Can Chalkbeat Reach “Casual” Readers?

The Columbia Journalism Review’s most recent education-related writeup (How Chalkbeat is trying to build a bigger audience) reminds us that Chalkbeat grew out of Gotham Schools and EdNews Colorado, was joined by Memphis and Indianapolis in 2013. (The latest Detroit site, assuming it lasts, makes five bureaus.)

Written by former OC Register education reporter Lauren Steussy, the CJR piece lays out Chalkbeat’s accomplishments and challenges as follows: “Over the past few years, the nonprofit news outlet has won admirers and awards while attracting a solid base of financial support. Along the way, it has had to navigate the ethics of nonprofit funding, grapple with how to measure the impact of its reporting, and respond to critics.”

But there’s not as much news or analysis in the piece compared to the usual CJR piece. For example, left unmentioned in the CJR piece is just how much competition Chalkbeat is facing in places like New York City, where outlets from WNYC, the Times, the Daily News, the Post, the WSJ all seek many of the same eyeballs. There’s also no mention of alternative distribution models like ProPublica’s efforts to place stories in larger outlets. How solid is the network’s financial base? How much progress has it made reaching casual readers?

Reaching non-education readers is Chalkbeat’s next big challenge, notes the piece. Parents make up just 10 percent of Chalkbeat’s current readership. Casual readers are few and far between. The network’s in-house attempt to measure story impact (MORI [Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence]) is featured prominently. They hired a new director of growth and product, Ryan Sholin, last winter.

It’s left unclear whether this is something that the network is being pushed to do by its funders or something it wants to do for other reasons — or what kinds of growth is being targeted.

It’s also not stated whether the network was making any progress on what is likely an extremely difficult task.

“You can use all the analytics tools you want to pull all the data in the world, but it won’t mean anything if you don’t have a clear definition of how your news organization defines its success,” wrote former Chalkbeat journalist Anika Anand, who was closely involved in MORI. “Using those tools to pull useful, actionable insights [can be] particularly challenging.”

“I just don’t find any of the analytics dashboards I’ve used helpful in giving me actionable insights, i.e. What should I be doing differently to reach my intended audience and meet my goals. I think to truly get those insights you have to go beyond dashboards and also look at qualitative data like audience research, reader feedback, real-world impacts, etc. ”

Diversifying its revenue stream is another big lift for Chalkbeat, though Steussy’s piece doesn’t dwell on that very much. Right now, just 10 percent of the network’s funding comes from sources other than foundations. That’s typical of some education niche publications (Hechinger, Catalyst [RIP], the Notebook), but much lower than some other, more established nonprofit news outlets such as Education Week.

Media funding from nonprofit foundations is up, according to a recent report — but journalism grants are actually down. The lack of non-foundation revenue was one of the issues that forced the merger of Chicago’s Catalyst into The Chicago Reporter. Though to be fair, that was after 25-plus years in business.

In a winter 2016 piece (The year single-subject sites reach your neighborhood), Sholin wrote that niche verticals like the Chalkbeat network were going to “make more of the deep expertise from these vertical news organizations accessible to the most casual audiences” in 2016.

Related posts:
Chalkbeat Piloting New Outpost In Detroit
Chalkbeat To Roll Out New Code Of Ethics
A Code Of Ethics For Nonprofit Education Journalism?
New Report Critiques Beat-Specific Foundation Funding For Journalism Nonprofits.
Online Education News: Boring Glut — Or Golden Age?

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.