During an interview last week, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot explained her controversial decision to grant interviews exclusively to journalists of color on the occasion of the 2-year anniversary of her inauguration.
“By doing what I did, it started this important conversation about the lack of diversity in the mainstream press,” she told me.
“I’m hoping something really good and powerful comes from that,” the mayor continued. “I know that I’ve talked to a number of Black journalists, in particular, who … are really taking it to the mainstream media and really picking up the baton, if you will, and running with it to say, ‘You’ve got to diversify your newsrooms.’ That is a demand that’s got to be addressed.”
I see things a bit differently. Those of us who are the future of institutional media in Chicago have long abandoned attempts to break into and change legacy news outlets. We don’t want to diversify traditionally white newsrooms like the Sun-Times, the Tribune and Crain’s — we want to build newsrooms of our own. We don’t want to be included. We want equity.
While Mayor Lightfoot’s scathing and accurate critique focused on these traditional white media institutions, it unfortunately ignored the many non-traditional neighborhood outlets where journalists of color are more likely to have positions of seniority and autonomy — and that we’re much more likely to own.
I’m the editor of Austin Weekly News and the publisher of my own weekly newspaper in my hometown of Maywood, Village Free Press, and I would not trade what I do to be a City Hall beat reporter at any of those institutions Lightfoot rightly castigated — not even for higher pay.
There are many other journalists and publishers of color who feel the way I do. The Cicero Independiente, the TriiBe, the South Side Weekly, the Crusader, the Citizen, the Defender — all are well-respected local media institutions either founded or helmed by journalists of color.
And there are many other non-traditional media entities that are less rooted in the hierarchical, top-down and profit-hungry context of corporate news than in the decentralized, people-first and bottom-up context of community journalism.
These non-traditional players are founded and/or helmed by people of all of income levels (well, not all), ethnicities, cultures, sexualities and gender identities — from Injustice Watch, Block Club Chicago, City Bureau and AustinTalks to Oak Parker Charlie Meyerson’s Chicago Public Square and Reader co-publisher Tracy Baim’s invention of the Chicago Independent Media Alliance (of which Growing Community Media is a proud member).
I’ve collaborated at some point or another with virtually all of these entities and based on my experiences, for the most part, they’re rooted in an ethos of collaboration and interrelatedness that seemed eerily absent among Chicago’s civic powers when it came to trying to save the Tribune.
Through a fellowship with City Bureau, an innovative South Side-based journalism lab that is sometimes known as the journalism school of the streets, I worked with a team of reporters that covered the 2019 election from the perspective of the people most affected by the winning politicians’ decisions.
And Austin Weekly News currently co-produces a biweekly email newsletter with Block Club Chicago, the rising digital news site that is positioning itself to fill the void that will inevitably be left in the local media landscape once the carcass of the Chicago Tribune is licked clean by the hungry, vulture capitalist private equity firm Alden Global Capital.
I regularly consume and donate to Chicago Public Square and have benefited monetarily from Baim’s CIMA collaborative.
I see my own small suburban publication in the Cicero Independiente and have deep respect for its founders.
Between all of these entities I’ve mentioned (along with many I haven’t), there’s a small army of people willing and able to cover City Hall — from staff reporters and freelancers to citizen journalists (such as City Bureau’s Documenters, who are trained to cover all kinds of government meetings) and students at the high school and college level.
All we need are the credentials and the funding to compensate our labor. I asked Mayor Lightfoot about the former last week.
“What if I said, ‘Look, tomorrow, I want to be a City Hall beat reporter and automatically increase the diversity in that room,’ what’s the process?” I asked.
“That’s it,” she said. “You get credentials, you’re in. Talk to our press office.”
I’d go one step further. What if philanthropies, businesses and individuals in Chicago and the suburbs pooled money into a single fund designed to pay for City Hall coverage by non-traditional, neighborhood media outlets, particularly those owned by people of color?
City Bureau, for instance, is already experimenting with wire reporting similar to what the Associated Press or Reuters provides, but CB’s reporting is done by journalists rooted in an equity lens and who are more attuned to the lived needs of people in marginalized communities.
Austin Weekly News regularly publishes Block Club Chicago reporting in our print papers and online, just as a major daily would publish an AP report.
If Mayor Lightfoot wants more journalists of color in her City Hall press conferences, she can do more than pressure a legacy media establishment that, for all intents and purposes, is a shadow of its former self.
She and the City Council should use their considerable leverage in the philanthropic and business community to push for an infusion of financial support into local journalism. The city (and, quite frankly, local governments across the state) can also explore the following measures:
Convene a meeting with representatives from media entities like the ones I just mentioned, civic leaders and business executives in order to explore the concept of establishing and funding an immediate pool of money designed exclusively to pay for City Hall reporting done by non-traditional, neighborhood-centered and marginalized media entities (regardless of race or ethnicity). And there should be a framework designed to institute safeguards for protecting this coverage from any undue outside influence.
The City Council should consider creating a Local Journalism Task Force similar to the one that’s being created at the state level with the passage of Sen. Steve Stadelman’s critical HB 134. Call it the Chicago Area Journalism Task Force and it would explore the crisis of journalism in Chicago and the suburbs, as well as come up with local solutions that would reinforce and enhance the solutions explored at the state level.
Mayor Lightfoot should also establish a regular pipeline between her administration and non-legacy media outlets, where journalists of color are often concentrated. Her people can start by compiling a comprehensive database of these non-legacy establishments and doing more to attract our attention, because often we’re covering things that are happening on the street level, miles away from the Fifth Floor of City Hall.
I’m sorry, but I wasn’t impressed that I got a 15-minute interview with the mayor on the event of her 2-year anniversary in office (and it took a while to even get that). And ethnic media roundtables do not suffice, either. If the mayor wants more journalists of color in front of her more often, she should first acknowledge the places where we exist.
To her credit, the mayor seemed pretty receptive to some of these ideas, particularly the establishment of a funding mechanism for integrating marginalized journalists into her City Hall press conferences.
“I believe there would be interest on the part of the philanthropic community, which is involved in a conversation now around journalism in the media,” she said. “I could talk to a couple people I’ve had these conversations with and really float your idea, which I think is a great idea. And if they’re interested, I would put you together.”
With all due respect, though, I’m not waiting for that meeting to push these ideas out and to call on people to act. We can start now.
If you’re reading this column and would like to see more City Hall coverage done by journalists of color and journalists (regardless of race or ethnicity) from non-legacy outlets and/or associations like Austin Weekly News, AustinTalks, the TriiBe, Block Club Chicago, City Bureau, South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Chicago Public Square, any entities affiliated with CIMA and countless others I’ve not mentioned, you can do something about it.
Email me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, and/or call me at (708) 359-9148 and indicate your willingness to either donate and/or lend your time and skills to a fund that would make this kind of journalism possible before the year is out, because the crisis of local journalism is not just for one politician or group of philanthropists or legacy newsrooms to solve.
All of us own this and it’s going to take all of us to fix it.