Panel of journalists regains hope amid local news crisis

A panel of reporters discussed the importance of finding optimism during a current local news crisis during a webinar hosted by Evanston RoundTable on Wednesday.

More than 1,000 communities have become news deserts, completely devoid of local journalism due to problems with their financial models, declining advertising revenue and declining subscriptions. According to the panelists, this has led to uninformed citizen communities, runaway government institutions and a decrease in civic engagement.

However, Chicago Sun-Times panelist and columnist Laura Washington said she did not feel the “sadness and unhappiness” of the crisis due to the changing and successful Chicago local media landscape. Nonprofit hyperlocal digital news sources like Block Club Chicago, South Side Weekly and Crain’s Chicago Business cover a wide range of in-depth stories and make news more accessible to residents, Washington said.

“These news outlets show just how vibrant Chicago’s media ecosystem is,” Washington said. “In many ways, they have replaced or taken over some of the responsibilities that the so-called traditional media are no longer able to take on. ”

Tim Franklin, head of the Medill Local News Initiative, said adapting to nonprofit models has been a big source of success for some local newspapers. The panelists awarded the foundation’s funding for helping establish these nonprofit organizations.

While these foundations have helped solve the local news crisis, Tracy Baim, president of the Chicago Reporter, cautioned against using the not-for-profit model and stressed the importance of diversifying sources of income.

As larger publications enter the nonprofit world, Baim said, they are taking most of the funds available to smaller organizations that benefit from the nonprofit model. Baim advocated for a system to ensure that all local publications have an equal chance of raising funds from foundations.

“The world of foundations needs to open up and understand how critical journalism is to every issue they fund,” Baim said. “If you fund environmental racism, criminal justice reform, gun violence, LGBTQ issues, whatever you fund, you have to fund the journalism that covers it, otherwise the work will not be amplified. “

Despite the scale of the local news crisis, the majority of the population is unaware of the problems facing the news industry, said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker, who moderated the panel.

By focusing on national news, Washington said, most people forget about local publications. A 2019 Pew Research Study found that 71% of Americans think their local publications are financially well off, even though advertising in the newspaper industry has declined 67% since 2005.

Franklin compared the local news crisis to climate change: As the local news industry slowly declines, many people are not yet feeling the impact, he said. Baim said indifference is also a problem.

“I don’t think the message of saving journalism resonates with anyone who isn’t in journalism,” Baim said.

However, people are working across the country to find solutions to the crisis, Franklin said. Publications are adapting, journalists are launching their own niche publications, and Congress is trying to pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan bill to support local news. The law would grant tax credits to local publications.

Franklin said the changes encouraged him. However, the crisis is not yet over.

“There are reasons to be optimistic,” Franklin said. “But we have to go from one side of the bridge to the other, and the bridge swings and swings, and the waters are bubbling below. So we’ll see if we can get to the other side.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @EmmaCRosenbaum

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