Chicago non-profit media outlets are challenging notions of how a newsroom should operate

Jackie Serrato, now a journalist at the Chicago Reporter, a non-profit founded in 1972, entered the industry determined and untrained. She had started a Facebook page to share local news from an Hispanic neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side and to give residents a platform to discuss issues facing the Little Village neighborhood. But Serrato was surprised to find that community members often dismissed reports from credible legacy news organizations.

“That’s when I realized that there just wasn’t Latinos or people of color in these newsrooms,” Serrato said. “I wasn’t going to expect people who were not from our neighborhood – people who were white, or middle class or, I don’t know, who had money – to understand the issues that were happening or to have in their radar what was truly happening in our parts of the city.”

Serrato cited articles that asserted El Chapo was influencing shootings in Little Village, a claim that Serrato saw as inflammatory and misrepresentative.

Armed with this realization, Serrato committed herself to joining the ranks of Chicago journalists, Her bachelors degree wasn’t in journalism, so she taught herself the necessary skills. She learned to take pictures and edit video, learned how to interview and collect data, and how to cover local events. Serrato supplemented her self-teaching regiment with workshops, internships and fellowships.

“The fact that they cared enough to offer these programs or these opportunities to people that had less resources, or were less advantaged, I guess, you know, I felt that it was the right place for me and that I wanted to keep working in the non-profit realm,” Serrato said.

On May 18, Serrato was joined by three other journalists working in the non-profit sector in Chicago for a panel on the state of non-profit media that was hosted by the Chicago Journalists Association  (Editor’s note: Gateway Journalism Review is nonprofit.)

Panelists Louise Kiernan, Bettina Chang, Jackie Serrato and Jaret Rutecki speak with attendees after a panel on nonprofit news. (Photo by Ian Karbal)

Like Serrato, fellow panelist Bettina Chang saw nonprofit media as an opportunity to amplify voices that were underrepresented in legacy newsrooms.

People of color represent just 22.6 percent of the workforce in U.S. newsrooms that responded to the 2018 ASNE diversity survey. The survey also found that 79.3 percent reported having at least one woman among their top three editors, and 32.7 percent reported having at least one minority journalist in a top-three position.

A former DNAinfo and Chicago Magazine reporter, Chang co-founded City Bureau in 2015, a non-profit newsroom dedicated to bringing equitable journalism to under-covered Chicago neighborhoods, primarily on the city’s south and west sides. She started City Bureau with three fellow DNAinfo reporters, initially running the website while working full time.

“It certainly wasn’t a quick revelation, so much as we believe there’s a better way to do media and we really want to be the ones to make that possible,” Chang said.

City Bureau had one of the most diverse newsrooms of media organizations that responded to the ASNE survey in 2018, with 60 percent. By comparison, the Chicago Tribune had 20 percent and the Chicago Sun-Times had 15 percent. The Belleville News-Democrat near St. Louis  had 38 percent and Chicago Public Media about 40.. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had 14 percent and St. Louis Public Radio 36 percent.

Chang spoke to the benefits of running a newsroom that doesn’t rely on page-clicks and advertising to stay afloat. “Without the constant pressure of getting clicks so that you can sell ads, you suddenly have all this brain space to think about other stuff,” Chang said.

With that freedom, many non-profits have been able to focus on long-form reporting, and free reporters from the pressure of writing stories designed as click-bait.

“At DNAinfo, we had this mandate from the top to say like, ‘OK. Every writer needs to do three stories a day, we need to get a certain amount of page views and Facebook likes,’ and all that kind of stuff in order to make money from our advertisers,” Chang said.

Of course it still costs to produce news, and even those media outlets that don’t exist to make money or have to answer to shareholders do have to bring in enough funding to cover operating expenses. Most rely on grants, but grants are competitive and grantors can be fickle, and there simply is not enough foundation funding to support the growing nonprofit media industry, as a 2018 report from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University found. The study was a comprehensive look not only at the growth in the nonprofit media sector but also the economic pressures that so many face going after a limited pool of foundation resources. The majority of foundation funding goes to public media (43 percent) and journalism education and museums (20 percent). Less than 5 percent funds local news nonprofits.

“Going non-profit from the very beginning is really difficult,” Chang said. “It’s like adding an extra level of oversight over what you’re doing at every single moment. You have to create a board of directors. There’s a thing called fiduciary responsibility, which is a really big deal and some people don’t know about that. Getting a grant is not easy.”

While many non-profit media outlets have risen over the past few years, panelists expressed concerns that the mechanisms which have allowed for that rise may be temporary.

Rutecki noted how Trump’s election sparked a rush of donations to non-profit newsrooms. Yet he fears that the Trump bump will not sustain.

“Private foundations are extremely fickle,” said Chang. “Right now non-profit news, as I see it, is extremely shiny and fascinating for these private foundations. So, awesome, while it’s going good, let’s keep it up.”

ProPublica Illinois and the Better Government Association represent perhaps the strongest commitments to using a non-profit model to push investigative journalism of the outlets represented at the panel. Both outlets reporters’ deal almost exclusively in such work.

ProPublica’s 2018 series on ticket debt in Chicago and its disproportionate effect on black motorists recently earned them a Peter Lisagor award. The BGA’s 2018 series on suburban Cook County police shootings, and the lack of accountability for officers was followed by statewide legislation requiring internal review of all police shootings statewide.

Some analysts see investigative reporting as a dwindling form in legacy and local for-profit newsrooms as the media industry struggles to maintain the resources that have allowed reporters to work on single projects for long periods of time.

“I look back at working at a newspaper and I can picture the terror on reporters’ faces with the chart beat television that would tell everyone, up to the second, how many clicks your story is getting, and you spend two months working on an investigation and some guy who wrote a really funny story about this, you know, football player gets like 800 million clicks and you just disappear off the face of the earth,” said Jared Rutecki, an investigative reporter at the BGA, the oldest non-profit represented on the panel, founded in 1923.

However, as Louise Kieran, editor-in-chief at ProPublica Illinois, said many legacy outlets are still doing excellent investigative reporting, and that it’s best not to create a false division between the works produced by non-profit and for-profit outlets.

Kieran also touted ProPublica Illinois’ willingness to collaborate with other outlets and publications as a byproduct of the unique position that non-profits are in with their funding, not relying on page views which drive the prioritization of exclusive stories in the traditional sense.

The same freedoms that have allowed ProPublica Illinois and the BGA to focus on time and resource-consuming investigations have allowed the Chicago Reporter and City Bureau to report on historically underserved neighborhoods without keeping their work behind a paywall.

City Bureau has also used its funding to set up fellowships and community newsroom projects aimed at training aspiring local journalists and engaged citizens, like Serrato, to cover local events.

Chang, however, sees that commitment as a practical way to address issues facing media outlets everywhere, like disappearing jobs for journalists, as much as a service to the community.

“You can’t send a journalist to every meeting that matters in Chicago, but you can ask a very well-trained citizen to do it because they care, because they want to contribute to their communities,” Chang said. “I would love for if all those journalism jobs came back, but we need to prepare for a future in which that money is gone. So what are we doing structurally, at the level of informing our communities, getting people involved, sort of galvanizing an entire community and society to care about the generation of information and distribution of information so that we can survive – that democracy will survive – after all those journalism jobs are dead in the ground?”

Ian Karbal is Chicago-based freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter at @iankarbal.

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