Alden Global Capital has wasted no time living up to its reputation for squeezing costs since acquiring Tribune Publishing last month, quickly offering a buyout to newsroom employees at the Chicago Tribune, among the largest daily newspapers in the country. The $630m deal makes the New York-based hedge fund the second-largest newspaper owner in the US, behind Gannett, publisher of USA Today. And it also hands Alden, known for cost cutting at the expense of journalism, control of some of the country’s most-storied big-city dailies – the Tribune, the New York Daily News and the Baltimore Sun.
“It was their second day in full control when they started to do what we warned that they would do – start slashing newsrooms,” said Gregory Pratt, president of the Chicago Tribune union, adding that the newspaper has lost 30% of its unionized staff since 2018, much of that after Alden became the majority shareholder of Tribune Publishing in 2019.
Alden’s arrival in the nation’s third-largest media market has shaken the news landscape. But unlike in other cities where the hedge fund has acquired newspapers, the purchase of the Tribune, one of two major dailies in Chicago – the other is the scrappy Chicago Sun-Times – isn’t as much of a threat to local news. Instead, the company’s purchase of the Tribune puts in focus a hotly debated question: are calls to save local journalism the same as saving local newspapers?
As newspapers continue a nearly two-decade decline, studies show that many communities are losing reliable information about local and state government, potentially fueling intense partisan politics, corruption and inefficiency. Chicago, however, is in a different situation. The city has a thriving experimental news scene.
Historically, the city has cultivated a robust, diverse news environment, from the Chicago Defender, which lured thousands of southern Blacks to the north for opportunity during the Great Migration to the writings of Studs Terkel, the oral historian of the city’s working masses. And in the past few years, its powerful hometown foundations have boosted the work of local journalists and storytellers, elevating Chicago’s profile as a center for innovation in both the approach to news and its funding.
The city stands out for its legacy media and the quantity and quality of its new experiments in journalism, said Josh Stearns, program director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund, a major national journalism funder.
“We need a lot more Chicagos around the country,” said Stearns. “Yes, Alden has bought this longstanding newsroom, but newsrooms and communities all over the city are working together, honoring different approaches, testing and sharing what’s working. Together, they’re imagining a future for the city where news and information actually helps all people thrive.”
Chicago’s web of news and information mends many of the coverage holes often left by legacy media such as the Tribune in a racially diverse city that is roughly one-third Latino, one-third white and one-third Black.
“I see more young journalists and some older journalists finding different ways to keep their communities informed as much as they can, given their size,” said Sheila Solomon, a former Tribune recruiter and vice-chair of Journalism Funding Partners, which supports diversity and local media sustainability. “But, again, think about it, the big guys pretty much wiped their hands of these communities anyway.”
Chicago has about 200 print, online and broadcast media outlets, according to an estimate by Tracy Baim, publisher of the Chicago Reader, which founded the Chicago Independent Media Alliance (CIMA) to foster collaboration and help smaller newsrooms generate more revenue. Working together, these small news outlets can reach “far more people than the mainstream when it comes to authentic local news,” said Baim, who is also the publisher of the city’s longest-running LGBTQ newspaper, the Windy City Times.
The city’s new journalism and storytelling leaders have situated themselves in the communities they cover. They’re attempting to cultivate trust in communities weary of journalists, rather than parachuting in just long enough to cover the bad news or returning for worse news.
“It’s an exciting time for journalism and innovation in Chicago if you know the right places to look,” said Stephanie Lulay, managing editor and co-founder of Block Club Chicago, which covers some of the city’s 77 official neighbourhoods. “So many newsrooms are popping up, getting their foothold here. They’re doing vital work.”
Both for-profit and non-profit outlets are ensuring that traditionally underserved communities are not simply written about – but spoken to.
When city officials released a video showing the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in March, Block Club Chicago took care to avoid traumatizing its audience by tagging one story “GRAPHIC VIDEO”. Another story was tagged “NO VIDEO IN STORY”, with an editors’ note and the option to click a video link.
“When we lift and amplify more journalists and storytellers of different backgrounds, it actually rounds out the information that’s being shared,” said Angelique Power, president of the Field Foundation of Illinois. Recent heat maps produced by Field showed that over a 10-year period media outlets in underserved and communities of color in Chicago have received only 6% of overall grant funding, Power said.
Chicago has a very segregated news landscape, according to Kathy Im, director of Journalism & Media at the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation. A 2020 media analysis revealed that stories about the heavily Black West Side are more likely to be about crime, and articles about the North Side and downtown, home to many white residents, are prioritized in coverage.
“Journalism by itself can’t fix our democracy,” Im said. “[But] it should not replicate or reinforce systemic racism or historic segregation or stereotypical or inaccurate or incomplete narratives.”
MacArthur is investing $10m over three years in Chicago media. A few years ago, the foundation decided to support community-centered models like the non-profit City Bureau, which runs a program that pays residents to cover public meetings, a critical watchdog function once nearly the sole domain of newspapers. The Documenters program has spread to other cities, including Detroit and Cleveland in an initiative described as “collective journalism” by City Bureau co-founder Darryl Holliday.
“As the industry is crumbling, those meetings are going increasingly uncovered, unreported,” said Holliday, who is also the organization’s executive news lab director. “Because there are hundreds of them willing to do this work, we can be at every public meeting. We can be at every board meeting in the city every day, which no newsroom can do. So, they’re providing a public service that you just cannot find anywhere else that is critical to understanding how government works and impacts us.”
MacArthur gave Field $3m for a media and storytelling program that makes small grants. Most of the money has gone to newsrooms led by people of color. Other annual foundation investments in local media include $5m from the Robert R McCormick Foundation, $1.7m from Chicago Community Trust and $1m from The Joyce Foundation, according to Im. Field expects to invest about $1.4m this year in partnership with MacArthur, Chicago Community Trust, Democracy Fund and Ford Foundation.
While the foundations are helping develop a new landscape with many sources of local news, Baim said the city’s news outlets can’t rely on foundations. “It has to be about diversification of revenue, so there is no single point failure. That can mean different things to different media, depending on how they operate,” including advertising, merchandise, events, subscribers and individual donations, she said.
Stearns said philanthropy can help newsrooms test revenue strategies that are grounded in meeting community needs. “But all of this only works if the newsrooms are authentically and deeply connected with their communities – the future of news lies in that connection.”
Despite Chicago’s diverse local news scene, Alden’s purchase of the Pulitzer Prize-winning daily will still be felt, local journalists said.
“There’s a hardship for individual reporters, and [it] will have a negative impact in the short term on the journalism ecosystem in Chicago. I’m less sure about the impact in the long term,” said Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Invisible Institute, a small non-profit that shares a 2021 Pulitzer Prize for an investigation of the harm police dogs inflict on suspects.
“I sometimes think of the Tribune in the Chicago setting as being kind of like a big tree that creates a lot of shade, and is situated in a way that retards the growth of other new shoots, other new initiatives,” Kalven said. “You’re talking to me on a day when our small journalism startup won a Pulitzer prize and was a finalist for a second. That is outside the shade of the Tribune tree.
As I look around I see lots of promising young shoots coming up. That’s where the future of journalism in Chicago resides.”