New River City Journalism Fund stimulates local reporting

At a time when regional newspapers are cutting back and news deserts are emerging across the country, pioneering collaborative journalism efforts are growing to fill the void.

The GJR’s September cover story featured collaborative journalism projects across the country. One was “Solving for Chicago,” a solutions-based collaborative consisting of 20 print, digital and broadcast newsrooms that came together under the management of the non-profit Local Media Association. 

Now St. Louis has a new news nonprofit – River City Journalism Fund – born this fall to fund reporting projects that traditional news outlets are having trouble covering.

(Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr)

River City is the idea of two veteran journalists – Sarah Fenske, recently the host of St. Louis on the Air at St. Louis Public Radio and now executive editor of Euclid Media Group and Richard H. Weiss, a former Post-Dispatch editor whose Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson reporting project grew out of the Ferguson demonstrations that followed the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014.

Endorsing the project is the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, another organization with deep St. Louis roots. Its executive director is Jon Sawyer, former Washington Bureau Chief of the Post-Dispatch, and its chair is Emily Rauh Pulitzer. The eight-member new board of River City includes a diverse group of St. Louisans known for their good works and acumen.

GJR asked Fenske and Weiss to explain their project. –William H. Freivogel, publisher

By Richard H. Weiss and Sarah Fenske 

Just over four years ago, Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson, a non-profit racial equity storytelling project, got rolling in St. Louis with a series of in-depth stories about the challenges local African American families have faced over several generations in realizing the American Dream. 

Now this fall, with the nation — and the region — facing more challenges than ever and local media hard-pressed to cover them adequately, we want to do more. This month BFBF is announcing a new collaboration, a rebranding and a far more ambitious undertaking under the auspices of the River City Journalism Fund

Richard Weiss: Finding  common ground 

I co-founded Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson with my wife and fellow journalist, Sally J. Altman. Together we recruited a diverse board of 15 civic leaders and stakeholders to guide the work and contracted with more than two-dozen local journalists and specialists to produce the stories. 

Civic-minded citizens, the Pulitzer Center and the St. Louis Press Club generously donated to the cause, allowing BFBF to share dozens of stories with media outlets across the region in print, on television, on the air, online and through a variety of social media channels. Our partners included the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Riverfront Times, St. Louis American, St. Louis Magazine, St. Louis Public Radio, Nine PBS, KMOX, KTRS, the Jewish Light, and Health Progress, a journal of the Catholic Health Association headquartered in St. Louis. A year ago, we also began producing a monthly email newsletter –  STL Equity Matters – that is shared with more than 500 subscribers. 

Earlier this year, we learned that Euclid Media CEO and Riverfront Times publisher Chris Keating had ideas of his own about building a sustainable model for non-profit journalism. We started talking with Chris, and not long after with Sarah Fenske, who had joined Chris as Euclid Media Group’s executive editor.

Together we fashioned an approach that builds on the racial equity work that BFBF started but adds so much more in terms of broadening the mission and strengthening the revenue model. 

So at this point, I’m handing off the narrative to Fenske, who is most familiar with the nuts and bolts of the new operation. But I am not going away and am currently serving as interim chairman of RCJF’s Board of Directors.

Sarah Fenske: Allowing local journalism to thrive in St. Louis

The Riverfront Times came perilously close to shuttering for good in the early days of the pandemic. In March of 2020, the New York Times made the 43-year-old St. Louis paper Exhibit A in its story about how alt-weeklies across the U.S. had been decimated as their longtime advertisers shut down.

Just about every other paper featured in that New York Times story abandoned its print edition. But not the RFT. I can take no credit for this (after four years as the paper’s editor in chief, I’d left prior to the pandemic to host a public radio show), but I still can’t help boasting that they managed not to miss a single issue. 

That’s in part because the staff refused to quit, but it’s also because readers stepped up. They valued the paper’s coverage — and they opened their checkbooks. Today the RFT employs more writers and editors than it did before the pandemic. That’s a testament to St. Louis and how it shows up for its institutions, even when those “institutions” enjoy raising hell and dropping the occasional f-bomb.

Seeing that support — as well as the incredible patronage I witnessed during my three years at St. Louis Public Radio — helped me understand that St. Louisans are willing to take action to support local news. And they could be a lifeline for an industry that is still surviving in St. Louis, but needs help to thrive.

That includes the Riverfront Times, but it’s far from just us. St. Louis has a handful of legacy media outlets that have beaten the odds to employ editors and reporters who live here and are invested in this community — but we need support to continue to do meaningful work, to dig deeply into the area’s biggest issues, and to bring up new and diverse voices capable of telling the stories of St. Louis in all its complexity.

At the River City Journalism Fund, we plan to invest in local news on a host of topics — education, the environment, social justice, the business community, the arts and more. At the same time, we will never depart from a core concept: addressing the need for better representation of historically marginalized people in the media.

We’ll do that in three ways:

  • Providing grants and stipends to writers in the St. Louis area, giving them the time and resources to tell the stories of St. Louis, and then make their work available for free in at least one local format — in print, online, or through broadcast;
  • Making grants to support editorial head-count, paid fellowships and paid internships at media outlets that serve St. Louis, with a focus on journalists from historically marginalized communities;
  • Conducting forums to gain a better understanding of the information needs of St. Louis, particularly traditionally under-served communities.

We’re adopting a proven model. Across the country, legacy media are expanding their revenue pools to include philanthropic support. The nonprofit component allows engaged readers to support vital community assets — local independent publications — as they would libraries or museums. 

And here’s the key for St. Louis: The River City Journalism Fund won’t compete with existing publications. Instead we will support and advance their work by underwriting ambitious journalism and additional reporting positions, allowing them to do more and do better. Bottom line: More in-depth stories that will help St. Louisans make positive changes in their communities.

With its 63106 Project, Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson commissioned journalists across the metro to cover a ZIP code in St. Louis that had been largely neglected by local media outlets. The series of stories held up a mirror to St. Louis — and found remarkable buy-in from local media outlets. Just about every publication in town ran at least one of the 63106 Project stories, and readers were the better for it.

Dick and I believe we can expand that model to cover more of these types of important stories, even as we help demonstrate to writers from all backgrounds that St. Louis is a place that will support their work and help them thrive.

High value and low overhead

The River City Journalism Fund’s grant-making will be guided by our board of directors, a diverse group that includes lawyers, teachers, retired public servants, journalists and communications professionals. By giving their time to run the organization, the board ensures that the vast majority of donations goes directly to local journalism. We intend to hire just one full-time employee, a development director. The board will administer donated funds without additional overhead.

As we seek support for these initiatives, we will continue the STL Equity Matters Newsletter, put the finishing touches on the 63106 Project, and also support Aisha Sultan and her  63106-inspired documentary, Education Interrupted, which will premiere in November at the St. Louis International Film Festival, and will be airing in December on Nine PBS. Next month, we also intend to launch our first project as River City Journalism Fund: a multi-part series that will run in the Riverfront Times and the Jewish Light, as well as potentially one other outlet, and that we hope will make a big splash.

Richard H. Weiss is a former editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and founder of Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson. Sarah Fenske was editor of the Riverfront Times, host of St. Louis Public Radio and is executive editor of Euclid Media Group with publications extending from the Midwest into Florida. People can directly support enterprising journalism through the River City Journalism Fund.  

‘It’s not as bad as I thought’: An examination of how the pandemic impacted news organizations in eight Midwestern states

It could have been worse. Much worse.

In fact, the executive director of the Missouri Press Association expected the COVID-19 pandemic to gut a local newspaper industry already reeling from more than a decade of competition from free digital content, rising newsprint costs and circulation declines.

Seven of the state’s 200 or so newspapers ceased publishing in 2020, while about 10 underwent mergers with neighboring publications.

“I feared worse,” said Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Press Association. “I’m bullish. I feared for the worst, and it’s not as bad as I thought.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hurt community newspapers across the country in much the same way that it impacted other small businesses. After all, many are just that, small single-owner operations that rely on their communities for revenue.

Hundreds of newspapers in the Midwest have undergone changes in the past year, although many of them were in the works before the pandemic. Some media outlets closed altogether, others consolidated with sister newspapers and some went to digital-only formats. Newsrooms continued to shrink to offset massive advertising revenue losses.

As governors issued stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. many newspapers’ owners in the Chicago area told Gateway Journalism Review that they lost as much as 90% of their revenue in that first month. 

A billboard promoting the COVID-19 vaccine rises above the Gallery Place development in downtown Washington, D.C. (Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr)

“Meijer didn’t want to do inserts anymore, because they didn’t know whether whatever they were advertising would be in stock,” Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association, said during a late-January interview. “This is still an ongoing problem.”

Teri Hayt, a regional manager with Report for America, which helps place reporters in newsrooms where they cover underserved communities and beats, said continuously cutting staff is not sustainable.

“What’s the idea with all this cutting?” she said. “Have you seen an organization that has cut, cut, cut and come out stronger? You can’t cut your way to success. You cannot do more with less. You do less with less. It’s simple logic.”

She said the newspapers that are enjoying the most success are the ones that are being creative and asking for support from the readership and community foundations.

“Our reluctance to ask for money years and years ago, I bought into it all those years,” Hayt said. “But things are changing and continuing to change. It’s a paradigm that, when you finally get out there and work with your community foundations, they’re thrilled to hear from you. When they invest in the local newspaper, they’re now investing in their community.”

She continues to see great work being done, even in newsrooms where executives have tried to stick to the conventional business model, and simply cut staff to offset losses.

“I think a lot of these organizations are doing great work in spite of the decisions being made,” Hayt said. “With RFA, I’ve seen newsrooms that are trying to make a difference and do things differently. And those reporters and those editors are still swinging for the fences every day.”

Gateway talked to industry professionals and press associations in eight Midwestern states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. This story originally appeared in our spring 2021 issue. We will publish the dispatches from each of these states in the coming weeks on our website.

“COVID hit newspapers like it did every other business in Illinois,” said Sam Fisher, president and chief executive of the Illinois Press Association. “Most changes in 2020, whether closings or mergers, were already being considered before the virus hit.”

In Illinois, newspapers relied heavily on the association and each other to navigate the pandemic, he said.

“Many of over 400 members are small weeklies that are one- or two-person operations,” Fisher said. “We’ve seen that when COVID hit a small operation and made it seemingly impossible to continue to publish that others stepped up to make sure that there wasn’t an issue missed.”

Maassen said the pandemic presented an opportunity, particularly for weekly papers and mid-sized companies.

This package of stories will provide a rundown the fallout of the pandemic via numbers from each state and observations by publishers and newspaper associations’ leaders. It will also highlight some of the innovations those smaller players have used to not just stay afloat but, in some cases, thrive.

“In my opinion, some of the metro papers, like the KC Star and Post-Dispatch might be the ones that are most in peril, because of their reliance on large national advertisers,” Maassen said. “If you’re a smaller newspaper, if you’re not one of the giants, there’s an opportunity to adapt your business model and do well.”

According to a Poynter Institute analysis, since 2004, more than 1,800 newspapers have closed across the country, about 1,700 of them weeklies. When the findings were originally published May 20, 2020, it stated that the pandemic helped cause the closure of more than 60 newspapers. That was two months to the day after Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced his stay-at-home order.

In Illinois, according to “The Expanding News Desert”, a website run by the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, two counties near the lower tip of Illinois – Hamilton and Pulaski – have no operating newspapers.

The map, however, was last updated in 2019. The Cairo Citizen, a weekly in Alexander County, closed March 26, leaving the county without a publication.

Half of the 10 counties that border those three have just one print publication.

Even before 2020 laid waste to newspapers throughout the state, one-third of papers in the state disappeared between 2004 and 2019, according to the website.

In northern Illinois with 22nd Century Media’s folding, suburban Chicago communities lost 14 relied-upon weeklies. At least 15 other newspapers around the state shut down. At least eight papers were sold, including four Gannett properties that were sold to Paxton Media Group.

Downstate, more than a half-dozen pubs merged with others to stay afloat.

Just before the pandemic hit, Shaw Media shut down two of the weeklies it acquired in recent years: the Minooka Herald Life, and Valley Life. Over the past few years, Shaw’s suburban publications have gone from broadsheet to a tabloid format. In 2020, its papers in Sterling, Dixon, Ottawa and LaSalle followed suit. Each of its dailies eliminated a day of publication, and the Sauk Valley Media staff moved from its sprawling office in Sterling to an office in Dixon that just a few years ago would have only comfortably fit SVM’s editorial staff. The Daily Chronicle building in DeKalb was sold, one of countless newspaper offices closed throughout the state.

At least four newspapers shut down their printing operations. Several outlets went digital-only.

Apart from the Shaw publications, about 10 papers eliminated at least one edition, at least three going all the way down to once a week.

Two of the state’s largest media groups, the Sun-Times and Daily Herald, actually launched new publications amid the storm. The Chicago Sun-Times launched the website initiative La Voz Chicago in May, and the Daily Herald Media Group launched three weekly newspapers: the Glenview Herald and the Northbrook Herald on June 18, and the Shelbyville Eagle on July 2. Executives from both groups did not respond to requests for comment.

Even before the pandemic hit, newspapers have spent the past several years cutting executives and their salaries that dwarf those of younger talent committed enough to the craft to accept a significantly smaller salary.

In May 2019, Angela Muhs resigned from the then-GateHouse-owned State Journal-Register in Springfield. As she was escorted out of the building, her editorial colleagues left with her “as a show of respect and support,” staff writer Dean Olsen told The Associated Press.

Dennis Anderson, who was named GateHouse’s state editor in June 2019, resigned as executive editor of the Peoria Journal Star in May 2020. After starting and briefly running his media consulting firm DennisEdit Strategists LLC over the summer of 2020, he became Shaw Media’s vice president of news and content development in September.

In September, Lee Enterprises eliminated two executive positions at The Southern Illinoisan. Tom English and Terra Kerkemeyer were let go as executive editor and publisher, respectively.

Alee Quick was promoted from news editor into the top editor role, but on March 9 she left the paper for a new job at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Lauren Cross, Midwest projects reporter for Lee Enterprises, assumed the top editor role, in an interim capacity.

English spent 18 years working at The Southern. He was hired in his early 20s as a telemarketer and climbed through the ranks. In late January, English became executive producer for the Breakfast Show at KFVS-12 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

What’s unfolding in Illinois is hardly uncommon, of course. At least 30 Wisconsin papers have made significant changes since the pandemic hit, including 16 being either sold or merged with other papers.

In 2020 alone, nearly 10% of paid-subscription newspapers in Indiana shuttered their doors.

The year 2020 “will never be seen as a good year for the newspaper industry, when you look at the outright closings and the number of papers that were forced to make the decision to reduce their frequency,” said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association.

Since 2004, Indiana residents have lost more than one-third of their newspapers, down from 220 to its current roster of 142.

Katrice Hardy, executive editor of the Indianapolis Star, has a unique perspective on the state, but as regional editor for USA Today in the Midwest, she also has tabs on the bigger picture.

“The biggest thing we’ve tried to do in Gannett is focus on the content that matters the most,” Hardy said. “We don’t want you doing a hundred stories, we want you doing the stories that matter most.”

She said Gannett is hiring all the time. Hayt, the regional manager for Report for America, is skeptical.

“The pandemic is wiping out what was left of our business model,” she said, “and while it might have been a good model once, it’s not a good model anymore.”

She has the credentials to make such an assertion. She’s been in the publishing industry for 35 years, and her management gigs have run the gamut, from Sports Illustrated to powerhouse daily newspapers such as The Orlando Sentinel. She was formerly executive editor for GateHouse Media Ohio and managing editor at the Arizona Daily Star, and helped the American Society of News Editors merge with the Associated Press Media Editors in 2019 to form the News Leaders Association, for which she was interim executive director.

“We’ve lost a tremendous number of editors, a number of journalists, period, who have so much knowledge and understanding,” Hayt said. “You don’t replace a Mark Baldwin, or people on your copy desk, people who have worked for years, and how many mistakes have they caught. We’ve cut ourselves into this situation.”

At least in Baldwin’s case, when he retired at the end of 2020 as executive editor of the Rockford Register Star and the Freeport Journal-Standard, it was under his own volition.

Two Pew Research reports published in October 2020 shed light on the widespread damage to news outlets.

One found that about 40,000 employees received Paycheck Protection Program loans, and most of the loans given to nearly 2,800 newspapers were for less than $150,000. That figure is roughly two-thirds the number of U.S. newspapers that existed in 2016. 

Those papers employed about 180,000 employees, the Pew researchers found. 

Poynter estimates that in an average recent year, about 100 newsrooms closed.

Maassen said one of chief roles for newspaper associations early in the pandemic was to gather and provide information on those loans.

“There was a lot of just sharing of information we got from our national partners,” he said. “That was the most immediate impact our members saw: ‘Wow, I can apply for something like this, and based on the rules we were seeing it might not have to be paid back?’ ”

About 5.2 PPP loans were given to small businesses in 2020, according to the Pew report.

The other Pew report found that at the time of publication, newspaper advertising was down 42 percent. But to illustrate the importance of reliable local news, despite the financial woes of Average Joe, circulation was down just 8%.

Clearly, the reliance on local news is still robust. To cling to the traditional methods of delivering it would be madness, according to Ron Wallace, publisher of the Quincy Herald-Whig and vice president of newspapers for Quincy Media, which also owns the Hannibal Courier-Post. 

“I’m an old guy, and it’s time for the old guys to get the crap out of their heads,” Wallace said. “The newspapers killed themselves. Our arrogance, we did ourselves in. We created the self-fulfilling prophecy, and it never should have been said that newspapers are dying.”

In broadcasting news, Fox News Channel’s revenue went up 42% in 2020, while CNN and MSNBC’s dipped 14 and 27%, respectively, according to Pew’s reporting, which also states nationwide network TV ad revenue went up 11%.

Wallace said the idea that TV news is not only killing it but also insulated is a fallacy.

“The broadcast division is only a few years behind,” Wallace said. “They are under the same attack now that we were under 14 years ago, whether it be from OTTV (over-the-top television) or streaming services. I believe the broadcasting division is starting to realize, and COIVD has brought that into the spotlight, that they don’t own the market on advertising revenue.”

He has insider information. For many years, Quincy Media owned more than two dozen broadcasting outlets, including those in the Herald-Whig’s market. Thanks to the built-in opportunity to collaborate, Wallace said in November that the company had virtually the same number of employees in their newsrooms as they did pre-pandemic.

It will be interesting to monitor how that situation trends going forward. In February, all of Quincy Media’s properties other than the Quincy Herald-Whig and Hannibal Courier-Post were sold for nearly $1 billion to Gray Television.

The key to survival for newspapers, Wallace said, is a paradigm shift, away from the way the game has always been played. He said collaboration and creativity will be paramount for newsrooms to stay open, if not recover.

If the Illinois Press Association’s virtual annual conference in September was any indicator, newspapers have the capacity to tear down the proverbial wall between editorial and advertising departments – or at least install a swinging door.

The Chicago Independent Media Alliance banded together 43 of its then-62 member outlets for a spring 2020 fundraiser that brought in more than $160,000.

“It’s honestly way more than we could have expected,” said Yong Lee, marketing manager for the Korea Times which, like the Chicago Reader, has been in business since 1971.

Yazmin Dominguez, The Reader’s media partnerships coordinator in six short months, is also the project coordinator of CIMA. She said collaborations such as CIMA have been tried before in the city, so she’s optimistic that the landscape has shifted toward a mindset of cooperation over competition.

During a session at the virtual conference in September, Anna DeShawn, founder of the queer radio station E3, said, “there’s enough room for everybody, and the fundraiser shows that.”

“I’ve got no competitors,” she continued. “It’s my own personal ethos. I just see opportunities to collaborate and grow each other’s reaches.”

Christopher Heimerman is a former editor of the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Illinois, and freelance journalist covering media practices in the Midwest. He wrote the memoir “40,000 Steps” which details his war with alcoholism and the marathon he ran after rehab. He lives in DeKalb. Follow him on Twitter @RunTopherRun.

Local editors, publishers should hire journalism students stuck at home for summer internships

It’s been hard in recent weeks to deliver my usual pep talk about journalism to the college students whom I teach. For one, we are not in the same physical space. I’m engaging with students online in bursts and have been since late March. Even so, I can sense their grief, sometimes in their silence and sometimes in their failure to reply to a simple email that would typically get an answer. It would normally be the perfect time to lead them in a cheer about the importance of holding the government accountable and why credibility is essential more than anything else. But these aren’t normal times even though all that matters, especially now.

Students read through best practices for using Twitter before a social media assignment at the Chicago History Museum in the author’s fall 2019 “Reporting 2” course at Columbia College Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Jackie Spinner).

My photojournalism seniors, the ones who were in the middle of producing short documentaries when the pandemic disrupted everything, have been the hardest to console. Like their peers, they’ve lost graduation and all of the typical celebrations that come with it. But while the writers and editors have mostly been able to adjust to working remotely, the photojournalism students chose this profession because they want to be up close and on the scene. This is harder to do safely at the moment, especially when doing so can put other family members in shared housing at risk. I’ve been begging them to participate in a ritual end-of-the-year showcase of their work that draws thousands to our urban campus. It will be a virtual event this year, and I only managed to get four of them to send in their work and only after a lot of prodding. I get it. They’re juggling the demands and pressures of remote learning with being away from friends, with being at home again just as they were officially almost out the door. Some of them have lost internships and job prospects. Some are completely alone. They are hurting.

In the years since I started teaching journalism, the industry has weathered numerous knocks of disruption, but I’ve always been able to frame it as an opportunity. It wasn’t difficult to do. I truly believed in what I was saying. There are few callings as essential as this one, I’d tell them. If you can learn to be flexible, if you work hard and don’t settle for mediocrity, if you are willing to go anywhere for the story, if you don’t give up, journalism will never feel like a job.

Some day, I’d tell them, you may be the only one paying attention. You may be the only one in a room when someone is holding a gun to a man’s head. Even amidst the cries of fake news, you will know that you told the truth and pursued objectivity, I remind them. You will know that your work mattered.

My students are part of the demographic that many news organizations are chasing, and they believe enough in what’s ahead to stake their college tuition on it. For a profession sometimes short on hope and faith, they delivered it to me every time they showed up for class.

Right now the most I can do, besides continuing to show up myself to teach them, is to assure them that the upheaval won’t last forever, although I suspect that the news industry will look drastically different on the other side of this. I know that your own fears about this are likely keeping you up at night. The prospect of losing even more of our community publications is a difficult one to grasp.

I don’t have the answers. Nor do I have a prediction about what we might be left with after this. In the absence of that, I hope local editors and publishers will consider investing in the future, whatever it holds.

Hire these journalism students for internships this summer. Many of them are living at home now, back in your communities, and they are anxious to practice the skills they have learned at college. Many of them may be working other part-time jobs so you will need to be flexible about their schedules and what you expect from them. But they just want a chance to do journalism, and you can give them that.

Most will not need to get paid if their college or university offers internship credit. Local editors will have to take on a bit of paperwork in exchange. But I know many of my students willingly would work for the experience. They know whatever the job market looks like in the coming years, that they will not be employable without experience and clips.

I worked for The Oakland Tribune (RIP) for two years when I was in graduate school; I didn’t get paid. I’m not here to argue that the system that allows this is fair or unfair. I got what I needed from the Tribune, which was real experience and bylines and photo credits on the front page of a major city newspaper. After landing a coveted internship at the San Diego Tribune another summer, the newspaper rescinded the offer because of budget cuts. I talked the editor into letting me come anyway to spend my summer there without getting paid. It was hard. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of a sublet in a retirement community that summer, but I had bylines. One winter, at home on break in Central Illinois, I spent two weeks covering the courts for my hometown newspaper. These experiences instilled in me a passion for community journalism that I carried with me to The Washington Post; I would not have landed at the Post without these unpaid experiences. 

Let these students bring ideas that help you better connect with your younger readers. In exchange, edit them and mentor them. Let them propose stories you might not have thought of. Assign them stories they can do remotely and guide them for how to keep themselves and their subjects safe if we are still social-distancing.

I’ve been pushing these kinds of partnerships well before the pandemic, encouraging my students to go home and work for their community newspapers. I have asked editors as I’ve met them to consider hiring local, reaching out to college students home for the summer.  It isn’t always easy to convince my students. I teach at an urban college, and some of my students would rather stay in a large media market, even if they can’t land a job, than head home for a summer with their parents. But many of them already are now home. They need opportunities for bylines and production credits, and local editors and publishers need a pipeline for the future. 

Let’s make it happen. 

This story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner. 

Local entertainment writers watch assignments dry up as small businesses confront challenges of pandemic

For the past five years, eating out was a regular part of our family’s weekend plans.

As a freelance food writer for the Chicago Tribune’s suburban newspapers, my job was to discover interesting local restaurants and tell their stories. I didn’t have to be anonymous because I wasn’t reviewing the food. I’d contact the owners in advance, discover their stories, talk about their dishes and write about all of it. I heard plenty of stories from owners who had been washing dishes in the kitchen since they were young or had always dreamed of owning their own restaurant. 

My dining profiles ran in weekly entertainment sections in some of the Tribune’s suburban papers. The money was steady, and I had fun meeting new people and writing about their livelihoods.

Freelance food writer Shonda Talerico Dudlicek photographs her meal for a dining profile for the Chicago Tribune’s suburban newspapers (Photo courtesy of Shonda Talerico Dudlicek).

Then came the coronavirus.

The restaurants I wrote about were small and locally owned, the kinds of businesses that have been wrecked by stay-at-home orders and measures enacted to slow the spread of the virus. Dining rooms filled with neighbors are now empty. Cooks and waitresses are out of jobs. Various relief programs have been established to help, but many owners are not sure it will come soon enough to save their family-owned ventures. 

Those of us who write about these locally owned establishments also have been impacted.

“I’ve had to pivot how I’m handling coverage of certain topics like travel and food,” said Jennifer Billock, who writes for national magazines and the suburban Chicago Daily Herald. Her regular restaurant reviews are now on hold. “It’s now more virtual experience-based, like exploring things from afar or doing virtual wine tastings and museum hours.”

Many of my fellow entertainment freelance writers have seen their assignments dry up as theaters canceled productions and restaurants have closed. Our editor told us outright that if we depended on these stories for income, that we should start looking elsewhere. I saw my assignments slashed in half and now worry about the job security of my editor. (Tribune Publishing, which owns the Chicago Tribune and its suburban newspapers, has implemented furloughs and pay cuts as print advertising has disappeared.)

Carrie Clark Steinweg, a freelancer who writes about foodie field trips for The Times of Northwest Indiana, lost those assignments. “I’m writing about virtual travel, local breweries that are open for carry-out and other topics that are relevant right now. I’ve written for other papers lately on how local restaurants are shifting what they’re doing,” she said. “I’m not going out and doing any interviews.”

Phil Potempa, who writes entertainment/food/travel stories for the Chicago Tribune suburban papers and is director of marketing for an Indiana theater, knows about challenges both as a freelancer and small business employee. “I find myself being even more careful in the words and language I use in my writing for how I convey an idea or unfolding situation, knowing very well that, by the time a story has reached the printed page of a newspaper or magazine certain aspects or events might have already changed or further key details have been unfolding during the time of submission and through the production and print and/or publish-to-online process.”

Lynn Rogers Petrak lost her contract job after 15 years as a suburban columnist for the Tribune in the latest round of coronavirus-related cuts. She said a magazine where she also freelances, suspended its upcoming issue because many local businesses, including restaurants she profiled, are on pause or closed. “I’m hopeful that this magazine will return mid-summer, because it has a strong readership base and community advertising support,” she said. “In my opinion, we’re losing local voices at a time when we need them the most. People want content from local sources, businesses want and need to connect with local customers, and local media bridge the two and tell the kind of stories that no one else can or frankly will.”

Petrak said she also is mindful of her tone in every sentence she writes. “At the same time, I don’t want content to come across as too morose or negative. It’s a balance that requires more thought and foresight,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s a reminder that every word matters, something that can be glossed over when deadlines are rushed and things are busy.”

In my case, for our safety, we freelancers were to cover restaurants remotely. We could only interview restaurant owners by phone. Instead of describing the décor, we would include delivery and takeout options. Many owners offered free delivery and other perks to customers who contacted the restaurant directly instead of a third-party service, which meant the restaurant and employees could keep money paid for delivery fees. 

But not all restaurants were set up for delivery and takeout, and some owners decided to close down until they could reopen for dine-in. It’s not as easy for everyone as letting customers pick up food at the curb and some owners simply didn’t know how to remain open. Owners only had a day to prepare.

During that first week after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered restaurants to close, freelancers wrote about owners’ stories and how they were surviving.

Dining profiles have a positive tone by their nature and usually, owners were happy to see me, happy to talk about their ideas for new dishes. But now? One barbecue restaurant owner sold items off the walls like TVs and beer steins in order to raise cash. A family diner owner cut back his menu items and struggled with changing his 60-year-old business model overnight to accommodate carryout. He ended up shutting down for a week on the day my story appeared because he couldn’t handle the demands of takeout or offer delivery. The place has since reopened. 

A sports bar owner, who had recently opened a second location, shut down both locations because he knew his menu items didn’t work with the new normal. “So many restaurants are doing curbside but that’s not us. If you’re not good at it, you’ve got to make sure you can do it,” he told me, adding he created a GoFundMe page for his laid-off employees.

He wasn’t as worried about himself, as he was of his staffers, all college students and young parents. He could get loans for his business, he said, but what could his out-of-work employees do?

It was heartbreaking to hear owners now talk about the bleak unknown. I got off the phone and cried after talking to every one of them.

I interviewed an exhausted restaurant owner in March by phone and asked her to send me a couple of photos for an upcoming profile. She asked her employees to take pictures and email them to me – but they weren’t high-res, and therefore unusable for publication. I drove 35 miles to the restaurant and employees plated three of the most popular menu items so I could take pictures. I shot photos in a silent, desolate restaurant, pushing the plates up to the windows for the best light as the whole place was mine.   

 I suggested to my editor that I would bring along a red-checkered tablecloth and spread it out in the back of my SUV for nice photos. She told me not to, that owners would send photos – but after decades in publishing, I knew harried restaurant owners wouldn’t know the specs of their photos that they ran on their Facebook pages, nor would that be top of mind. 

 I still tucked a tablecloth – and a mask – in the back. Just in case. 

Shonda Talerico Dudlicek is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago suburbs who writes for the Chicago Tribune’s suburban publications and teaches journalism at Roosevelt and Dominican universities.

One photojournalist’s story on the frontlines of the pandemic

At first, I wasn’t that concerned. The coronavirus seemed like other global health scares before it. As a photojournalist in northern Illinois, I had watched these stories unfold from a distance.

Even my first assignment on Jan. 31 didn’t hint at what was to come. I documented how a local hospital was preparing to handle patients with an infectious disease such as Covid-19. At that point there were only six cases in the United States and coronavirus was far from my mind as I went through my week performing the tasks of a photo editor for Shaw Media, the 8th largest newspaper publisher in the country.

Jen Eifel, building receptionist at Sycamore Middle School in northern Illinois, hangs a sign showing who is allowed to be inside the building. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed schools in the state through April 7 because of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. Sycamore School District 427 will use e-learning days while the buildings are closed. (Photo by Mark Busch)

A week and a half ago, our company’s human resources asked everyone to work remotely and not to come into the office to avoid potentially spreading the virus. This meant most of the staff could work from home. Photojournalists can’t work from home. We have to be out in the field to do our jobs, and I’ve been doing just that for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle ever since.

My pickup truck has become my office and my laptop is my connection to the company, whether it be online meetings with other editors or uploading photos to servers and websites.

Working remotely is nothing new to me but this story is unlike any other I’ve covered since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

I worked 12 days in a row and nearly everything I shot was related to the coronavirus crisis. Many photojournalists like me are spending long hours in places that have been ordered to close to avoid the spread of the virus. 

On March 7, I spent the entire day photographing the Illinois High School Association’s girls state basketball championships in a crowded Redbird Arena at Illinois State University. On March 10, I covered a boys basketball super-sectional at a packed Convocation Center at Northern Illinois University. Two days later the IHSA announced it was canceling all remaining winter sports tournament games to avoid having someone potentially contract the virus in the large crowds that gather for such events. Then the universities that hosted the games also closed due to fears about the virus. 

On March 13, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that all Illinois schools in the state would close. In order to illustrate this story, I spent that Friday afternoon and the following Monday in schools. Then the restaurants across Illinois were ordered to close except for take-out and delivery, so I spent time taking pictures inside bars and restaurants. On Election Day in our state, an already busy day for journalists, I visited polling places in our coverage area. I rounded out the week at crowded stores and a packed government meeting.

I took all of the precautions recommended by the CDC: I avoided shaking hands.I kept my gear clean using disinfectant wipes, and I am traveling around with a giant hand sanitizer bottle. But I can’t shake the nagging worry that I may get sick.

The past several days have been the most intense in my 28-year career. The news was evolving hourly, and I had to adjust accordingly. It was exhausting mentally and physically. 

The camaraderie with co-workers and the support form the company I work for has helped greatly in keeping me positive. So has spending time with my two young adult kids.

Shaw has made it clear that the company doesn’t expect us to put ourselves in a situation where we feel our health may be at risk. Regular emails have been sent and meetings are held to check on everyone’s well-being. Simple gestures like that go a long way in keeping morale high during this tough time

When I chose photojournalism as a career I knew to expect long days and the occasional seven day work-week but never did I think potentially risking my health would be part of the job, especially here in the Midwest. But I will continue to do so as long as this crisis persists. Keeping people informed is what we do and at times like these our jobs are more important than ever. 

Mark Busch is the photo editor at the DeKalb Daily Chronicle in northern Illinois.