September 20, 2022

Chalkbeat: Independent Journalism Covering COVID-19 and Beyond in America’s Schools

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Author Aly Semigran, Content Specialist

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the education system in the United States, impacting students, teachers, administrators, parents and whole communities. From the tragic toll on childcare professionals to the overwhelming logistical shift to remote instruction, K-12 education is one area of American life immensely affected by the pandemic.

Chalkbeat, an award-winning nonprofit newsroom focused on education reporting, saw firsthand the shifts that started in March 2020 and covered the pandemic’s impact on education closely ever since. Established in 2014, the site has followed local education stories and national policy closely, but in the last three years, “the Coronavirus shaped our coverage,” says CJ Ortuño, Chalkbeat’s Vice President of Philanthropy.

Chalkbeat currently has about 100 employees spanning eight bureaus throughout the country. That includes reporters dedicated to some of the largest school systems in the country (in New York City and Chicago), state-level coverage in Colorado, Indiana and Tennessee, and national stories. Reporters make up roughly 40% of Chalkbeat’s staff.

We saw some of our largest gifts during the COVID-19 crisis. Donors really saw the importance of continuing to shed light on such a complex system as education.

Thankfully, during this pivotal point for education information and reporting, Ortuño says, Chalkbeat was able to expand its operations and add more reporters, largely in part because of donors and philanthropic support. Approximately 10% of Chalkbeat’s total funding comes by way of donor-advised funds.

“We saw some of our largest gifts during the COVID-19 crisis,” he said. “Donors really saw the importance of continuing to shed light on such a complex system as education.”

“The lion’s share of funding goes to our reporters to make sure they have the resources and tools they need to do their work and focus solely on their on-the-ground reporting,” explains Senior Development Director Lee Whack. As a nonprofit newsroom, Chalkbeat isn’t bound to a traditional advertising or subscription model, relying instead on sponsorships and reader and funder support.

Chalkbeat’s reporting includes a wide spectrum of local and national education news topics like public policy, school budgets, mental health, diversity and equity, teacher training and more. Focused primarily on K-12, the site is increasing its higher education reporting and coverage in Spanish as well.

Philanthropic support for the kind of local reporting Chalkbeat engages in is especially important at a time with such a pronounced decline in local reporting and the rapid shuttering of smaller newspapers. Local papers historically covered school systems, but a 2022 report by the Columbia Journalism Review found that, between 2004 and 2020, there has been an “astounding 57% decline in newspaper newsroom employees,” creating “information vacuums.” The report went on to call the current state of local reporting in America “a truly bleak picture.”

But nonprofit newsrooms like Chalkbeat have helped fill the gap in local coverage, going to evening school board meetings and planning sessions that national outlets can’t or won’t cover. The work generates results. The site tracked 269 “real-world impacts” as a result of their reporting last year.

Both Ortuño and Whack point to both unrestricted giving and long-term giving as one of the keys to their organization’s ongoing efforts to keep local reporting alive – including their venture into local election and voting coverage with Votebeat – as well as plans to have in-house journalism training for writers and expand into more bureaus throughout the country.

“The nature of news is unpredictable,” explains Ortuño. “We need to be able to have the flexibility to go where the news is and share that information within our communities. Unrestricted dollars help us make decisions about where we can go and, oftentimes, those are the places that need it the most.”

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Additional reporting by Hayley Allison

About the Author

Aly Semigran is a Content Specialist at National Philanthropic Trust. She has been writing and editing professionally for over 15 years, with articles in Billboard, Well + Good and Mic, among many other notable publications. In addition to her editorial background, Aly is currently getting her Master of Social Work degree from Temple University. She resides in Philadelphia with her dog.