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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Is a ‘National Vertical’ Such as Chalkbeat.org the Next Media Killer App?

The other day I came across a nifty national online news service focused exclusively on education called Chalkbeat.org.  I suspect I have stumbled across one important future of journalism in the nation and in Seattle. I’ll explain shortly.

Chalkbeat was founded in 2014, and one of the founders, Elizabeth Green, is a formidable entrepreneur, cheerleader, and CEO. It aims to spread all over the country with this kind of “national vertical,” and it may also launch other topic areas. Currently there are local-reporting sites in Tennessee, Colorado, Indiana, New York, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, as well as many publishing partnerships. Readers sign up for the national version or one in your region and get a free daily newsletter packed with scoops by decently paid, skilled, and nonpartisan reporters. The current budget is $9 million, funded by donors and advertising sponsors, and the nonprofit company is run with sophistication.

Obviously, the education beat is a big one at the moment, particularly related to COVID closures and equity gaps. And it is a topic that national and local funders care enough about to fund the enterprise, and they particularly like the neutral, non-ideological,straight-reporting approach of Chalkbeat.

Another illustration is the local funding (Gates Foundation, Amazon, City University) for the Seattle TimesEducation Lab, which deploys two reporters and three editors just on this topic and stresses “solutions journalism.” The Times has also created this hybrid model (nonprofit funding for a for-profit newspaper) for specialized reporting on transportation, homelessness, and investigations.

Chalkbeat founder Green notes that local dailies have great range in topics but not a lot of national synergy. Chalkbeat, by contrast, has a single topic and is “national.” In this sense, Green argues, it is much more attuned to the way people consume news these days — national standards, single topic. Chalkbeat’s national presence taps national foundations and provides sophisticated web infrastructure and scalable formats in city after city. It resembles the NPR network, with a national news broadcast, local reporting, and a broad funding base.

Chalkbeat’s national/local/single-focus formula looks to me like a killer app. I note that Politico.com, another vertical website (just politics and policy), is also expanding to other regions (Florida, New York, New Jersey, and California so far), and one could imagine variants of this model in urbanism, business, technology, and the arts, just to name a few. 

Already national chains own media outlets all over the country, though many are predatory. In smaller countries such as England and Canada, the quality papers (The Globe & Mail, The Independent) are nationally available, often with some local content, while the provincial papers are ghostly. Get the drift?

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

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1 COMMENT

  1. If this model catches on, what does the new local news landscape look like? It sounds like there could be a pool of reporters in each locality who worked for (or, more likely, contracted with) the national verticals, and quite possibly pieced together more than one such gig, since the work in each vertical could be fairly variable. Hook those reporters up into a collective, and you have a kind of journalism-specific “temp agency” doing business with a sheaf of national verticals. Somehow this could be packaged for advertisers, though it’s hard to imagine that local advertising through news businesses will ever return to its glory year levels–retailers are too battered, classified is gone, etc. I can imagine this model appealing to donors who want to be nationally strategic even when trying to boost such concepts as better journalism at the local level.

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