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Education News Outlet Chalkbeat Is Expanding to Chicago, Newark in 2018

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The online education news organization Chalkbeat is expanding again. Early next year, it is starting a bureau in Chicago and a one-year pilot in Newark, N.J., the site announced Monday.

The changes come just a year after Chalkbeat launched a Detroit operation which, like the Newark site, started as a pilot before becoming the organization's fifth full bureau. The others cover Colorado, Indiana, New York City, and Tennessee.

Elizabeth Green, the co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of the nonprofit news organization, said in an interview that Chicago was one of two finalists for the newest full bureau, and was chosen over the San Francisco Bay area for several reasons. (Discussions will continue over a future Bay Area site, she said.)

Chicago is a huge urban school system facing poverty, violence, and budget challenges, but which has shown some signs of improvement. Meanwhile, the media landscape and coverage of education in the city has been diminished by financial challenges to its two daily newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and by the demise of an independent education publication, Catalyst, which was subsumed by another independent news outlet, the Chicago Reporter.

"We would like to do a pretty granular focus on the day-to-day issues facing poor communities in Chicago," said Green. "And we want to partner with the existing media there. The media ecosystem in Chicago has a lot of opportunities for partnerships, with [public radio station] WBEZ, the papers, ethnic media, and public television."

The pilot project in Newark came about after conversations over a long period time with community members, philanthropists, and journalists in the city, which is also undergoing sweeping changes in its school system. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's 2010 donation of $100 million to the Newark system sparked efforts to overhaul teacher pay with performance bonuses and to create more charter schools. Meanwhile, the 36,000-student Newark district is returning to local control after years of state oversight.

Green said the Newark Star-Ledger is "a formerly wonderful newspaper that just has diminished resources," while a nonprofit news outlet covering education in the state, NJ Spotlight, is laudable but cannot devote significant coverage to Newark.

"We've really seen the power of community journalism," Green said. The Chalkbeat sites continue to provide enterprising local reports, such as an investigative story this week by Chalkbeat Indiana examining online charter schools in the state.

As it looks to hire a bureau chief for Chicago and a "fellowship" reporter for Newark, Chalkbeat is likely to continue to expand, Green said.

Some big cities such as Los Angeles, which has an independent education news outlet (LA School Report), expanded public radio coverage, and other media, wouldn't rank as high on Chalkbeat's list, Green said. 

"But there are so many communities that don't have strong local education reporting," she said.

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