Journalist Elizabeth Green believes treating, and funding, local journalism as a public goodwill usher in a wave of much-needed civic engagement and change
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When she was in high school, Elizabeth Green couldn’t find a poetry club on campus—so she signed up to be part of the newspaper instead. While she was there, she fell in love with the work of telling stories and embedding herself into her community. That became the force that guided her career—one that took her on a winding path from beat reporter to co-founder and CEO of Chalkbeat, a sustainable, nonprofit newsroom devoted to local coverage of education.
Some of Green’s journey was shaped by the precarious industry she inherited: “If I wanted to do this kind of work, or if I cared about this kind of work, I felt like I also had to [consider]: What would a business model be that would support the mission, and how could I be a part of building that?” The rest was driven by her desire to cultivate a platform for civically engaged readers who wanted more than splashy headlines and conflict-driven coverage of the issues that shaped their lives.
As the founder of Chalkbeat and its pop-up counterpart, Votebeat, Green is proving the power of that vision each day—and succeeding at making space for it in a turbulent moment for media. Green talked to DAME about how the early internet shaped her business model, how she measures success, and what she believes needs to happen to stabilize and expand journalism in this moment.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
DAME: A lot of folks in journalism, especially these days, are drawn to big, national stories. What draws you to focus on local journalism?
Elizabeth Green: My first job was as an intern at U.S. News and World Report magazine. I was also the only K-12 education reporter. So that was, you know, a sad commentary—but a good opportunity. I’m not immune to wanting that fancy path, to finding the fancy path attractive. But when I was actually doing it, I just realized that I was parachuting into communities where the stories really happened, spending, max, a week with the community, and then telling their story in a way that was probably wrong. And anybody in that community who was in a position to make any changes or learn anything from what I had written, anyone who was actually gonna do anything meaningful with this, would probably know: You didn’t get it quite right. And at the same time, other people around the country were going to read this as truth—and be like, “Well, the Boston public schools did this miracle, so surely my schools in Tucson or in Topeka can do that miracle.” But that’s also wrong. The parachuting rubs me the wrong way still. I don’t think that’s the way journalism makes its best difference. I think it really should be local and bottom up. And I think if you’re going to do national news, I would much rather it be based on a robust clip base of local reporters who really have spent the time to know better, or have a better chance of knowing, and get the story. And then we all learn from that kind of bottom-line fact base.
Totally. I love that you’re pioneering this new model of what journalistic platforms can look like, and that it evolves out of you having a blog where you were writing independently about these issues. How did that inform this model that you’ve now designed?
In 2008, when The New York Sun, where I was working, folded, I had to decide how I was going to get paid and what I was going to do. And at The Sun, I had been quietly creating a WordPress blog, trying to make the case to my editors that we should have a blog on The Sun’s homepage with education news. I mean, simplest possible idea. But for me it seemed really incredible that we could do that. I had this very specific sense of our audience at The Sun: [They were] the people who you see at the civic core of the city, that come together around public meetings, that come together at protests, come together at school-based activities. I knew those were our core readers, and that they would gobble this stuff up. I really felt their presence when the paper announced it was going to fold. The specific kind of reporting that The New York Sun did about policy and equity issues, nobody else was getting in that final level of detail—and even we weren’t going in the level of detail I wanted!
Yes. I’ve always loved digital because there are no space constraints on coverage. And yet, digital really has disrupted so much of the media landscape. We see layoffs and consolidation of tech giants like Amazon with newspapers. How did you build a sustainable newsroom in the middle of that?
Local news is a nonprofit public good. It is not going to be supported by markets. Period. If you care about it, you have to accept the fact that this is not going to be something that market incentives are going to enable the existence of. The good news is that, in the United States, we do have a robust public sector. In health, education, even housing, we have some mechanisms to try to enable public goods to exist when they should. We had, in the ’60s, created public media infrastructure, but that’s really been about distribution and broadcast not about the production of news-gathering and original reporting. Our generation’s task, I feel, is to create our version of what they did for original reporting. It’s not out of the scope of possibility that we could do that in a way that becomes sustainable. It just looks different than our VC-intoxicated culture has defined sustainability. That means a mix of advocacy and movement building. Advocacy, meaning we have to actively have conversations about how the government can pay for news, and movement building, meaning full-on gathering philanthropists and individual people to just put some money behind this. I don’t think it’s out of the scope of possibility that we could get it somewhere between $1–3 billion a year annually should be spent on original reporting at the local level. That’s way more money than I can even imagine, but it’s small potatoes compared to what we do for so many other public sectors in public goods—and this one has outsized impact.
You’re also challenging the “objective,” “both sides” model of journalism. Chalkbeat has ethical guidelines which say you’re anti-racist and that you believe all children deserve an education. I’m curious about what you see as truth in journalism in this current landscape we’re in, where there’s five different versions of the truth and we’re supposed to act like all of them are equally worthy of our respect and our time.
What legacy journalism has not done enough of, especially in the height of commercial journalism, is being explicit and honest and self-aware about the values that undergird it and the biases that undergird the institutions. It’s inescapable to have biases. There are going to be values that show up in what stories we decided to cover, what audiences we decided to prioritize—decisions grounded in values.
We have been pushed, I think in ways that we wouldn’t be if we weren’t a nonprofit, to explicitly define [Chalkbeat’s] values and its mission. Having to do that exercise is uncomfortable for journalists. I wrote a whole essay about how uncomfortable it was for me, and our journey through figuring out what that looks like for us. Because in many ways, I’m super traditional, even though I also agree with a lot of the critiques of traditional practice. That made it hard for me to declare a mission, but it’s just so obvious. We have values, they govern what we do. I always was stunned when people who covered education said, “Well, I would never say that I believe in public education or that I want every child to succeed.” Why are you doing this then? I’ve always been a journalist as a means to an end. For me, it was always about a better world and a better community. I don’t even want to say what better is, but I definitely want it to be better. And I’m happy to state my values around the things that I can’t escape. And I’ve realized over time, building a news organization, there’s enormous value in hiring people who share common values and being explicit about those so that we can do work as a team together that’s intentional.
It’s clear in the history of newspapers that many of the institutions we now put on a pedestal actively valued white supremacy. The press is completely complicit. And to pretend that those institutions are values neutral is insane. If we want to be more transparent and live up to what I see as the value of traditional, objective ideas of journalism—as a goal, not a reality—then we have to be transparent and open about what our values are from the start.
You also measure the success of your journalism a little differently than most folks in the digital landscape—where it’s often clicks, shares, impressions. You measure using an open-source tool called MORI—Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence—that quantifies impact.
I had an editor who told me that the mission of journalists is to make the important interesting. I really believe that. If we just make it really droll and nobody cares, nobody reads it, that’s on us. We have to make it as interesting as possible. But I also think that there’s so much more to the power of journalism than clicks and volume. Our North Star is impact, not clicks, and impact for us means: When people have to make a decision or have a debate about education, or now, about voting, did they have access to fact-based information to help them do that? The evidence that that has happened is just as powerful—when somebody who holds a hearing and says, we’re looking at this issue and cites our coverage, and they wouldn’t have known about that issue if we hadn’t done the coverage; or if we’re able to deliver food maps to Spanish-speaking families who don’t have access to the internet in Memphis; or if we’re able to change a policy that blocked families with unpaid bills from getting supposedly free internet deals in New York City to enable remote learning for all kids. It’s hard to measure something as kind of abstract and systemic as journalists’ impact, but it’s worth at least setting goals around a mission rather than a commercial endeavor.
I’m curious what you hope the future of news looks like.
I’m hopeful that the infrastructure we’ve built for public media doubles in 10 years. That’s what I would like to see. This new kind of public media has to be community-centered, original reporting that is deeply embedded serving Americans in their communities and meeting people where they are. My dream is that we have a new Renaissance of civically engaged people who have the opportunity to actually talk to each other about our hopes, dreams, experiences, challenges, and then together rebuild and build again something much better than what we’ve had before. I don’t think we do that unless we have people whose paid job it is to help inform and structure our conversations. Without journalists, we’re just shouting into the abyss.
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