Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green says copy our model— it works

By Shereen Siewert

In a keynote discussion at the 2019 Local Independent Online News Publishers conference, Elizabeth Green, the co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of the education news network Chalkbeat, shared the organization’s journey into becoming one of the largest nonprofit news organizations in the U.S. and her thoughts on the future of journalism in America.

When Chalkbeat launched in 2013 the business model for news was at a critical impasse, facing an existential threat at the same time public education was undergoing enormous transformation in governance and funding. Six years later, Chalkbeat reports on the most critical topics in education across seven states. To Green, reporting on the effort to improve schools for all children, especially those who have historically lacked access to a quality education, is an inherently local issue.

“I really believe local is the only way to cover this topic,” Green said. “We decided the way to go was to join forces with journalists across the country; strong education reporters passionate about serving their communities.”

Chalkbeat has largely accomplished its early goals, creating a community for strong education reporting. What started as an idea to serve the community is now a nonprofit news machine with a $12 million annual budget that employs 60 people, including 40 newsroom staff. The organization recently unveiled a five-year plan to extend the organization’s reach further, and by 2025 will expand the network’s reach to 18 regions.

“Our stories are making a real difference,” Green said. “That’s why we’re here.”

The organization is working to strengthen its philanthropic base while continuing to mobilize a new movement of support for local news. Green feels strongly that Chalkbeat best serves the public through prolific partnerships, not paywalls.

“Our belief about Chalkbeat is that this news isn’t supposed to be paid for,” Green said. “Given that reality, we realized we need to treat news as a mission, a public good. Paywalls make no sense to us, but prolific partnerships do.”

At Chalkbeat, Green is imitating what is working in local news, but acknowledging it represents a public good.

“The question is, how do you pay for a public good?” Green said. “Journalists are trying to solve a public good problem in the most savvy way they can.”

The news world can learn from the education world by encouraging philanthropists to understand that supporting journalism is a solid investment in democracy, she said. That’s where Green’s latest venture comes in: The American Journalism Project– the first venture philanthropy nonprofit fund focusing on local news. Green and her cofounder, The Texas Tribune founder John Thornton have successfully raised nearly $50 million to invest in social entrepreneurs. AJP will make its first grants by the end of the year.

Green said she sees a strong future for single subject publications, given the seismic change in the news industry since the birth of the internet. Rather than operating on a model of bundled multi-topic coverage for a single place, Chalkbeat focuses on a detailed niche focus. This, Green said, means the business model is leaner, but with more scale.

She’s encouraging other publishers to mimic the Chalkbeat business model.

“A multi regional, single topic is something that works,” Green said. “We very much encourage others to do the same, whether it’s health, criminal justice, athletics, or another topic.”

Shereen Siewert launched Wausau Pilot and Review, an independent, nonprofit online news publication serving the greater Wausau, Wisconsin area, in March 2017. A former USA Today Network investigative team reporter, she specializes in public safety and government accountability reporting. She is also host of Route 51, a regional weekly talk show on Wisconsin Public Radio.