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November 20, 2019; Chicago Reader and the Daily Herald

The alternative news outlet Chicago Reader has announced it will go nonprofit just a year after it was extricated from the Sun-Times in 2018. The current owners will sell the fifty-year-old paper to the Reader Institute for Community Journalism very early next year.

Unprofitable as a general rule, the Reader has taken a turn for the better this year with revenues that have increased by half, but the conversion broadens the organization’s options even further. Tracy Baim, who intends to remain as publisher, says, “More media companies are turning nonprofit to expand their support networks. The Reader has a very loyal readership. We believe community-supported journalism is an important part of the future for most independent media, and certainly for the Reader.”

Contrast this with what’s going on at the Chicago Tribune, which has seen 25 percent of its stock sold to the New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital. As Rob Feder writes, “That’s the same slash-and-burn outfit that wrecked the Denver Post and other newsrooms across the country.”

The union representing editorial employees is already sounding the alarm. “Deeply concerned” about the deal, a Chicago Tribune Guild statement said: “Alden has a well-established history of harming media institutions and journalists. Still, no matter who owns these shares, we promise to fight as hard as we can to protect our members, improve our company and serve our readers. We believe in journalism as a public good—a voice for the community and a safeguard against corruption.”

That notion of the press being a public good is spreading more widely, and following it is an ever-accelerating wave of for-profits toying with the idea. Salt Lake Tribune editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce says the newly nonprofit institution is fielding a number of queries from others interested in potentially following suit.

However, Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the nonprofit Poynter Institute, warns that predictions should remain grounded in certain local and corporate realities.

“This is the paper that wasn’t making a profit and it probably wasn’t going to, but it’s very different from a chain ownership where they’re trying to make sure every property contributes to the bottom line,” Edmonds says. “I think it’s absolutely worth trying. Others may be interested in it, but it’s not going to be appealing to a chain ownership. And some places may not wish to give up the ability to do endorsements and that kind of thing.”

Meanwhile, a report PEN America released yesterday, Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions, declares the state of local news to be in crisis, leaving entire communities underinformed and impaired as democratic spaces.

When the local news ecosystem works well, it plays a vital and irreplaceable role in safeguarding the health and welfare of communities across the country: keeping them apprised of critical information, amplifying local issues to attract regional or national attention, holding local government and corporations accountable, and building social cohesion by telling stories that build solidarity and mutual understanding.

The local news ecosystem is in fact foundational to American democracy. It keeps citizens educated, motivates them to vote, and serves as an indispensable check on government power. Without the accountability mechanism of local journalism, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness. Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, who has proposed federal bills to address the local news crisis, describes the diminishment of local journalism as “a real threat to American democracy.”

We will cover this report in greater detail in the coming days, but for those concerned about the state of democracy and journalism in this country, it is very much a must-read.—Ruth McCambridge