The elephant in the room: Chicago journalists grapple with future of news


The Chicago Journalism Town Hall 2020 was, in some ways, a tale of 300 journalists enacting the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Held late last month in the Walnut Room of the Kimpton Allegro Hotel–famously the first place to serve alcohol in the minutes after Prohibition was repealed–the event was organized in conventional style: two moderators, two panels, and time for questions at the end. But these aren’t conventional times, and many of those present were in no mood for the obvious.

A panel of journalists in Chicago discuss the future of news on Feb. 23 at the Allegro Hotel (Photo by Bill Healy)

Moderators Ken Davis and Heather Cherone framed the discussion as an examination of the industry’s current “inflection point” induced by financial pressures. “Every problem we’re talking about seems to come back to money,” Davis stated. Cherone called out the Chicago Sun-Times’ “near-death experience” and the uncertain future of the Chicago Tribune (along with “the rise of independent, digital, online organizations,” including The Daily Line, which she now works for) before turning first to Bruce Dold, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Tribune, for his perspective. Unsurprisingly, Dold (who, four days later, would learn that his last day at the Tribune will be April 30), named Facebook and Google as the biggest threats currently facing legacy news organizations. Thus began the examination of what many see as the head of the elephant: advertising revenue is down, people expect free content, so how do we pay reporters and printers and keep the lights on?

It’s unquestionably a challenge, and other panelists confirmed it, but it took Dorothy Leavell, publisher of the Chicago Crusader, to force the issue. “Welcome to my world,” she began, and quickly segued to what everyone present knew but nobody was yet talking about: audience, and specifically, ones that didn’t see themselves in the coverage of legacy media. “If it was about money, the Crusader would not be celebrating 80 years,” Leavell said, adding that the Crusader survived by offering the black community relevant stories other publications ignored, not just crime coverage. 

Beyond the money, it’s about figuring out what audiences need, what they value and what they will pay for. Again, not an unfamiliar piece of the beast, but one that should not be conflated with “it’s all about money.” As many people in the room both know and practice, community journalism aims first to serve its audience and then to raise the needed funds to accomplish that. It’s mission first, money second. 

After these tugs on the trunk and the tail, Sadé Carpenter, who resigned two weeks earlier as the deputy editor of Food and Dining at the Chicago Tribune and the editor for RedEye, came up and took over a mic at the end of the dais. “We care so much about advertisers, I have not heard one mention of the community,” she said, exempting Leavell from that statement. Carpenter spoke for six minutes, despite entreaties from the moderators to wait for the Q&A at the end. She resigned, she said, after going on short-term disability “because my job exploited me” and talked about how few black people work at the Chicago Tribune, and the difficult experiences of those who do, including inadequate compensation. 

Perhaps this is the belly of the beast: Chicago’s legacy media haven’t done enough to diversify in staff, in content and in the communities they serve. They haven’t taken good enough care of their employees, especially those historically underrepresented in their newsrooms. As Dometi Pongo, MTV host and former reporter at WGN and WVON, said after Carpenter finished, there is a “pleasant byproduct” of the struggles the industry is now facing. “Voices of color and upstart publications were not getting a seat at the table until mainstream publications started struggling financially,” he said, blaming the “elitism” that kept these voices out until recently. Now, he said, “mainstream outlets are beginning to understand that it is the key to survival, that we have to report on diverse stories.” 

Tracy Baim, publisher of the Chicago Reader, amplified this point. Baim explained the goals of the recently formed Chicago Independent Media Alliance, which will enable smaller for-profit and nonprofit media outlets to work together on ad buys, government agency ad placement, and grant-funded joint editorial projects. “If we work together, we can fight and slay the giants in our town, at least,” she said, referring to the threats posed by the tech giants, and adding that small “community media that provide an authentic community voice” are no less valuable than large media organizations. 

Other issues arose, too, of course: we have to educate the public about the value of journalism to a democratic society and about the difference between news and opinion, we have to defend against attacks on the industry, we need to better explain our business to a skeptical public, we need to diversify our income streams, we need to open more pathways into journalism. 

The second panel featured more voices representing these directions, including from three news organizations that train citizen reporters: Bettina Chang, co-founder of  City Bureau, which trains (and pays) community documenters and runs civic reporting programs with the community; Tiffany Walden, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE, which focuses on the stories of millennial black Chicagoans; and Jeckie Serrato, editor-in-chief of South Side Weekly, which promotes civic engagement and emerging journalists. These organizations and others focus on democratizing the production of news and community stories along with the coverage itself. 

“What we’re really talking about is the diversifying of narratives,” said Maudlyne Ihejirika, columnist for the Sun-Times, applauding her co-panelists for being in the communities they write about and reflecting those communities back to themselves. “It’s not ‘How do we get them to come to us?’ We have to come to them,” Walden added. “We have to meet people where they are, and we have to repair these relationships with the communities as well.” 

Chang, whose organization trains community members to be the producers, not just the consumers, of the content they need, extended the point to the very structure of the town hall itself. “We are this group of people sitting up on this dais, like we have so much more to say than anyone walking out there outside, so what does that say about our industry that we have this kind of top-down look at how information is distributed?”

The proverbial blind men sat around after their examination of the elephant, each arguing for his own perspective on it because each had touched a different part. Chicago journalists have no choice but to shift the collective conversation away from lost revenue and audiences of the past. “There’s a critical discourse about the future of journalism that doesn’t start and end with money,” said Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Invisible Institute. “There are all sorts of other value frames for thinking about our work, our mission.” And, he added, “There’s also an immense creative space that’s opened up, in part, by virtue of some of the large shade trees having lost some of their branches.” 

The entire event is available on YouTube (where, as of this writing, it has gotten just 368 views). 

Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin is an associate professor of journalism in the Communication Department at Columbia College Chicago.

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