When their billionaire owner abruptly closed Chicago’s DNAInfo in 2017, three former editors decided to build a different kind of news source out of the remnants.
Block Club Chicago launched seven months later, with a mission to combine neighborhood reporting with public service journalism and to do it under a nonprofit business model.
It was an ambitious plan, but former DNAInfo editors Stephanie Lulay, Jen Sabella and Shamus Toomey knew that without a citywide, hyperlocal newspaper, underserved neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides would not get the kind of community coverage that was needed.
“We really heard from readers right away that they needed this coverage, and we didn’t see anyone else filling that gap,” said Lulay, who is the managing editor at Block Club. “So we got together and kind of hatched a plan — could we bring back this neighborhood coverage in a different form. And that’s how we launched Block Club.”
The result is inspiring. At almost three years old, Block Club Chicago is a leading neighborhood news source, with 140,000 newsletter readers and 15,500 paid subscribers. The scrappy newsroom with five editors and 10 reporters has proven to be a worthy competitor to “legacy” Chicago newsrooms, intimately covering everything from the restoration of a local church to how to get a COVID-19 vaccine. (The organization also has a director of development and a newsletter and hotline manager.)
In part, its success as a news organization comes from how it uses its resources and allows its reporters to direct the coverage from their neighborhoods. Block Club reporters have subsequently won over the community’s trust while gaining access to stories no one else is aware of. They nurture a reader-to-reporter relationship where praises can be shared and criticisms are heard, with public service journalism such as a COVID-19 Hotline or resource fairs not only inform the public but also work to improve the city.
“I think that that’s one of the solutions for the local news crisis, are these digital-only startups,” said Mark Jacob, former Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times editor and current website editor for Medill’s Local News Initiative at Northwestern University. “You have these legacy organizations, these just giant, old monsters like the Tribune that have all this baggage and all this infrastructure… And it’s just, it’s very costly to do journalism that way.”
If local news startups can find a way to survive, then they will be “a big part of the solution to the problem of news deserts and the problem of people not having enough information about their own communities to make smart decisions about who to vote for, where to go to get services,” he said. “The basic things that journalism is supposed to do.”
But the key to Block Club’s success, according to Jacob, is its mission.
“It really understands its audience, who it’s trying to serve, and it has such a positive vibe to it. They’ll do hard news when they need to, but they also really understand community service. They understand that they’re trying to help people learn stuff that will make their lives better.”
When investigating the immense growth of Block Club Chicago, it’s important to note the changing environment of the city’s journalism scene as a whole. Community-based reporting efforts, like those embodied by Block Club, have gained immense popularity amongst their followers because of their dedicated and personalized coverage. Oftentimes readers feel under or misrepresented by legacy newspapers like the Tribune because they simply do not have the resources to have reporters in every neighborhood, covering every story that takes place there. Instead, they spend energy on massive investigative stories, covering state-wide politics and, at one time, relaying global news from foreign reporting bureaus — all of which is necessary.
That being said, Chicago residents also deserve their proper coverage, and the old way of sending a journalist in to do one-off coverage of a crime or protest without fully understanding the story’s context is no longer accepted. Block Club’s readers do not only want genuine news coverage of their neighborhoods; they want reporters they can lean on and trust.
“Chicagoans can smell bullshit from a mile away,” said Sabella, who is now the director of strategy at Block Club. “So they really respond well, when they know ‘okay, this person gets us. They get our neighborhood, they’re part of our neighborhood, they understand how this neighborhood functions,” and I think that they put a lot of trust into our reporters because they can tell that [the reporters] feel that way.”
Jacob said it’s often better to have the degree of political, environmental, social and cultural understanding that comes with covering one community for a long time.
Sabella said that’s something Block Club is trying to accomplish.
“Journalism has been stuck due to the old, white, male definition of what objectivity is and what ethical journalism is, and who’s been setting these standards for so many years? Old white men, and they’ve been leaving a lot of people out of these conversations of how we cover the news,” Sabella said. “I think that… listening to your audience is what we’re supposed to do as journalists, and I think anyone saying it’s not objective to listen to your audience is delusional.”
But objectivity and community-based journalism do not have to be mutually destructive ideologies. Mauricio Peña, a reporter for Block Club, knows that even though he reports closely with the residents of Chicago’s Little Village, Pilsen and West Loop neighborhoods, his journalism is just as honest and hard-hitting as any others.
“I try to let the community guide me, and whether someone wants to call that not real journalism, I just think that’s a cheap shot,” Peña said. “At the end of the day, I’m always going to be fair, I’m always going to be honest and I’m always going to be accurate. I’m going to do my due diligence as a reporter to get the story right, but at the same time I’m going to serve the community and be a source for information.”
Block Club’s reporting speaks for itself. The team provides their readers with information written in an accessible way while doing the work to understand the most complex aspects of city government so those who need assistance or answers can easily get them, and they do much of this reporting without charging their readers.
There’s no disputing that it’s becoming the dominant reporting model in Chicago. Since 2018 the Chicago Tribune has had multiple rounds of layoffs, largely due to a change in the paper’s ownership and money being funneled to stakeholders while leaving their reporters without much financial support. Many left the paper or were furloughed (a practice only exacerbated by the pandemic), thus inhibiting the Tribune’s ability to cover the city’s endless stream of news.
Those who left, such as Dawn Rhodes, a former editor and reporter at the Tribune, moved to start-up newsrooms like Block Club Chicago, where they noticed their work making a direct impact on the readers they serve. And when legacy newspapers were struggling to maintain the sheer size of their daily operations, community-focused newsrooms like Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, South Side Weekly and The Triibe rose to popularity, filling in reporting gaps in minority neighborhoods and adapting to their reader’s needs.
“It’s not really the case that it’s a bad time for media in Chicago, what it is is it’s way more fractured,” Jacob said, citing the rise of WBEZ, ProPublica Illinois and City Bureau as examples of multiple news outlets doing the work that was once dominated by one paper.
“What you don’t have is one source, a giant newsroom that will do everything for everyone. That’s what you don’t have anymore. And maybe that’s sad, maybe it’s not.”
Rhodes, who is now a senior editor at Block Club, believes there’s a place in Chicago media for both legacy outlets and local news sources. In fact, she asserts that there must be room for both, seeing as Block Club doesn’t have the resources to conduct state-wide investigations and legacy papers can’t afford to put reporters in every neighborhood. Instead, Rhodes hopes to see less competition between Chicago’s news outlets and more journalistic collaboration in order to best serve the city.
“This is a time, not just in Chicago, but in the entire industry, this is the time to break down a little bit more of those traditional barriers and be more open to exploring partnerships, to strengthen journalism, to strengthen the kind of work that we’re able to do. And I think there is more of that happening,” Rhodes said.
Until then, Block Club will continue to grow with help from its readers, reporters and any other newsroom that can lend a hand.
“We’re not perfect and we’re always learning,” Sabella said in a final thought on Block Club’s place in Chicago’s land of news. “We’re always listening to our reporters and our readers, and I think that attitude you need to have if you’re running a newsroom. But hopefully we make the city’s neighborhoods feel better represented by the media.”
Marin Scott is a Chicago-based reporter and content creator seeking out opportunities to make society better through powerful storytelling. She has been featured in The Chicago Sun-Times, 14East Magazine and South Side Weekly to name a few, covering everything from voting rights for incarcerated residents to TIF funding and much more.
This story has been updated.