008, when our cofounders — me, Elizabeth Green (hi!), and Alan Gottlieb — created two very small, very scrappy newsrooms to cover schools in our own communities of New York City and Denver, Colorado. We didn’t know each other yet, but we shared the same belief: That our local schools mattered, and that fair, honest journalism could help everyone who cared about schools come together to strengthen them. Because getting better starts with understanding what is happening, and that is not a simple task.
Over the next several years, we built a new kind of news organization. Like traditional reporters, we did not push for any agenda on how to promote schools. We just told the full and complete story of what was happening — good, bad, and ugly. And we tried to do that at the moments when people most needed good information to make important decisions: the school board votes, the budget debates, the major policy twists and turns.
Even as we pursued old-fashioned truth telling, we also did a few things differently. For one, we focused our reporting exclusively on a single story — the story of public education, particularly public education in the low-income communities where schools matter most. We also invested the bulk of our resources into local reporting. The story of education, after all, is local. Yet at just the time public education has undergone significant change in our country, local TV, radio, and newspapers have sadly seen significant cutbacks that made it even harder for communities to follow what is happening.
Finally, instead of pursuing a commercial model where newsgathering is supported exclusively by advertising and subscriptions, we opened as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, mixing traditional ad revenue with reader donations and major grants. We did this because we knew from our own experience working at commercial newspapers that coverage of low-income communities is the first to go when for-profit models have to cut costs. To support reporting about those with the most to gain or lose as public education evolved, we needed to create a new business model.
With every grant maker, from $5 donors to $500,000 ones, we entered a sacred agreement: They would not attempt to influence our coverage, and we would base our truth-telling on nothing but that, the truth.
Thankfully, a growing community of donors has fully honored their side of the bargain. And with their help, in the winter of 2014 we marked that second birthday I mentioned by joining the Denver and New York newsrooms together under one 501(c)3, taking the name Chalkbeat, and expanding to two new communities — Memphis, Tennessee, and Marion County, Indiana.
The result: We’ve reported thousands of stories, reaching hundreds of thousands of people each month. And those stories have brought people together. Armed with a common understanding of what’s happening on the ground in school and communities, as well as in the halls of power, Chalkbeat readers have turned knowledge into action, doing what they can to make schools better.
Because of our reporting, lawmakers in Indiana learned about the growing disconnect between the number of students who come to school not speaking English and services to support them. And in response, they doubled funding for English language learner services. Because of our reporting, parents in Memphis learned about plans to close their schools and why officials thought that was necessary, and they mobilized to learn more and take action. Because of our reporting, New York educators learned about a policy that would weaken high school graduation standards — and the state Board of Regents responded by studying it. Because of our reporting, Denver school board members learned about serious challenges facing principals that were affecting families, and they took steps to make sure principals had better support.
Along the way, our work has always been a community effort. Our readers help steer the questions we ask, the people we reach out to, and the donations that help us keep our work going. We can’t do any of this without you, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Which brings me back to stories. As I said upfront, in the weeks ahead, we’ll be asking you to tell your stories of navigating Detroit’s public schools. I’ve kicked us off by telling you about Chalkbeat. And today, the two leaders of our Detroit team, Julie Topping and Erin Einhorn, tell their stories. I hope you’ll read their bravely honest personal essays, published today in honor of our launch.
Our commitment to Detroit
The last thing I want to share is the most important, and that’s the commitment we make to you, our new Detroit readers, going forward. The commitments are rooted in Chalkbeat’s core values — the kind of corporate mumbo jumbo many of us skeptical reporters quietly rolled our eyes at before we started Chalkbeat, but which we now see are vital to rooting any enterprise in what matters most.
We share these commitments with you today as we get started because we want to hold ourselves accountable to them. We also share them because we want you, our readers, the people who care most about the future of education in Detroit, to hold us accountable to them.
Here are our commitments:
- 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 Detroit for as long as we can sustain our work — 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.
That point about openness — we mean it. We want to hear from you. Please reach out with story ideas, feedback, and questions. Sign up for our newsletter, if you haven’t already. And stay tuned for details soon about an exciting event we’re holding this winter to introduce ourselves in person. We’re looking forward to getting to know you better.