hi!

Chalkbeat’s newsroom is now 30+ strong, and growing. Meet our team.

Chalkbeat’s newest local leaders and our new slate of story editors. Clockwise from top: Colorado bureau chief Erica Meltzer, Tennessee bureau chief Jacinthia Jones, Indiana bureau chief Stephanie Wang, Newark correspondent Patrick Wall, story editor Julie Topping, story editor Carrie Melago, Chicago bureau chief Cassie Walker Burke, and story editor Sharon Noguchi.

We’ve added a lot of new people to our team here lately. I couldn’t be happier to tell you all about them!

First, a quick word on how we got here. Our hiring spree is brought to you partly by Chalkbeat’s expansion — hello, Chicago and Newark! — and partly because we’re beefing up the staff in existing bureaus.

Believe it or not (and some days I can’t), Chalkbeat is now one of the largest nonprofit news organizations in the country, with a newsroom of 30+ and more joining every month. We are really proud of the coverage we are adding as the country’s newsrooms shrink (or vanish). We are also acutely aware that it’s not nearly enough, which is why we’re determined to make sure that 30 is just the beginning.

I’m more confident every day we can do it — not least of all because of the talented team members who joined us in the past few months. They are journalists at the top of their field, from a mix of newspapers, digital startups, and magazines. They’re smart, they know a lot about their communities, and a ton about education. And they care. A lot. They represent the perfect Chalkbeat mix. Let me introduce them.

First, our bureau chiefs:

Jacinthia Jones began this week as Tennessee’s new bureau chief. Jacinthia comes to us from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, where she worked for 20 years as a reporter and editor and most recently oversaw a team of reporters including the education beat reporter. As a reporter, Jacinthia’s beats included City Hall, religion, social services, and education, and as an editor, she steered coverage of historic changes to the city’s schools. Jacinthia grew up in the Memphis suburbs, attended Shelby County schools, and knows the city inside and out. Jacinthia’s arrival means Marta Aldrich, who has led the bureau from Nashville, will now concentrate her firepower on covering the legislature and state issues as our senior statehouse correspondent.

We’re thrilled to announce Cassie Walker Burke as our founding Chicago bureau chief, starting early next month. Cassie is coming to us from Crain’s Chicago Business, where she has served on the senior leadership team as assistant managing editor. Before that, Cassie was a longtime editor at Chicago magazine, finishing her tenure there as executive editor. Cassie is a proven leader and strategic thinker who knows how to harness the potential of digital storytelling — and she knows how Chicago works. She began her career as an education reporter and is passionate about telling stories of how education policy plays out in neighborhoods and classrooms (read these stories for proof) and will bring no shortage of creative ideas to help us make an immediate impression in the city.

Jacinthia and Cassie join two other bureau chiefs who started at Chalkbeat this winter. In Colorado, Erica Meltzer came to us from the local digital startup Denverite and immediately began incorporating community engagement into our reporting practices. (This survey about Denver parents’ school choice experiences offers one example.) She’s also jumped into covering Colorado’s legislature.

In Indiana, Stephanie Wang joined our team from the Indianapolis Star, adding to our reporting power. She is helping our reporters explain the national context of Indiana’s embrace of public education options, as well as local insights into how schools and the city shape each other. She will also be reporting on the state’s expanding early childhood education efforts.

Erin Einhorn

And in Detroit, Erin Einhorn is now leading a growing team of journalists after two years of solo (and award-winning) reporting as a senior correspondent.

We made the exciting decision to bring on more editors so that bureau chiefs can invest their time in team leadership, community engagement, and reporting and writing stories of their own.

This spring, we’ve hired two top-tier story editors to join a team anchored by Julie Topping, the Detroit Free Press alumna who joined Chalkbeat in 2016 and now works with our reporters in Detroit and Tennessee.

Our journalists in Indiana and New York have already started working with Carrie Melago, whose first day at Chalkbeat coincided with New York City getting a new chancellor. Carrie joined our team from the Wall Street Journal, where she was most recently the newsroom training editor. Before working at the Journal, Carrie covered New York City schools (and other topics) for the New York Daily News as the partner-in-crime to Erin, and thorn-in-my-side to me, with a constant stream of scoops. (See this incredible “where are they now” story about a 1994 Harlem kindergarten class.)

Starting next month, Sharon Noguchi will work with our journalists in Chicago and Colorado. Sharon recently left the San Jose Mercury News, where she covered the education beat for years. (Here are some highlights.) Sharon also has extensive experience coaching up-and-coming reporters, including through leading a summer training program for high school journalists.

 

Finally Patrick Wall, our newly minted Newark correspondent, is working with Sara Mosle, an award-winning journalist with an education focus, as he launches our coverage there. Sara, who has taught in and reported about Newark, recently wrapped up a Spencer Fellowship and is also teaching at Columbia University’s journalism school while working with us part-time. She’s written about education for many publications, including the New York Times Magazine, where we recommend reading this 1997 profile of New York City’s chancellor for a reminder of how much has changed, and how much hasn’t, in the education world.

Impressed? Me too. Now guess what: you too can join this A-list roster, because we are still hiring. We are seeking a director of product, a New York bureau chief, a second national reporter, and reporters in Chicago. Check out — and please, liberally forward! — our open positions here.

listening tour

Tour notes: What we heard when we listened to our communities in a new way

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
At a Chalkbeat Indiana listening session, kids made their own fun.

As with many initiatives at Chalkbeat, the idea started in one location. Our seventh bureau had just launched in Chicago, and our first order of business was to introduce ourselves to the city. But our new bureau chief, Cassie Walker Burke, knew we had to listen as well as speak.

She proposed a listening tour — a roving set of sessions where our top priority would be empowering our audience to share with us. The launch went so well that our entire news organization took up the initiative this summer and fall, holding 14 events in six locations across our network.

A deep belief in engagement has been encoded into Chalkbeat’s DNA from its founding in 2013, and it was one of the aspects that drew me to join the organization last year as executive editor. Our core values include putting down roots in local communities, and working with and for readers. We track shares, retweets, and readership the same as any other publication, but we are most committed to driving impact: bringing stories, people, and stakes alive for readers so they can engage in informed action and debate.

Before our readers can go out there and make their voices heard, we have to listen — to their concerns, their questions, and their critiques of our coverage. We’ve heard from parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, education wonks, legislators, and policymakers since the beginning, and we have appreciated and used their insights. But it’s a constant work in progress. Especially because we report for people who have historically lacked access to a quality education, we always aim to amplify and empower new voices.

Setting off on a listening tour, starting in Chicago and spreading out across our other local markets, emerged as the perfect strategy to make this happen.

Our goals

Before we set out on our tour, we identified four goals for the project. This also helped us think through how to structure the “stops” on the tour, as well as how to measure success.

  1. Generate story ideas
  2. Build and diversify our source network
  3. Deepen the understanding of the Chalkbeat brand as community-oriented
  4. Deepen community participation

The planning process

We shied away from a one-size-fits-all approach, allowing each bureau to tailor the program to fit their needs. An action force that included at least one representative from each bureau met regularly to discuss progress. That group designed a worksheet to help teams organize their listening sessions: by topic, by audience, by location, or by some combination of the three approaches. In some cases, we decided to center listening sessions around topics we knew we wanted to focus enterprise reporting on in the coming year.

We invited engagement-minded folks from other media organizations to share their expertise with us, too. Alexandra Smith of Whereby.Us, Ashley Alvarado from KPCC, and Jesse Hardman from Listening Post Collective helped us mightily during the planning process, answering our questions and offering suggestions. We also partnered with community organizations on the ground to help with logistics, audience-building, and trust. By seeking out established organizations to co-sponsor events, we signaled to potential attendees — especially those who were new to Chalkbeat — that we were to be trusted too.

The results

Chalkbeat put on a total of 14 events across six out of our seven markets (one bureau sat out for logistical reasons), with most teams executing one or two events. Chicago went all-in with seven listening tour stops as part of the bureau’s launch efforts. Here are some other key results:

  • Nearly 400 attendees in total
  • 84 percent hadn’t read Chalkbeat before
  • More than 70 story ideas
  • Close to 150 new sources
  • About 220 email subscribers

In our newer bureaus, we got a lot of questions about our organization: How are we funded? What do we cover? Why and how can our readers participate? In our more established markets, we were able to home in on audiences we wanted to reach in a more targeted way, and topics the community was passionate about.

Following up

Listening is great, but we knew that if we did not carry forward what we heard, we would be failing our readers. So we made sure to follow up by emailing participants to thank them and publishing posts after events when it made sense. Michigan Radio covered one of our Detroit sessions, our Newark bureau designed a survey to keep the conversation going, and Denver used a feedback form to solicit input on how the sessions went. We also used a text-messaging platform, GroundSource, to follow up with attendees in Memphis.

We’re continuing to sort through the 70+ story ideas we gathered, and using those to inform some meaty enterprise work. Whenever we publish stories that tie back to the listening tour, we’ll inform participants. We’re also planning to designate stories on our site that emerged from community conversations, so all our readers have proof that we’re not just listening, we’re acting on what we hear. And we know that listening isn’t a one-time event. We’re keeping up with our tour participants throughout the year to keep the cycle going, so we can report for their communities even better.

One powerful quote from a Memphis reader drove it home. It reminded us that the hard work that went into this project — planning, wrangling logistics, making it happen on a nonprofit budget — was all worth it, and intentionally listening to our communities makes our journalism stronger.

“It was really inspiring to be a part of this. It was also really empowering, like what we say doesn’t just go into some black hole. You’re here and listening.”

— Chalkbeat Tennessee listening tour attendee

the starting line

Chalkbeat’s launching a newsletter all about early childhood. Sign up here.

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post

Our newest newsletter is called The Starting Line, and it’s all about early childhood — those brain-building years from birth to 8 years old.

As the Chalkbeat team has grown over the last five years, so has our coverage of early childhood education. Now, we’re making an even bigger investment in the topic with a monthly newsletter that will feature key early childhood stories from Chalkbeat as well as other news outlets.

In recent months, we’ve written stories about new child care rules that could threaten funding for hundreds of Illinois providers, Teach For America’s efforts to mint preschool teachers in Colorado, and discussions among Indiana leaders about where to find the money for new preschool seats.

Our goal is to keep you informed about broad policy issues in the early childhood world while also sharing on-the-ground stories that provide a window into how it all plays out in the lives of real people.

Expect to see the first issue of The Starting Line in early November. And remember to let us know what you think as it takes shape. If there’s a compelling early childhood topic, trend or study you’d like us to dig into, or an early childhood leader we should profile, let us know.

If you’re interested in receiving The Starting Line, sign up below. Then, send this link to a friend or colleague who cares about early childhood issues, too.

Finally, for those of you who want even more Chalkbeat, we have a ton of other newsletters as well: local dispatches from each of our bureaus — Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York, and Tennessee — plus a national newsletter, one designed especially for teachers, and a Spanish-language roundup out of Colorado. Sign up for all our newsletters here.