Chicago Journalism Town Hall Tackles Tough Finances, Elusive Diversity

About 300 people attended a Chicago journalism town hall Sunday that was characterized by sharp comments about the search for financial stability and the need for diversity both in newsroom staffs and service to audiences.

The three-hour discussion came at a time of turmoil in Chicago’s news industry, with Tribune reporters making a public call for a white-knight investor as Alden Global Capital, a firm known for slashing news staffs, takes a major stake in Tribune Publishing. Also, two news outlets have recently closed: Chicagoland Television cable news and the Tribune’s Spanish-language publication Hoy. Last year, one of the most storied African-American newspapers, the Chicago Defender, went online-only. Meanwhile, the emergence of several start-ups has infused the city’s media atmosphere with new energy.

The event at the Allegro Hotel downtown was organized by Ken Davis and Linda Paul, former journalists at WBEZ public radio in Chicago who also hosted the television program “Chicago Newsroom.” Davis and Paul held a similar town hall in the same hotel ballroom in 2009.

Davis moderated the discussion along with Heather Cherone, Managing Editor and City Hall reporter for The Daily Line. As Cherone put it, “I think we would probably all agree that journalism in general, and Chicago journalism in specific, is at an inflection point.”

Mark Jacob/Medill Local News Initiative
Ken Davis moderates the discussion at the Chicago journalism town hall held Feb. 23, 2020, at the Allegro Hotel.

Robert Feder, media columnist for the Daily Herald, said the industry hadn’t made much progress since the last town hall.

“Eleven years ago when we convened here, the consensus was that the financial model, the former financial model of the journalism business, was broken. And it’s still broken,” Feder said. “What we acknowledged also was that we had made a big mistake by giving away content for free online too long, and we created the expectation among consumers that news was free and they shouldn’t have to pay for it, and we’ve been trying to fight our way back ever since.”

What we have now is an opportunity for people to create their own media diet based upon all the digital entities that exist in specialized ways. … Newspapers can no longer be all things to all people.

Robert Feder, media columnist, Daily Herald

But the situation has changed in a significant way, Feder said: “What we have now is an opportunity for people to create their own media diet based upon all the digital entities that exist in specialized ways. … Newspapers can no longer be all things to all people.”

Charlie Johnson, a Chicago Tribune homepage editor whose union is negotiating its first contract with Tribune Publishing, complained that pay for journalists was so poor that some of his colleagues are working second jobs, such as driving for Uber or delivering flowers.

The Tribune’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Bruce Dold, blamed the financial squeeze on tech giants.

“The single greatest threat facing the Tribune and facing every legacy news organization is the duopoly of Facebook and Google,” Dold said. “They control 70-75 of digital advertising, so every organization that has been trying to make the shift from print advertising to digital has run up against this blockade.”

A pool fund for journalism?

Tracy Baim, the Publisher of the Chicago Reader who is trying to take the publication nonprofit, said more local foundations should be supporting journalism, and one way to get them involved might be a pool fund at the Chicago Community Trust.

“There’s a study going on that MacArthur [Foundation] is funding at the Trust to see if it’s viable to create a pool fund for journalism,” Baim said. “What it allows is for foundations who don’t want to create a program officer and a whole new funding stream, they can put their money into a pool fund, and someone else will do the labor of reading through the grant applications, understanding the liabilities and all that, and funding journalism. We need more money because we need a much bigger pie. We are not going to survive if the pie stays stable at what it is now.”

A pool fund is a dream, Baim said, “and I hope it’s a reality by 2021 because we’re at such a precarious point, we’re going to lose a lot more media in the next 12-24 months if we don’t have it operational.”

Fernando Díaz, Editor and Publisher of the Chicago Reporter, said nonprofit finances can be precarious.

“At the Chicago Reporter, we’re both blessed and cursed that we depend on very large grants from a few important and very generous foundations,” Díaz said. “But if one of those leaves, we’ve got a huge hole to fill.”

Shamus Toomey, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Block Club Chicago, was Managing Editor of DNAInfo Chicago when owner Joe Ricketts shut it down in 2017. Toomey said a big takeaway was: “Don’t rely on one funder. … It was one person’s decision to end DNAInfo.”

It’s great to receive support from the foundations here, but it would also be great to receive more operational funding and support as well.

Tiffany Walden, Editor-in-Chief and Co-founder, The TRiiBE

Tiffany Walden, Editor-in-Chief and Co-founder of The TRiiBE, expressed the wish that foundations would offer more support for regular news operations instead of funding special projects.

“It’s great to receive support from the foundations here, but it would also be great to receive more operational funding and support as well,” Walden said. “… We get emails all the time about applying to join different collaborations, because that’s in season now. We get a lot of emails about applying for grants for stories and things like that, but we’re a two-person operation.”

Jamie Kalven, the Executive Director of the Invisible Institute whose reporting raised major questions about the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, told the town hall that he wondered “whether our anxieties, understandable anxieties, about the economic condition of journalism are stunting our imaginations in how we think about how to go forward, how to tell stories, how to find stories.”

Kalven saw exciting potential for start-ups.

“There are all sorts of strategic questions in terms of how to build larger platforms, how to hold up different voices, how to build a more viable financial basis,” Kalven said, “but there’s also an immense creative space that’s opened up, and it’s opened up in part by virtue of some large shade trees having lost some of their branches.”

Mark Jacob/Medill Local News Initiative
Shamus Toomey (left) of Block Club Chicago and Tiffany Walden of The TRiiBE participate in the discussion at the Chicago journalism town hall on Feb. 23, 2020.

Seeking Racial Equity

Perhaps more time was spent on diversity than on any other subject.

“We have been devalued all of the years of our existence,” said Dorothy Leavell, Publisher of the Chicago Crusader, which serves a black audience.

“The black community has been written about terribly in Chicago dating back to the 1800s,” said Walden of The TRiiBE. “So how can you expect to walk into a black community as a reporter and say, ‘Hey, like, I’m here. Talk to me.’ No one’s going to talk to you. You go to the West Side, no one’s going to talk to you if they don’t know who you are.”

Chris Fusco, Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, agreed: “We know we have a long way to go on diversity.”

What really matters is diversity of narratives, right?

Maudlyne Ihejirika, columnist, Chicago Sun-Times

Maudlyne Ihejirika, who writes the Sun-Times’ Chicago Chronicles column, said demographic shifts in this country demand a change in approach.

“What really matters is diversity of narratives, right?” Ihejirika said. “We’re sitting at a time here discussing the future of journalism when we’re really confronting the browning of America. We can continue covering the same stories and telling the same narrative from the same perspective that becomes relevant to no one, or relative to a smaller and smaller, diminishing population.”

Cassie Walker Burke, Chicago Bureau Chief for the Chalkbeat education news outlet, said diversity means more than just who’s on the news staff.

“Right now at Chalkbeat we’re doing, for example, a source audit,” Burke said. “We’re not just talking about diversity in our newsroom in terms of our reporters, but who are the people we’re talking to? Who are the people we’re featuring? We’re reaching out to principals, we’re reaching out to teachers. Are we just reaching out to white teachers? Are we just reaching out to white principals?”

Hugo Balta, the President of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and newly hired News Director for WTTW public television in Chicago, also warned about “diversity without inclusion. … Then what you have is perhaps a newsroom … that looks diverse, but when you unpack it, you realize it’s just touching the surface and not reaching and speaking authentically to the audience we’re trying to reach.”

Know Your Audience

Journalists at the town hall confronted the fact that they have fallen short in audience engagement for a long time.

“We have done a very poor job as an industry over the past 50, 60, 100 years of understanding our readers and connecting with them,” said Jim Kirk, Publisher and Executive Editor of Crain’s Chicago Business. “I think you’re seeing some changes happening, specifically the New York Times and what they’ve done as a model in mining and understanding their audience. They’re averaging 275,000 new subscribers a quarter and have more subscribers than they’ve ever had – the ‘failing’ New York Times.”

Louise Kiernan, Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica Illinois, emphasized the importance of transparency in journalism, such as sharing data used in stories.

“We try to be really open and write about the process of our journalism,” Kiernan said. “As part of that, I’ve come to realize that all that is not enough. I had an encounter probably two years ago now when I first started in this job with someone who thought that an anonymous source was anonymous to us, that we did not know [the source’s identity]. … People in this room laugh when I say that, but it’s not funny. It’s not that person’s ignorance that’s the problem. It is our arrogance. … It’s incumbent on us to talk about it so people can see that we do care, that we are fair, that we are doing our best, and that we’re of worth to them.”

About the author

Mark Jacob


A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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