June 10, 2017; Crain’s Chicago Business
The confluence of critical news stories on crime, finance, and education and the potential of local philanthropic sources like the McCormick Foundation would make Chicago an ideal place to establish and grow local nonprofit journalism outlets. The growth of nonprofit outlets for reporting the news has been the subject of NPQ articles in the past few years, and even within the last month. The focus on Chicago as a mecca for such efforts raises some interesting questions about need and sustainability.
In an article in Crain’s Chicago Business, three potential nonprofit news outlets are cited as considering opening Chicago bureaus. But, as Crain’s reports, whether Chicago will welcome and can sustain these efforts is yet to be determined. ProPublica, an outlet that does public interest reporting, is hiring reporters and setting up shop, having made a commitment to work in Illinois. Interest in the Chicago market has also been expressed by the Marshall Project (doing criminal justice reporting) and Chalkbeat (doing education reporting). Both of these outlets would find themselves competing with other nonprofit media outlets in Chicago that claim to cover the same issues.
For nearly 25 years, Catalyst Chicago covered education and the Chicago Public Schools. This year, it finalized a merger with the Chicago Reporter and has become a part of their focus on race, poverty, and income inequality. Folding the schools beat into this seems a good fit. Both Catalyst and the Chicago Reporter were funded by the Chicago-based Community Renewal Society (CRS). CRS supported this merger, which will complete in 2017 when Catalyst will no longer exist. The criminal justice beat is also well covered by other local nonprofit outlets.
Competition for sustainable long-term funding for nonprofit publications in Chicago looks bright. Outside foundations are looking at the Chicago market as a good place to invest.
The Democracy Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation backed by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, is particularly interested in funding local journalism. Since September, it has been surveying Chicago’s news outlets and needs for a report it plans to publish this summer. “If journalism is going to survive, it’s going to need a diversity of revenue streams,” says Josh Stearns, associate director of the foundation’s Public Square program.
Local funders are equally stoked. A number of locally based, well-endowed foundations have a history of backing such reporting and publishing efforts. The appetite for funding journalism is “at an all-time high,” says Kathy Im, director of journalism and media at MacArthur, which gave $10 million to the effort last year.
In addition, the McCormick Foundation has backed the Better Government Association, which is a nonprofit partner with Crain’s Chicago Business. It has also funded City Bureau on Chicago’s south side.
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Chicago is a metropolitan area with many funders and many nonprofit journalism outlets. Does it need more? And what will it take for these outlets to survive? In an NPQ article from 2015, Ruth McCambridge cited NPQ’s own experience:
NPQ had access to “patient” capital—multi-year and dependent upon a sound business plan. The plan alone was insufficient; capital by itself would have been insufficient, too. Both together were hard won and created a window that we have to get through before it closes.
And in May of 2017, NPQ addressed the value of partnerships between nonprofit news outlets and commercial ones, noting articles by Nieman Lab on the development of new economic models for such efforts. According to Nieman Lab,
Such partnerships between nonprofits and commercial news organizations are becoming more common. At their best, they benefit both sides: The commercial publishers get expert reporting in specific areas that they don’t have time to devote resources to in their own newsrooms, while the nonprofits get extended reach for their work (and, hopefully, money, too).
What is next for Chicago and Illinois in terms of nonprofit news outlets? Will the lessons learned from the merger of well-established outlets become the norm? Will the Chicago funding community step up to the plate?
As Illinois social service agencies suffer from two years without a state budget, the demand for philanthropic dollars has reached crisis proportions. Outlets like the Chicago Reporter that have covered issues of race and poverty for more than 45 years are not sure that the funding is there for everyone and that local news outlets get the credit they deserve. As Chicago Reporter Editor and Publisher Susan Smith Richardson stated, “I’d love to see more of that local power strengthened. We all have to think a lot more about what our unique value proposition is to the public.”
In Chicago, the main commercial news outlet (The Chicago Tribune) is considering a buy-out of its smaller competitor (The Chicago Sun Times) while indicating that both would continue to publish. The need for and role of nonprofit news outlets could be amplified if this takes place. The questions of sustainability for such outlets remains.—Carole Levine