Last week, the Denver Post announced six layoffs -- the sort of downsizing that's all too common at daily newspapers. But many online news outlets are struggling, too, thanks to funding difficulties and more.
Against this backdrop, the education website EdNews Colorado is not only growing its small staff, but it's just merged with likeminded education-info purveyors to create Chalkbeat, a multi-state collective with the potential of expanding even further.
According to site founder (and Post veteran) Alan Gottlieb, EdNews Colorado "has been around for almost six years. It started as sort of a part time project that morphed into a popular site for education news and opinion in Colorado" anchored by Gottlieb and Todd Engdahl, who was laid off at the Post shortly before coming aboard in January 2008.
Then, two years ago, Gottlieb continues, we started working with Gotham Schools in New York, an education site that started around the same time we did. We met the two women who founded it" -- Elizabeth Green and Philissa Cramer -- "at an education conference several years ago and started talking about how much our sites had in common and how sites that operate on a shoestring can survive long term by creating economies of scale and efficiences and connecting with sites in other cities and states with interesting education things going on that might benefit from our coverage."
These conversations led to plans that have now come to fruition via the creation of Chalkbeat, which encompasses EdNews Colorado and Gotham Schools plus two sister sites: Chalkbeat Indiana and Chalkbeat Tennessee. In addition, EdNews Colorado and Gotham Schools are slated to rebrand using the Chalkbeat name (update) before the end of the year.
This experiment is built on a "model that we really just stumbled on," Gottlieb points out. "The idea is that if you do a single-issue website and go deep, you actually attract people who pay to sponsor you -- and that reduces our dependence on foundation funding" of the sort that's kept EdNews Colorado in business to date.
"One of the Achilles heels of nonprofit websites is that they're addicted to foundation funding, but they tend not to get support from them forever," he goes on. "Instead, a lot of the long-term funding goes to cultural organizations. We argue that we provide a civic benefit just as these cultural organizations do, but we haven't convinced all the foundations of that. So getting more earned revenue is a major goal, and we're going to be testing that proposition over the next couple of years."
Even with all these changes, EdNews Colorado has been able to hire a new writer: Nic Garcia, formerly the editor at OutFront. That brings the staff to four full timers plus a part timer; Gottlieb is now counted as part of the Chalkbeat network.
Despite the national coalition, Gottlieb stresses that each site will focus on local coverage. "We think stories that bubble up locally become national stories," he maintains. Moreover, he believes the sites will be able to cover education stories objectively, rather than being dominated by one agenda or another.
"Here in Colorado," he says, "we have a range of sponsors, including the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Boards -- all the traditional interest-group organizations. But we also have the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the Denver Scholarship Foundation. And we make it clear to our funders up front that we're journalists who don't take sides."
The funders "get it," he stresses. "They understand that down-the-middle journalism provides people with good material. And because we get money from unions as well as education-reform organizations, that really takes some of the heat off in terms of funders expecting things to be done a certain way. If a funder tried to put pressure on us for that, we wouldn't take their money."
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Thus far, this balancing act is working, and Gottlieb says "it's nice to think we may have hit on something that will allow us to be around for a long time -- to do what we do and actually provide full-time paying journalism jobs for people who want to do this kind of work. And that's harder to find than it used to be."
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.