Local News Rebirth in Chicago: ‘More Exciting Than It’s Ever Been’

With Nonprofit News on the March, There Are Plenty of Concerns, but Also New Feelings of Optimism

Chicago journalism is undergoing a dramatic restructuring that has turned the nation’s third-largest media market into a center for news experimentation.

While the city’s media have seen brutal job cuts in recent years, including a dramatic downsizing at the Chicago Tribune, a sense of rebirth and optimism prevails. Longtime observers talk about “an explosion of media” that makes it “more exciting than it’s ever been.”

The changes are attracting national attention, according to Sue Cross, CEO and Executive Director of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN). “It’s important nationally and perhaps even globally because Chicago is a petri dish for the re-invention of news media,” Cross said.

A variety of journalism trends intersect in Chicago.

Nonprofit news is assuming a prominence once reserved for the city’s commercial outlets as the 175-year-old Tribune recedes and a public radio station, WBEZ, emerges as a rival for dominance in local reporting.

WBEZ has not only grown on its own but is finalizing a merger with the Chicago Sun-Times that represents a creative attempt to save a legacy newspaper.

The Better Government Association (BGA), a nearly century-old organization that conducts journalistic investigations, is taking on a much bigger mission by teaming with the Robert R. McCormick Foundation on a new $10 million journalism effort called the Illinois Solutions Partnership. A key aim is to replace the government oversight lost in the downsizing of legacy news outlets.

And startups are becoming upstarts.

The digital nonprofit Block Club Chicago is attracting national attention for its fresh approach to neighborhood news. Block Club and scores of other small news outlets have banded together in a new Chicago Independent Media Alliance that is led by the Chicago Reader, a groundbreaking alt-weekly that once was a cash cow, then fell on hard times and now is being reinvented as a nonprofit.

The transformed landscape is head-spinning to some Chicago news veterans, such as David Greising, a former Tribune columnist who is the BGA’s President and CEO.

“I think a lot of us who are still in it are just thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe all this cool stuff is going on,’ when you think of where our heads were all at five years ago,” Greising said. “It’s quite something.”

(Disclosure: The author of this story is a former editor at the Tribune and Sun-Times and has done freelance work for the Chicago Reader and BGA.)

Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ariel Parrella-Aureli, a Northwest Side reporter for Block Club Chicago, interviews sisters (from left) Gertrude Chapman, Ruth Gilliana and Ginger Lane about the documentary “Would You Hide Me?” that tells the story of the sisters’ survival during the Holocaust and immigration to Chicago.

Block Club: Chicago Is ‘Not a Hellscape’

In terms of scale, the two most significant examples of the rise of Chicago nonprofit journalism may be WBEZ’s planned merger with the Sun-Times and the BGA-McCormick partnership. But from the standpoint of inspiring optimism in the future of local news, perhaps the most encouraging nonprofit development is the emergence of Block Club Chicago.

It started with a dismal turn of events: TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts’ decision in late 2017 to close Chicago’s DNAInfo digital news outlet and its sister publications after staffers in New York voted to unionize. DNAInfo Chicago had been a journalistic success, routinely outdoing bigger media on news stories. Among those left jobless by the closure were Shamus Toomey, Jen Sabella and Stephanie Lulay. Seven months later, they started Block Club Chicago to provide neighborhood news to Chicago, including in chronically underserved communities on the South and West sides.

Block Club’s formula isn’t entirely innovative, unless energy and quality are new concepts. INN’s Cross, who once worked for the Associated Press in Chicago, said Block Club’s success was “a little bit of a back-to-the-future thing.”

“If you cast back 30 years, maybe it would not feel as new because you still had a lot of neighborhood publications at that point,” Cross said. “If you lived in a neighborhood in Chicago, you might have a little weekly, very local news coverage, and even the Tribune and Sun-Times did more local-level neighborhood news coverage because they had a lot more people. But that has all faded away, and most neighborhoods in most big cities don’t have a lot of neighborhood-level coverage. So what I see as new with Block Club is them restoring it in a different way and really going out and talking to the public and focusing on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level.”

Block Club’s level of responsiveness and listening sets it apart.

“That’s kind of our whole ethos,” said Sabella, Block Club’s Director of Strategy. “The way that the news was being done was not working, and people were clearly not getting out of it what they wanted. I never really [agreed with] the whole ‘advertising and the internet being the death of local news’ thing. I think that ‘the death of local news’ was when people stopped listening to the audience and listening to what readers wanted out of them.”

One example is Block Club’s COVID-19 hotline.

“When the pandemic hit, we went from being this neighborhood news source covering meetings and covering business openings and closings, things like that, to really stepping up to have all the information people needed to navigate the pandemic,” Sabella said. “We realized right away that that’s what our readers were coming to us for. We were honestly just chatting on Slack and Stephanie [Lulay] threw it out there. She said, ‘What if we started a hotline and let people call us?’ … That’s how we launched the hotline. After getting so much great feedback on it, we thought of other ways to be a public service vs. just a traditional newsroom.”

I think that ‘the death of local news’ was when people stopped listening to the audience and listening to what readers wanted out of them.

Jen Sabella, Director of Strategy, Block Club Chicago

Block Club has also found ways to have fun, such as its Chance the Snapper campaign. The news outlet broke news in 2019 that an alligator was spotted in the Humboldt Park lagoon. As part of its snout-to-tail coverage, Block Club conducted a naming contest, with “Chance the Snapper” defeating “Frank Lloyd Bite,” “Ruth Gator Ginsburg” and “Croc Obama.” Block Club also sold Snapper shirts and totes in a $100,000-plus fundraising campaign.

“The city has many problems and I think we all know that, but I don’t think everyone wants to hear about doom and gloom every day,” Sabella said. “There’s a reason people live here. It’s not a hellscape.”

Which is not to say Block Club is just “happy news.” Block Club’s Kelly Bauer broke a series of stories last year about Loretto Hospital’s mishandling of the COVID-19 vaccine, and later partnered with the BGA’s David Jackson to reveal more troubling actions at the hospital. The revelations have led to an FBI investigation.

At a time when legacy media coverage of neighborhoods can seem like an occasional  anthropological expedition, Block Club makes itself a dependable presence, and many of its reporters live in the places they cover.

“It was important to us to be on that ground level and get folks who kind of had abandoned local news or even looking for local news back on board,” Sabella said.

The idea of a small-outlet job as a career stepping stone – once pervasive in Chicago and perhaps everywhere – is fading.

“We want our reporters to feel really valued,” Sabella said. “We want them to be paid well, and we want them to grow into whatever role they envision for themselves, vs. the traditional structure of ‘I’m going to get a job at the Trib after this’ or “I’m going to become an editor at Block Club’ even.”

As it has turned out, working at Block Club has become a high-profile job. In just the last three months, the startup was named Best Online-Only News source in an international competition hosted by Editor & Publisher and was honored as Publisher of the Year by the LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers group.

Block Club receives some philanthropic support and also sells $59-a-year subscriptions for full access while keeping much of its content free. (On Jan. 11, a day after this story was published, Block Club announced a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the American Journalism Project to expand its business and operations side. In tandem with that grant, the Chicago Community Trust is providing $450,000 more over three years.)

Block Club remains focused on a mission of being relentlessly local.

“In order to cover communities well, you need to be embedded in those communities,” Sabella said. “You need to have people at the helm who are there and care and know the area. I think that’s why a lot of these hyperlocal ventures that have been started by rich people on the coasts who don’t know what it’s like living in the Midwest, let alone rural America, that’s why they failed. They don’t have that community base. I’m hopeful that this can be a model for other cities and other municipalities. In terms of our newsroom, I hope we can grow and bring trust back to local news.”

Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Maxwell Evans, a South Side reporter for Block Club Chicago, conducts an interview.

When WBEZ Met the Sun-Times

The general reaction in Chicago journalism circles to the WBEZ-Sun-Times merger was twofold:

I hope this works.

But how will it work?

With details still being hammered out behind closed doors, both WBEZ and the Sun-Times declined interviews for this story. WBEZ executives sat for an interview with the Medill Local News Initiative in October in which they made eyebrow-raising news. Matt Moog, CEO at the parent Chicago Public Media, said no layoffs were planned at either WBEZ or the Sun-Times and added that “we’re probably going to have in the neighborhood of 40 or 50 open positions that we need to fill” when the deal closes.

If the envisioned larger news operation indeed takes shape, it will represent an amazing development in which a once-sleepy but now surging public radio station and a newspaper that has long seemed close to the cliff combine to form a news shop that could be the most influential in the city. “I think the Sun-Times-WBEZ combination and what’s been proposed, potentially, if it’s executed correctly, will be a national model,” said Jim Kirk, Publisher and Executive Editor at Crain’s Chicago Business and a former top exec at the Sun-Times, Tribune Publishing and the Los Angeles Times. “… You have two respected brands coming together and trying this new model. It’s not like it’s a new startup. It’s not like something that’s an untested platform or something like that. It’s taking a combination of really good journalists and trying to figure out, if you combine that entity somehow some way, how can we better serve the community. I think it’s something interesting to watch.”

With or without the Sun-Times, WBEZ has become a formidable player that regularly produces high-impact enterprise and exclusives. Many of the city’s top journalists have landed there. Among them are reporters Dave McKinney and Dan Mihalopoulos, who broke major news in the biggest Illinois political story of recent years, the Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal. ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine for its scheme to lavish jobs and contracts on allies of longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, who stepped down but has not been charged.

Another highly regarded WBEZ staffer is education reporter Sarah Karp, who came to the station with a huge scoop on her resume, having conducted an investigation for Catalyst Chicago that sent a Chicago Public Schools CEO to federal prison for bribery. Karp is now a key reporter to follow on the Chicago Teachers Union’s dispute with the school district over COVID-19 safety measures. WBEZ’s coverage of racial equity is also noteworthy and features reporter Natalie Moore, who has won praise for her book “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.” The list of respected and honored journalists goes on and on.

WBEZ’s market position is unusual for a public station. It ranks No. 1 in Nielsen’s rankings for morning radio in Chicago, with anchor Mary Dixon doing local cut-ins to supplement programming from National Public Radio and the BBC.

Because of WBEZ’s high profile, some may wonder whether the Sun-Times might be a stepchild in the new arrangement. But Moog’s comments in October offered some assurance. For example, he said “we don’t have any specific plans” to reduce the number of days it prints the newspaper, as many other papers nationwide have done. And the Sun-Times is bringing its own assets to the table, including investigative reporter Tim Novak, political writer Lynn Sweet, columnists Neil Steinberg and Mark Brown and perhaps the finest obituary writer in America, Maureen O’Donnell.

The [WBEZ-Sun-Times merger] concept, if successful, is fantastic. They are poised to become the pre-eminent news organization in Chicago.

Robert Feder, media columnist

Robert Feder, a Chicago media columnist who had a long run with the Sun-Times, is hopeful about the merger, but has plenty of questions.

“The concept, if successful, is fantastic,” Feder said. “They are poised to become the pre-eminent news organization in Chicago. To those of us who grew up here, that thought is unfathomable. The fact that the Sun-Times even survives the Tribune, let alone passes it in its influence and reporting heft, it’s mind-boggling.”

But Feder said there have been early missteps, including the fact that the two staffs heard the merger news from his scoop rather than from their own bosses.

“Everything I’ve observed about the process has been terribly mishandled,” he said. “I think the initial announcement was botched. … They engendered hard feelings among both staffs who not only didn’t know it was going to happen but found out about it in a less than ideal way. And I think their communications since the news broke has been just a colossal failure. So we’ll see what comes out of it. I’m hopeful that it’s good for both.”

A lot of details remain fuzzy.

Moog has talked about some sort of paywall for WBEZ, but the particulars remain unclear. WBEZ has a registration wall now, with some archived stories available only to people who hand over their email addresses.

The union question could be another challenge. Sun-Times employees are represented by the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America; WBEZ staffers are part of SAG-AFTRA. Will there be friction if one contract has better terms than the other? Will some employees work for both WBEZ and the Sun-Times, and if so, which union will represent them?

“There are so many complicated questions – about paywalls, about contributions, about budgets, about unions,” Feder said. “How they mesh the demographics, how they mesh the print with the radio. The whole mindset of editors is different from broadcast to print. Who’s the final word, and who’s in charge? How do you avoid redundancies there? It’s so complicated.”

Philanthropy to the Rescue

The changing role of foundations in journalism is being tested in Chicago.

The merged WBEZ-Sun-Times, for example, is expected to receive major funding from Sun-Times investor Michael Sacks, the MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation.

Another example is the BGA’s work with the McCormick Foundation to create the Illinois Solutions Partnership. In this case, McCormick is not just writing checks but is also playing a leadership role. The partnership will be run by the BGA’s Greising with an eight-person board appointed in equal numbers by the BGA and McCormick. Tim Knight, President and CEO of McCormick, is a former President and CEO of Tribune Publishing and a former CEO of the Sun-Times’ holding company.

The $10 million over five years from McCormick will “make up for some of the decline of legacy media” by allowing Greising to double the number of journalists in his newsroom, he said. One area of emphasis will be statehouse reporting, which is “a huge crying need.” Greising also promised “a dedicated focus on solutions journalism in addition to traditional investigative reporting.”

As an example of solutions journalism, Greising cited a joint BGA-Tribune project called “The Failures Before the Fires,” by the BGA’s Madison Hopkins and the Tribune’s Cecilia Reyes. After reporting that 61 people had died in fires where Chicago officials previously had been warned of fire safety issues, the news outlets followed up with a look at how other major cities have enacted reforms.

Such solutions reporting stops short of advocacy, Greising said.

“We laid out nine different approaches that we think, based on our reporting, made a substantial difference,” he said. “That’s not advocacy, that’s just informing people.”

While journalism advocates are enthusiastic about investments by foundations, it may not be a permanent solution.

“You can’t necessarily count on a foundation, even if it’s healthy, locally rooted, to fund the news forever,” said INN’s Cross. “But we’re very, very early in the public idea of supporting journalism, and journalism is brand new to most people who give donations and make philanthropic gifts as individuals. Individual donors are growing for news, and that is where there is long-term potential.”

Tracy Baim, co-publisher of the Chicago Reader, has seen how wealthy benefactors can rescue distressed journalism, and she also knows it’s often temporary. She took over the Reader’s operation in 2018 when investors Elzie Higginbottom and Len Goodman bought the alt-weekly for $1 from a group that also owned the Sun-Times.

“Elzie Higginbottom and Len Goodman did the right thing in saving it and putting in over $1 million each,” Baim said. “But I also knew [that] was going to end. They basically said they’d fund it for two and a half years and be done. And I said to them, I don’t think that’s long enough to change the course … and I don’t think you guys want to be the bad guys shutting it down. You don’t want to fund it forever, and you don’t deserve to be the bad guys shutting it down. Instead, let’s try a different path.”

That different path was going nonprofit.

You can’t necessarily count on a foundation, even if it’s healthy, locally rooted, to fund the news forever.

Sue Cross, CEO and Executive Director, Institute for Nonprofit News

“Nonprofit basically allowed us to diversify our revenues” and become less reliant on advertising,” Baim said. “Even within the advertising category we have significantly diversified the types of advertising revenue we get – the types of clients [and] we do more digital, more branded content, more email.”

The official changeover to nonprofit status is expected to occur in the first quarter of this year. The Reader will rely on donors of all sizes as well as a variety of other revenue sources. And the Reader is regaining a leading role in alternative media with its operation of the Chicago Independent Media Alliance (CIMA), which has 69 members and promotes the financial sustainability and effectiveness of small newsrooms.

CIMA conducts group fundraising with its members and arranges for foundation matches. “We raised over $330,000 between the two years, 2020 and 2021,” Baim said.

But Baim wants more major funders to do more for small news outlets, especially those serving audiences of color.

“They are not on an even playing field, they will never be on an even playing field, but they should at least be at the table,” Baim said. “They may get $20,000 grants and ‘BEZ gets $200,000 grants because their work is bigger and larger-impact, but we can figure out systems that are at least a little more equitable to make sure that we have a diverse ecosystem.”

Redefining the Tribune

Mitch Pugh, the Tribune’s new Executive Editor, comes to Chicago from the Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, where his news outlet’s work on domestic violence won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Pugh, a native of downstate Illinois, knows he’s leading a Tribune that’s far different from the one his family read when he was growing up. The Alden Global Capital hedge fund, known for its draconian staff cuts, is in charge now.

According to the book “News for the Rich, White, and Blue” by Nikki Usher, Cook County lost more journalism jobs than any other U.S. county from 2007 to 2018. The Tribune is a prominent example of that trend.

“We don’t have 400 people in the newsroom anymore,” Pugh said. “We are going to have to make some changes.”

Pugh said the current news staff is “between the low 150s to 160 when we have everybody filled. And that’s a pretty good number. There’s still a hell of a lot of good we can do with that.”

Of the 14 newsroom leaders listed on the Tribune’s masthead in early 2018, only one remains today, and that lone survivor, Standards Editor Margaret Holt, plans to leave soon.

Clearly, the Tribune must find a less ambitious but still important mission.

“From my perspective, we have to choose: What are the 3-5 things that the Chicago Tribune can do better than anybody else?” Pugh said. “Marshal our resources around those things … and stop doing some of the things that everybody else is doing or that we can’t do as well as someone else.”

From my perspective, we have to choose: What are the 3-5 things that the Chicago Tribune can do better than anybody else?

Mitch Pugh, Executive Editor, Chicago Tribune

Among those areas of concentration, according to Pugh, are watchdog reporting, sports, food and “aspects” of business, mainly consumer news.

Like many other local news executives, Pugh said he wants to cover less “commodity news.” But of course, if everyone stops covering commodity news, it won’t be a commodity anymore. And breaking news on subjects such as crime drive reader engagement, so it can be a difficult thing to quit.

A good example of the Tribune picking its spots was coverage in November of Illinois teenager Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Tribune deployed three of its finest reporters, Stacy St. Clair, Christy Gutowski and John Keilman, and its coverage was as strong as that of any news outlet in the country.

“That’s something that, from my perspective, is going to be key for the Tribune looking forward,” Pugh said. “We want to pick our moments and pick them correctly and then really plan accordingly and apply the right resources to those moments.”

Pugh doesn’t think anyone should be writing an obituary for legacy news.

“I think it’s great that we have Block Club,” he said. “I think it’s great that we have all these nonprofit startups. And they’re doing really important and vital work. And more journalism is great for the community.  But I think there are a lot of folks who are too willing to shovel up some dirt and throw it on the perceived grave of mainstream media. The role that those newspapers play, especially in smaller communities, is still really, really important.”

Pugh is hopeful about the Tribune’s circulation, including print.

“When I started, I was sort of surprised to see that digital subscriptions had plateaued here and weren’t really growing,” he said. “I’ve since learned that other metros are kind of in similar situations since COVID and the election. [Since] in Charleston we were still growing 70% year over year, I was a little surprised. For better or worse, one of the things that Alden certainly has bought in is that they believe we can grow both print and digital subscriptions. And in November, for the first time since I’ve been here, we ended the month with more print subscribers and more digital subscribers than we started the month. That’s in each bucket. So we grew print in November. … It wasn’t huge growth. It was modest growth. If we can continue to see modest growth month after month like this, that’s going to put us in a much better position.”

Asked whether Tribune executives had talked about printing fewer days per week, Pugh said, “Not at all. … There is a strong belief not only at the Tribune but in our ownership that print is still viable and that we can still grow it responsibly while keeping our eyes squarely on the future, which is certainly our digital subscription base.”

Teaming Instead of Scheming

One of the most noteworthy trends in Chicago journalism is the shift from fierce competition among outlets to enthusiastic collaboration. And if that doesn’t seem like a big deal, you may not understand the level of reporter-vs.-reporter warfare that once characterized Chicago journalism.

In 1903, for example, reporter Walter Howey rushed to the site of a fire that killed hundreds at the Iroquois Theater and paid a nearby bookmaker $20 for exclusive use of his phone. Then he hired a kid to buy a box of straight pins and stick one in the wire of every public phone in the area, preventing other reporters from calling in their stories.

Even in the 1990s, Sun-Times editor Michael Cordts once told a reporter, “I want you to write a lead so good that when that guy at the Tribune reads it, a puddle will form underneath his chair.”

The Chicago-inspired play “The Front Page” may have been fiction, but it was based on fact.

“We’ve always been a fiercely competitive news town,” said Laura Washington, a columnist at the Sun-Times and a political analyst at ABC-Channel 7. “I don’t think that’s changed. But now we don’t pretend that our colleagues don’t exist. The Tribune doesn’t pretend that the Sun-Times doesn’t exist and vice versa. And we give each other credit when somebody gets a scoop. We report that. We may try to beat them to the next scoop, but we report it.”

Perhaps the feeling of being under siege has brought journalists together.

“We’re a lot more humble now,” Washington said.

We’ve always been a fiercely competitive news town. I don’t think that’s changed. But now we don’t pretend that our colleagues don’t exist.

Laura Washington, columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst at ABC-Channel 7

WBEZ, BGA and ProPublica’s Chicago operation have been eager collaborators with other outlets for years. One example was ProPublica’s Melissa Sanchez and WBEZ’s Elliott Ramos teaming on stories about Chicago’s questionable ticketing and debt collection practices. Another was a 2020 report by the BGA’s Alejandra Cancino and WBEZ’s María Inés Zamudio about sketchy aldermanic politics.

The Tribune, which was a little slow to get aboard the collaboration bandwagon, is deeply involved now. In addition to the fire safety project with the BGA mentioned earlier, the Tribune joined with ProPublica on another high-impact investigation in 2019 and 2020. Called “The Quiet Rooms,” the series of stories by the Tribune’s Jennifer Smith Richards and ProPublica’s Jodi Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis revealed how schools were violating the law through their seclusion of children for misbehavior.

A sign of current thinking was Pugh’s response when asked if he viewed the Illinois Solutions Partnership as competition. He said it could be “a good opportunity for collaboration and partnerships.”

In November, the Tribune announced it would collaborate with Injustice Watch on reporting and community engagement projects.

“I think that’s going to be really interesting because they have certainly access to certain audiences that we don’t necessarily have, some expertise that we don’t have,” Pugh said. “On the flip side, we definitely have some investigative chops and some other things that could help them, and an audience that’s different from their audience.”

The BGA’s Greising said that in times of limited resources, collaboration lets news outlets make the most of different journalists’ expertise.

“We’re in this new world where we and others are constantly reaching out to each other and talking about different projects we can do together,” he said. “I think of it in some respects as a virtual urban newsroom where you can put the best subject-matter experts in the city on a certain story.”

No One-Stop Shopping

You can look at Chicago’s media landscape and say it’s been democratized. Or you can say it’s been fractionalized. Both are true.

“The idea of one newsroom being the be-all-end-all is obsolete,” said Block Club’s Sabella.

Feder agreed.

“There’s no longer a single source of record for everything,” he said. “Those days are over. Whether it was the Tribune or another publication or a broadcast news organization that covered everything or tried to, those days are over. Which means that while the availability of information and the sources of information have expanded exponentially, it’s more challenging for individual consumers to be fully informed every day. Part of what I think is now necessary for a healthy information diet are newsletters and aggregators, because without them, I know personally I would miss a lot of stuff.”

Two newsletters that help in that regard are a new one from Axios Chicago, written by two former WBEZ staffers, Monica Eng and Justin Kaufmann, and Chicago Public Square, by former Tribune journalist Charlie Meyerson.

One reason Chicago’s journalism assets are so widely distributed is that the Tribune and Sun-Times have bled talent in recent years. The two top editors at Chicago’s ProPublica Midwest office, George Papajohn and Steve Mills, are both Tribune alumni. Also at ProPublica are former Sun-Times reporter Mick Dumke and former Tribune reporters Duaa Eldeib, Tony Briscoe and Cohen. Former Tribune staffers at the BGA include CEO Greising, Director of Investigations John Chase, Special Projects Editor David Kidwell and reporters Cancino and Jackson. Rachel Hinton recently left her job as the Sun-Times’ chief political reporter to do enterprise reporting for the BGA. Block Club Chicago co-founders Toomey and Sabella are Sun-Times alums, and Block Club editor Dawn Rhodes is a former Tribune reporter. WBEZ reporters Mihalopoulos and McKinney both came from the Sun-Times, and Mihalopoulos had a stint at the Tribune before that. WBEZ’s senior editor for government and politics, Angela Rozas O’Toole, is a former Tribune deputy metro editor.

National networks are also broadening the Chicago news scene. The new Axios Chicago newsletter includes original reporting. And then there’s ProPublica conducting investigations, Chalkbeat covering education and The Athletic writing about local sports. The rise of niche publications is a major local journalism trend working against the idea of one-stop shopping for news.

We have been put in a great position by sticking to our knitting over the years. But I do think, given the disruption that’s happened in the marketplace, that we can certainly mean more to more people.

Jim Kirk,  Publisher and Executive Editor, Crain’s Chicago Business

For business coverage, the city has long been served by Crain’s Chicago Business, which was niche before it was hip to be niche. But Publisher Kirk said the changing Chicago media landscape offers opportunities for Crain’s to broaden its scope.

“We have been put in a great position by sticking to our knitting over the years,” Kirk said. “But I do think, given the disruption that’s happened in the marketplace, that we can certainly mean more to more people.”

Kirk said Crain’s is “looking at areas that have started to be abandoned by the daily newspapers a little bit, more on the arts and culture side. That area for sure fits into what our audience likes, and we think we can push out a little further out in that area, just as an example. We feel public policy, politics, those areas where there is obviously a high level of business interest but also a broader appeal to the general reading audience in Chicago, we’ve made moves to be a bigger player there and we will continue to do so.”

Kirk said Crain’s is making an impact with its podcast called the Daily Gist.

“We saw a hole in the marketplace for a daily digest of what’s happening, go behind the scenes of a story,” Kirk said. “And that’s done very well for us. We’re about to roll out this thing called ‘Four-Star Stories,’ which will be a kind of umbrella brand of podcasts in which we do storytelling outside of pure business, so extending our reach that way.”

TV and Radio: No Transformation Yet

Not every aspect of Chicago media is moving into the future at the same pace. Local television news, for example, has not yet suffered the level of financial dislocation that has forced the kind of sweeping reforms happening on other platforms.

“There has been change and there has been growth and more diversity,” said Laura Washington, a political analyst at ABC-Channel 7. “But I think they haven’t been forced to change, or haven’t had to respond to the demands of change as much because their business model … hasn’t been as threatened.”

Feder said local TV news often seems stuck in the past, with a broadcast audience that is dwindling and aging.

“Television itself has declined in most ways,” Feder said. “It’s no longer necessary or important to catch news on TV, that’s for sure. … COVID provided cover for a lot more cutbacks in TV that might have otherwise happened. I think that emboldened companies to trim things even more than they had up to that point. Salaries are significantly lower across the board in the industry —radio and TV. And that’s reflected in the people who are leaving and the caliber and experience of those who are replacing them.”

Local TV news seems to view livestreaming as a big part of its future, Feder said.

“Their audience is now looking to their smartphones and other devices, and newscasts just don’t have relevance,” he said. “I think part of the reason they don’t have relevance anymore is, there really hasn’t been any advancement in the format or the form. So many other media have changed. But the essential choreography of television news is really not that much different than it was decades ago.”

Among the few positive signs, according to Feder, is that “WGN is virtually a round-the-clock live news thing. That’s a good thing. I think that’s a very significant advancement, the amount of hours they’re devoting, that they’ve become essentially a local all-news channel.”

Other stations also have expanded their hours of news broadcasts.

Where [Chicago TV stations] have advanced is sort of behind the scenes … in the areas of diversity and inclusion. … You can’t say the same about print.

Robert Feder, media columnist

Feder praised local TV for its diversity in hiring.

“Where they have advanced is sort of behind the scenes … in the areas of diversity and inclusion,” he said. “They clearly have made great strides. They have devoted resources. They have individuals who are responsible. And it’s clear from their hiring and promotion and presentation. And they are more sensitive across the board. You can’t say the same about print or some of these other things.”

Chicago TV news occasionally breaks through with a major exclusive. For example, Dave Savini, Samah Assad and Michele Youngerman of CBS 2 Chicago revealed police bodycam video in 2020 showing a mistaken raid in which police broke into an innocent woman’s home, handcuffed her and initially left her naked. The city of Chicago went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to block the video from airing, further inflaming the controversy.

Local TV news remains active on breaking news, especially crime. But Chicago stations’ value to the local news audience is somewhat limited, Feder said.

“I think they’ve proven themselves to be valuable for breaking weather and for covering things like civil disturbances,” he said. “Those are the only two areas I can think of just off the top of my head that television clearly excels in and that print and other media are not as immediate and compelling. That certainly isn’t a substitute for everything else.”

Chicago’s public station WTTW-Channel 11 still produces agenda-setting local news programming with “Chicago Tonight,” but Feder bemoaned a lack of public affairs programming on commercial stations. Washington, however, noted that the stations present a fair amount of such programming online.

“ABC-Channel 7, where I work, is doing a lot more community-based programming,” Washington said. “Five, 10 years ago, they had one show. Now every week they do two or three community-based panels, panels about issues in the community. And a lot of that stuff is streamed only and not on broadcast TV, but it’s still accessible and available. … Channel 7 isn’t the only one doing it.”

As for radio, Feder said, “The only serious player in the game, in my opinion, is ’BEZ. That’s it. WBBM [AM] is a utility. … People want to be able to get traffic and weather and headlines, particularly commuters. So there is an audience there. But that place is a shell of what it was even 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 30. There is virtually no enterprise [reporting] there. The budgets have been slashed ridiculously. … And the others are a joke. Forget about WLS, forget about WGN. Those stations are hardly even in the game. I think that’s been very disappointing.”

Losses in Black Legacy Media

In the history of Black print media, Chicago looms large because of the highly influential Chicago Defender and Ebony and Jet magazines. But all three publications have fallen on hard times.

“I think it’s true that traditional legacy Black media like the Defender, like Ebony/Jet, even like — there used to be several Black-owned radio stations that were very Black-oriented and now there’s really only WVON — I think that has been a big loss,” Washington said. “In many ways those news organizations don’t exist any longer [as major influences] because they didn’t change quickly enough. But they have a huge legacy, a huge set of experiences to draw on. We have the TRiiBE now, and we have City Bureau, we have South Side Weekly, we have other news organizations that aren’t necessarily Black per se — and some of them are — but they are very focused on issues that people of color care about.”

And more journalists of color are getting opportunities in historically white-run media.

Examples include Nykia Wright, the Sun-Times’ CEO; Tracy Brown, WBEZ’s Chief Content Officer; Sasha-Ann Simons, host of WBEZ’s “Reset”; Brandis Friedman, co-anchor of WTTW-Channel 11’s “Chicago Tonight”; CBS-Channel 2 anchor Irika Sargent; WGN-Channel 9 anchor Micah Materre; NBC-Channel 5 anchor Stefan Holt; Lorraine Forte, the Sun-Times’ Editorial Board Editor; and Karen Hawkins, Co-Publisher of the Reader.

In addition to her roles at the Sun-Times and Channel 7, Washington is board chair at Block Club Chicago.

I think there’s not enough people of color, particularly young people of color, in the pipeline who are getting the opportunities to come up through the ranks. But we’re a lot more diversified than we were ever in my lifetime.

Laura Washington, columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst at ABC-Channel 7

“I think there’s not enough people of color, particularly young people of color, in the pipeline who are getting the opportunities to come up through the ranks,” Washington said. “But we’re a lot more diversified than we were ever in my lifetime.”

Washington and others are impressed by the TRiiBE, a five-year-old digital startup focused on Chicago’s Black residents that gets its revenue from foundations, individual donors and advertising.

“I think they’re kicking butt,” Washington said. “They’re provocative, they’re smart. They have a huge personality as far as being fearless about taking on taboo subjects and not parroting the party line. I’ve always been one of those people who believes that we have to talk about everybody’s dirty laundry including our own, and I think the TRiiBE has been willing to do that in a way that other news organizations haven’t in the past.”

Tiffany Walden, the TRiiBE’s Editor-in-Chief, said her news outlet was an answer to mainstream depictions of Black Chicago that too often focus on violence.

“It’s not mentally healthy for Black people to constantly only see images of themselves in a negative light,” Walden said. “With the TRiiBE, our goal is to deepen the narrative of what it means to be Black in Chicago and to tell the stories of being Black in Chicago from that Black perspective. Not from a white gaze, not from any other perspective. Merely from our mouths, from our vantage point.”

Spanish-Language Slippage

A formidable but sometimes overlooked demographic in Chicago’s media market is Spanish speakers. There are some hopeful signs, but Spanish-speaking media in Chicago have not bounced back from the financial blows of recent years, according to Fernando Díaz, a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

“A lot of the small, for-profit, mom-and-pop publications have folded in the last five years. … All of the damage and all of the loss of jobs and loss of outlets that happened in English happened five times as fast in Spanish because it was already small to begin with,” said Díaz, former Managing Editor of Hoy, the Tribune’s Spanish-language newspaper, which was shut down in 2019, five years after Díaz left. The Sun-Times still has a Spanish-language news outlet called La Voz, which is mostly online but puts out a print product about four times a year.

“Univision and Telemundo are the big players in TV, which is the most important or largest distribution in Spanish language that exists right now in our region,” Díaz said. “From there you have a constellation of radio stations. … Online you’ve got very, very, very small players. In print, you have La Raza, which is a skeleton, a shade of its former self.”

The loss of jobs and loss of outlets that happened in English happened five times as fast in Spanish because it was already small to begin with.

Fernando Díaz, lecturer, Northwestern University’s Medill School

Univision is “the megaphone in town,” followed by NBC-affiliated Telemundo, which features “a very robust consumer advocacy effort,” Díaz said.

Feder said Univision and Telemundo usually finish below English-language Channels 2, 5, 7 and 9, in the over-all 10 p.m. news ratings, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. “When you get to the demo that counts — 25-to-54 adults, that’s what advertising is sold off of — then it’s different. Then Univision is in third place and Telemundo is in fifth place out of six stations,” he said.

Feder said Spanish-language TV doesn’t get the revenue it deserves based on its ratings because of the “traditional bias in the advertising community against ethnic audiences.”

Future Thinking in Chicago

Beyond the financial fate of individual news outlets, new approaches to local newsgathering are getting tryouts in Chicago.

For example, there’s Chicago-based Hearken, a consulting service that helps journalists and others connect more effectively with the public and listen better. Hearken promotes what it calls “public-powered journalism.”

“Hearken is a driver of the engaged journalism movement,” Díaz said. “Whether or not its presence is immediately recognizable in Chicago, it’s key toward how a lot of Chicago news organizations are engaging with their audiences, and ultimately how news organizations across the country are engaging with their audiences. Beyond the metric of a story or a project or an investigation, Chicago has things to contribute to news and journalism that are beyond the scope of a news organization and its output.”

Then there’s the Documenters project at City Bureau. That’s an effort to make up for the lack of reporting from public meetings by recruiting, training and paying citizen journalists to document what happens there.

And Northwestern’s Medill School is assisting news outlets in the Chicago area. Through its Metro Media Lab, created with a grant from the McCormick Foundation, Medill is working directly with annual cohorts of Chicago news organizations on audience research and strategy. For the past nine months, it’s assisted WBEZ, Block Club Chicago and South Side Weekly.

I think more journalists are taking control of their own destiny.

Tracy Baim, Co-Publisher, Chicago Reader

The Reader’s Baim, who also is the co-founder and owner of the LGBTQ-focused Windy City Times,  is upbeat about Chicago media’s future.

“I think more journalists are taking control of their own destiny, that journalists that traditionally did not have much of a voice or place in the Tribune and Sun-Times and other mainstream media have not only helped try to change from within but they have massively changed the ecosystem from the outside,” Baim said. “That includes journalists of color and lots of younger journalists who are just incredible in their energy and innovation ideas. I think it’s more exciting than it’s ever been.”

Díaz, who was Editor and Publisher of the Chicago Reporter after his stint at Hoy, predicts a tumultuous future for Chicago local news.

“Personally, I’m bracing for the most turbulent time if only because it’s unclear what WBEZ-Sun-Times will be and how it will assert itself,” Díaz said. “I wish for them the best, and I hope for the best. But I think when you see ProPublica deepening its presence locally, here and in other communities, when you see Marshall Project aiming at Cleveland, I get a sense that there is more localization coming from national shops that want to have bureaus or a presence than I see in a brand new news organization in Chicago, bootstrapped, going from zero to $1 million.”

While Washington is concerned about public hostility toward journalism, she believes “there’s far more doom and gloom out there about the future of news than there should be. I think this explosion of media and the diversity of media is an antidote to that. More news, more access, is always a good thing.”

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

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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