introductions

Get to know Chalkbeat’s new Colorado bureau chief

Erica Meltzer (photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat).

There’s a new byline — and bureau chief — at Chalkbeat Colorado.

Erica Meltzer started in the role Jan. 8. As part of her duties, Erica will cover the state government beat for us, continuing a legacy that began a decade ago with the launch of EdNews Colorado.

EdNews founder Alan Gottlieb and statehouse reporter Todd Engdahl had no shortage of things to chronicle that year, including the passage of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, a sweeping bill that has had a lasting impact on public education in Colorado.

What was once EdNews Colorado is now Chalkbeat, a national education news organization dedicated to covering efforts to improve education for all students, especially those from low-income families.

We introduced Erica briefly before, and explained how her arrival coincides with a number of exciting changes at Chalkbeat as we continue to grow. Now, with Erica officially on board and four stories already to her name, we thought you should get to know her a little better.

We talked with her about how she got started in journalism, her favorite stories, and how she’ll approach the job.

Let’s start with your journalism origin story. What inspired you to become a journalist?

When I was in sixth grade, we had an assignment to pick a job and research it and give a presentation. I can’t actually remember what prompted me to pick reporter, but by the time I was done with that assignment, I wanted to be a reporter, and I still can’t think of a better job. I’ve met so many people I never would have met otherwise and been privileged to hear and tell their stories. I get to ask all the questions I’d be too polite or shy to ask if I didn’t have a notebook in my hand. And every day is different.

I worked on my high school paper, where we took our job as the only journalists with access to the student community very seriously. We wrote about air quality problems in our school, and we wrote about how the administration responded when a student murdered his parents. Asking tough questions from the relatively powerless position of a student taught me a lot.

What are your favorite kinds of stories to tell?

I really like stories that combine human interest with policy issues. Fortunately for me, there are a lot of stories like this in education. I really believe in the value of journalism to help people be informed citizens. We can do that through stories that show how policy will affect ordinary people and through stories that put faces to these questions we all wrestle with.

And then sometimes I like to take off my policy nerd hat and do something weird and fun. At my last job, I interviewed an Elvis impersonator who serves as a kind of unofficial historian for Colfax Avenue. He had this crazy, stream-of-consciousness style of talking, and I just wanted to channel that for readers so they could enjoy him as much as I did.

In your introductory newsletter, you relayed an exchange you had with a local TV reporter of your acquaintance about joining Chalkbeat. This person said, “Chalkbeat, huh? You’re going to be getting into the minutiae.” And your response was: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Then you went on to explain that you’ve found some really good stories in small things. Does anything in particular come to mind, an example you can share?

When I worked in Tucson, I covered county government, and I would keep an eye on all sorts of lower-level board and committee agendas. At some point I noticed something like the fourth horse property coming before the Zoning Board of Adjustment in six months and called up a source who worked in the planning department to ask if there was any particular reason these horse properties all needed variances. It turned into a really good story about how the community was changing. All these properties with livestock had once been way out of town where nobody cared what they did, and now they were surrounded by subdivisions and all sorts of things that had never been a problem were suddenly a problem.

Sometimes journalism involves noticing a loose thread and pulling on it and seeing what happens.

You came to us from Denverite, a local news startup that has done some creative things inviting readers into the news conversation. Can you give an example of that working well, and maybe share some lessons you’ve learned about how to better involve readers in stories?  

Denverite has an occasional feature called Readers’ Choice that involves asking readers what stories they’d like to see covered — sometimes we did this as a poll with a discrete set of options — and asking readers to submit questions on those topics. This served as the springboard for a lot of good stories — everything from why Denver has these flagstone sidewalks that trip us up to what’s so bad about gentrification.

Sometimes people who work in the policy realm bring certain assumptions to the table, and those assumptions bleed over to the reporters who spend a lot of time hanging out with those insiders. Hearing from readers provided this reality check about what people know and don’t know and what they’d like to see explored further. It’s a way of getting outside that “everybody knows” trap, and it opens us up to new ways to approach familiar topics.

And of course, readers know a lot of things that we don’t know. They live and work in the communities we cover. They’re teachers, or they have kids in school. So they’re a great resource.

You covered the legislative session for Denverite last year, and now you’ll be covering education issues under the dome for Chalkbeat. How would you describe your approach to covering the statehouse beat?

Covering any government body, I like to keep the focus on how people will be affected by what that body is doing. Sometimes that requires a turn-of-the-screw story on some action at the committee level, but more often, I’m going to be looking for the big storylines and themes of this session and trying to put bills into context with the larger discussion of school quality and equity in access to education. By nature, I’m more interested in policy than in political intrigue, but of course politics is how we get things done in a democracy, so sometimes the political story is the story.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers as you begin this role?   

I’ll be frank. I haven’t covered education in-depth in a long time, and a lot has changed. I’m reading a lot and trying to talk to as many people as I can get up to speed. If there’s something you’d like to see covered or if you have feedback — positive or negative — about something I or someone on our team has written, please get in touch with me. I want to hear from you.

Erica Meltzer can be reached at [email protected] or 303-446-7635. Follow her on Twitter here.

Inside Chalkbeat

I’m Chalkbeat’s new audience engagement editor. Here’s how I think about community and impact.

PHOTO: Sam Hodgson / Voice of San Diego
A throwback to 2014; Catherine Green co-hosting a live podcast recording for Voice of San Diego

Technically my first day at Chalkbeat was January 7, but I hope you’ll forgive the delay in saying hello. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been meeting people left and right, bookmarking community organizations and movers-and-shakers in the seven locations where we operate, and getting up to speed on our audience engagement strategies. Now that I can catch my breath, I wanted to take a moment to share my own perspective on engagement and what I’m hoping to do at Chalkbeat.

A lot has changed since I started working in engagement six years ago, but plenty remains the same. Comment sections are still prone to devolving into petty fighting without rigorous moderation. News organizations are still sorting out which traffic metrics they pay attention to, and which ones define success. The role of “engagement editor” in newsrooms, unlike “City Hall reporter” or “editor in chief,” can still resemble an amorphous blob, containing as much or as little as an outlet cares to hear from its audience.

Chalkbeat lands on the upper end of the spectrum, and its engagement-centric approach is part of what drew me to work here. I first learned about Chalkbeat back in 2013, when I was engagement editor at Voice of San Diego.

What immediately stood out: Chalkbeat’s MORI system, which remains the most thoughtful approach I’ve seen for measuring impact in the communities a news outlet covers. This isn’t the case everywhere, but to me, and most importantly to Chalkbeat, engagement and impact are intertwined; journalists’ work doesn’t yield impact if readers aren’t part of the conversation. While growing our audience is important (have you told a friend about Chalkbeat yet? We’d appreciate the help!), and will be a significant part of my job, our bureaus are motivated by doing work that matters, that informs debate and spurs action that results in better schools — not necessarily work that will go viral.

Since then, Chalkbeat has grown to seven bureaus with national coverage on top of that, and there are plans to expand to even more cities around the country in the future. Though my career path had carried me away from mission-driven nonprofit newsrooms, I found myself checking back in on Chalkbeat.

I spent 2018 as a senior editor at The New Republic, focused on engagement; before that, I was assignment editor and managing editor for the website of The Atlantic. I’d spent three years at legacy institutions, and though I’d known going into those experiences that the audiences would be bigger, and the metaphorical walls surrounding the newsrooms higher, than they had been in the nonprofit world, I don’t think I appreciated how different the mindsets around engagement — and impact — would be.

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard about several Chalkbeat stories that came directly from community engagement. One in particular stands out in my mind: the story of Javion, a 16-year-old in Chicago’s public school system who reads at a second-grade level. Our reporter Adeshina Emmanuel learned about Javion’s difficulties during last year’s listening tour, a series of in-person events where Chalkbeat staff aimed to empower people in the community to share their own stories.

Here was the engagement I cared about, where journalists sought to report with and for communities, not just “on” them; here was the commitment to driving impact by working with our readers, aiming for results above and beyond a CNN chyron name-dropping our cover story or Donald Trump tweet-ranting against our work. Here was journalism as public service.

So what will I be doing at Chalkbeat? I’ll be making it easier for us to reach more people in our communities, in person and online. I’ll be fine-tuning our social media practices, establishing and maintaining partnerships with other media outlets and community organizations, and helping our bureaus pull off events that amplify diverse voices. Generally, I’ll be managing how we talk to and hear from our audience — which includes you.

As I get started, I’d love to hear from you. What do you want to see more of from Chalkbeat? What are you hoping to get out of the newsletters? If you live near one of our bureau locations (especially Indianapolis, where I’m currently based), I’d love your suggestions for potential partners: Who’s doing good work in your city to improve education and build a stronger sense of community? Let’s chat: [email protected]

growth plans

Now hiring: Chalkbeat Newark is set to expand

PHOTO: Bene Cipolla/Chalkbeat
A Chalkbeat Newark focus group in 2018. The nonprofit news organization will add a new reporter in June.

Chalkbeat Newark has some breaking news of our own to report: We’re expanding.

Less than a year after Chalkbeat opened a new bureau dedicated to New Jersey’s largest school system, we’re adding another reporter in June. We’re expanding through Report for America, an innovative program that places beginning journalists in communities that need — and deserve — more on-the-ground reporting, and we especially welcome applicants from Newark.

“We are thrilled to have support to add more reporting capacity to our team in Newark,” said Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat’s co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief. The bureau is the organization’s seventh; Chalkbeat also has reporters in Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, New York, and Tennessee, and is continuing to grow.

“We launched coverage in Newark at the request of a diverse group of community members,” Green continued. “Since then, more and more members of the community have told us they value the work we are doing: holding officials accountable, keeping the conversation honest, and shedding light on the consequences of major decisions that affect public education.”

The new reporter will bolster Chalkbeat’s coverage at a pivotal moment for Newark, as the district completes its transition from decades of state oversight back to local control, and as a new superintendent begins to make his mark on the 36,000-student school system.

The reporter will be partly funded by Report for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening local news coverage. The group, which is modeled on Americorps, is helping this year to place 60 journalists in newsrooms across the country — from Puerto Rico to Wisconsin to California and now New Jersey. Report for America will split the cost of the journalist with Chalkbeat and local donors.

Report for America was founded by two media veterans, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, who worried that the downsizing of newsrooms across the country threatens democracy. The nonprofit organization receives funding from a number of donors, including the Ford Foundation, Facebook, and Google.

Newsrooms that host Report for America-funded journalists have complete control over their work; donors play no part in the editorial process.

“Like all support to Chalkbeat, this gift comes with no strings attached,” Green said. “Our ultimate responsibility is always to tell the truth.”

Journalists interested in covering Newark schools (or any of the other RFA-sponsored roles) have until Feb. 8 to apply for the position. Along with their normal reporting duties, Report for America hires must also participate in a community-service project, such as mentoring student journalists.

We especially welcome Newark-based reporters to apply. If you know someone who’s right for the job, please encourage them to submit their information.