After Elizabeth Green successfully launched Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to covering education across America, in 2014, the CEO and co-founder decided to replicate the model last year. Called Votebeat, the pop-up newsroom was committed to reporting the local election administration and voting in eight states.
Green told E&P she initially joked with a colleague about launching the website, but the idea kept crossing her mind when she read national news coverage about the presidential election, specifically the doubts that were circulating about the ability of election administrators to execute voting by mail.
“It seemed like the kind of story that would benefit from the Chalkbeat approach,” Green said. That is organized reporting around one topic to build a robust audience and attract philanthropic support.
In a quick turnaround, Green launched Votebeat in October. The group sought to partner with news organizations in states that would be consequential in the election, Green explained. Ultimately, it partnered with 10 news organizations in California, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Some of those organizations included CalMatters, Spotlight PA, and WABE, a radio station in Atlanta that is affiliated with NPR. It provided a grant to those organizations and helped them hire staff members. The network of journalists was comprised of 15 full-time reporters and five editors. Freelancers were also hired on a part-time basis. Stories covered topics such as absentee ballots and signature verification processes.
The newsroom’s goal had many layers, Green said. It aimed to hold local election administrators accountable by shining a light on the process of voting, and it intended to inform people of how voting was working “at a time when a lot of people were questioning whether it could happen fairly.”
According to its website, Votebeat’s mission was to “give readers the information they need to understand the integrity of the election and voting rights,” which is why Votebeat also allowed other publications to republish their stories at no cost.
Both the participating news organizations and readers have been grateful for Votebeat, Green shared. That gratitude was reflected in donations. In three weeks, the website raised more than $800,000. The newsroom was also financially supported by philanthropic donors that included individuals as well as foundations like the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Good Words Foundation, Independence Media Foundation and the Walker Family Foundation. Additionally, the Institute for Nonprofit News is Votebeat’s fiscal sponsor.
Even though the 2020 presidential election has ended, Green is seeking to extend the pop-up newsroom and create a pilot that would last through the 2022 midterm. Jessica Huseman, formerly of ProPublica’s Electionland, will serve as editorial director to help shape Votebeat’s coverage network and lead fundraising efforts, according to a press release. The pilot’s goal would be to cover the local issues around election reform and vote access through the midterms. In the future, Green hopes to launch more “beats” covering public health, criminal justice or policing.