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December 10, 2019

A Diversity of Outlets Play Big Role in Chicago’s Local News Ecosystem

This post on Chicago’s local news ecosystem is part of a series on the future of local news, and how funders, civic leaders and everyday people can get involved. You’ll learn about the work of ecosystem builders, whose stories can inspire your use of our new Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem.

by Kip Dooley

Chicago's local news ecosystem is home to a wide range of small outlets that play a big role in its future.
A Chicago Mural. Brandi Ibrao / Unsplash

Real people will tell you about their community newspapers and newsletters. They never fail to support those outlets.

Ecosystem Builder Sheila Solomon

Chicago’s rich and changing local news ecosystem

When Sheila Solomon conducted an assessment of Chicago’s local news ecosystem in 2017 with City Bureau’s Andrea Hart, interviewing dozens of local journalists, media-makers and community members, she was amazed to find what a wide range of startup outlets, nonprofits and community newsletters her city had.

Chicago's local news ecosystem is one of many around the country. Learn how you can assess yours with our new guide.
Democracy Fund’s Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem

Even more amazing, she says, was how much their readers expressed trust, loyalty and a willingness to donate their time and money to these supposedly lesser-known outlets in a local news ecosystem with much larger players.

“Journalists need to change the way we think about news,” Solomon says. Of her decades working for large newspapers like The Chicago Tribune, she says, “We didn’t give billboards, community newsletters, church newsletters any credit. That needs to change.”

Solomon has worked to fulfill that role both formally and informally as an Ecosystem Builder in Chicago. We define Ecosystem Builders as people in a community who are designing new models for local news. They are innovative, connected deeply to communities, and hold many relationships across their ecosystem. These Ecosystem Builders, and the connecting work they lead, are vital to the future of local news ecosystems. (Read more about them here)

Ask anyone in the Chicago local news scene, and they probably know Solomon. Chris Fusco, editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, calls her “one of those godmother figures” for Chicago journalism, because of her extensive background and ability to connect people across newsrooms.

In Chicago, Sheila Solomon (with her back to the camera) talks with leaders in the local news ecosystem about what Chicagoans need in 2017.

Chicago is one of the nation’s largest media markets, and has seen a plethora of new ventures in the wake of newsroom closings, from hyperlocal outlets like Block Club to The TRiiBE, an online outlet run by and for black millennials, to organizations like City Bureau, which trains community members to document public meetings and facilitates regular public dialogues about news and information needs.

Chicago’s local news ecosystem is also home to several large newspapers, TV and radio stations, commonly known as “legacy” newsrooms, that still hold the lion’s share of the ecosystem’s resources, reputation and subscriptions.

Chicago's local news ecosystem is one of the largest media markets in the country. Learn to assess your media market with our new guide.
For more on media markets, see our new Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem

Solomon was disappointed to learn how little the legacy newsrooms knew about organizations like TRiiBE, City Bureau and Chicago’s many ethnic media outlets. “That ignorance is part of the cause of the waning conditions here in our own ecosystem,” Solomon says.

A screenshot from a report on Chicago's local news ecosystem.
Screenshot from Solomon and Hart’s assessment of the Chicago local news ecosystem

Solomon and Hart’s report is one of many that have covered various aspects of Chicago’s local news ecosystem. Its findings were key to an assessment led by the Field Foundation, a private foundation in the city.

Citing Solomon and Hart’s research, the Field Foundation white paper states, “despite the variety of news and information sources identified in the study, white corporate media still defines what is newsworthy, if not for most Chicagoans, then certainly for its most powerful residents. Field’s challenge is to identify the pivotal investments that will begin to change that.”

The Field Foundation, with support from MacArthur Foundation and Democracy Fund, then launched the Media and Storytelling grantmaking program to “support visibility for journalists and storytellers of color, many of whom have limited resources to support their work,” directly addressing the problems identified by Solomon and Hart’s research.

The need for diversity

People don’t see themselves in publications unless there’s a shooting or a stabbing

Sheila Solomon on why many black and Latino Chicagoans she spoke with don’t trust legacy media

Solomon says that while wider technological and economic trends contributed to legacy newsroom cutbacks, commercial newsrooms themselves also bear responsibility. Extractive profit models, lack of newsroom diversity and overemphasis on crime coverage led to low trust from Chicago’s sizeable black and Latino populations, she says.

Solomon says that while smaller nonprofits and community outlets may lack the financial and institutional resources of legacy newsrooms, they tend to have much stronger relationships with the communities they cover, often because they work explicitly toward newsroom diversity and actively seek and incorporate feedback from their audience about what stories to cover.

As an Ecosystem Builder, Solomon is working to help legacy institutions see these smaller outlets not as competition, but as potential collaborators – and as vital resources in learning how to rebuild relationships with underserved communities that have been lost over the years, or that were nonexistent to begin with.

A return to journalism’s roots

Solomon says she tries to show her former legacy newsroom colleagues that organizations like City Bureau are keeping alive the highest ideals of journalism in an age when a lack of resources and time keeps many reporters behind their desks.

“They are engaging the community in a way that people like me did when I got in this business 45 years ago,” Solomon says. “We knew you couldn’t just sit at your desk. We didn’t want to, anyway! Our job was being out there, being a part of the community, connecting with real people, not just politicians and business owners.”

She says that the smaller newsrooms’ commitment to community engagement is a way to help reporters at legacy papers get back to the profession’s roots.

Chris Fusco, editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, says that the importance of the City Bureau model is not lost on him. He hired reporters Manny Ramos, a former City Bureau fellow, and Carlos Ballesteros through Report for America, which helps place young reporters in newsrooms and pays half their salary. The two cover the city’s predominately black and Latino south and west sides (a massive portion of the city), where residents often feel misrepresented by legacy media’s crime and violence reporting. The two focus instead on health, education, immigration and the role of nonprofits. When a local barber was killed by police in July, 2018, setting off widespread protests, Ramos and Ballesteros published a story for the Sun-Times on the vital social role played by barbers across the city. “A couple years ago, we didn’t have the depth and bandwidth to do that,” says Fusco.

A study from New York University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism weighed the successes and limitations of their Report for America placement with the Sun-Times.

Collaboration is the future

What we’re all realizing is that we’re all in the same mission and in it together. We’re trying to do great work, serve our readers, service society and keep an eye on government.

Chicago Sun-Times Editor-in-Chief Chris Fusco

As Solomon has worked to build relationships between newsrooms of different sizes and ownership, she says she has come to understand more deeply the pressures and constraints that legacy newsrooms face. She says their disconnection from smaller organizations is often not intentional or malicious. Recently, she convened a dinner for leaders from newsrooms of different sizes at a colleague’s home.

“It was stunning that these people had never met face-to-face. But then I thought ‘well, why would they come together?,” Solomon says. “By the time you get home from your daytime news job, you’re probably not going to call peers from other organizations. People are wiped out and they feel like they’re competitors still.”

The Sun-Times has teamed up with a number of nonprofit outlets in recent years like Injustice Watch and BGA News to make up for their lost capacity, but Fusco says that the logistics are new and unwieldy. “Whereas it used to be all under one roof, now we’re scattered…it is complicated, but what we’re all realizing is that we’re all in the same mission and in it together. We’re trying to do great work, serve our readers, service society and keep an eye on government.”

Solomon says that even while newsroom leaders recognize the need to collaborate, there is a lack of infrastructure to support the necessary shift from competition to collaboration for these newsrooms. However, continuous connection from people like Solomon can help get things started.

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About the Author

Public Square Intern Kip Dooley wrote this report on Chicago's local news ecosystem

Kip Dooley was the Public Square Program’s Summer 2019 graduate intern. This project was completed for his MA in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University, and edited for the Local News Lab. You can learn more about Kip and his work here on his personal website.