There was tremendous energy, some deserved tension, the inevitable worries but, overall, an invigorating determination late last month, as more than 200 Chicago journalists gathered at the Allegro Hotel for a reconvening of the Chicago Journalism Town Hall.
A fascinating range of people from bold startups in neighborhoods the legacy press has either ignored or exploited, including The TRiiBE, Block Club Chicago, the South Side Weekly and City Bureau, to leaders of legacy publications including the Sun-Times, Trib and Crain’s talking of reinvention using thin resources.
It seemed only fascinating to watch Trib publisher Bruce Dold awkwardly encounter Charlie Johnson, one of his own reporters and a leader of the newly formed union at the Trib at a moment of difficult negotiations. Before the week was out, Dold had been pushed out of the Tribune. And on Monday the plucky Sun-Times announced a three-year deal with its newsroom, which had approved it unanimously.
Among the 24 who were split on two panels were leaders of digital nonprofit startups ranging from the Chicago bureaus of growing national outlets, such as ProPublica and Chalkbeat, scrappy and essential longtime Chicago pubs including the Chicago Reporter, the Reader and the Chicago Crusader.
There was, of course, talk about how to stay in business — whether that business was organized as a for-profit or a nonprofit entity.
While there was acknowledgement that those of us reporting the news, creating the content, have been and have allowed ourselves to be rolled by Facebook and Google (and other tech giants now in pre-roll mode), there was precious little hand-wringing, happily no nostalgia for days when the media was limited to a handful of outlets posting profit margins that were near obscene and thought innovation was mixing up the roster of comic strips.
I’d attribute that forward-thinking to the gratifying, powerful mix of people in the room. The energy of young people and their editorial entrepreneurialism, the primary role played by women in so many of these ventures, the strong voices of people of color. This was not the newspaper confabs I’ve endured where aging white guys (and I’m raising my hand) pine for 1987.
Central to the discussion that day was the preeminent need to tackle head-on the historic lack of diversity in our newsrooms and organizations, the failings of most news organizations to connect with communities of color, to listen to people who do not look like us. So much work to do. But to be in a room where these issues were so strongly addressed was liberating.
So this seems like a good time to offer an update on all that we’ve been up to here at Austin Weekly News over the past year. We, along with our sister pubs Wednesday Journal of Oak Park & River Forest, Riverside-Brookfield Landmark and the Forest Park Review, have made the full conversion to a non-profit called Growing Community Media.
That happened with the start of the year. Our corporate version, which a handful of us worked to launch in June 1980, did not quite make it to the 40th anniversary. But with this new project the work we do will continue.
As far as we can tell, we are the first — maybe the only — for-profit, legacy print community news publisher to make this leap to a nonprofit. We are glad to have the Chicago Reader right behind us in the conversion process. And our cutting-edge status likely explains why the Illinois Press Association has slotted us to talk at its annual conference this spring. This idea is percolating.
Always worth noting that our strategy is to continue to grow in print, digital and social media. We will keep offering more and better marketing solutions to local businesses, keep selling subscriptions to keep the postal service in business, too.
We are making active progress in raising funds for the nonprofit. Our goal for this year is $400,000. Not chump change. At GrowingCommunityMedia.org hit the button for Donor Transparency and you’ll find the names of the hundreds of friends and neighbors who have already jumped in to create this new model of independent community journalism.
We’ve got $5 donors and we’ve got $5,000 donors. And, we’ll announce soon, our first major gift which will grow our newsroom and fund expanded reporting on equity and education. We’re looking to grow funding for that post as well as other new newsroom initiatives.
While you are at GrowingCommunityMedia.org, I’d welcome and encourage you to hit the donate button and partner with us. Independent community journalism works best when we all have a stake in it.
Want to talk with me about all this? Connect at firstname.lastname@example.org. My cell is (708) 268-1440.