In 1986, the year we started Newcity, the almighty Tribune Company dominated all local media from a gothic tower, presiding over the Magnificent Mile like the lord of Chicago it was.
It had been a momentous decade for the company, founded back in 1847, marked by the expansion of its Tribune Broadcasting division into the WGN “Superstation” that would cross the nation, the purchase of the Chicago Cubs in 1981 and the company’s initial public offering in 1983. This last event allowed the company to more easily raise capital to expand its empire, but also meant that its longtime family ownership under the heirs of Joseph Medill, who’d owned it since 1855, would increasingly be diminished in influence. Although no one thought so at the time, it would prove to be portentous.
The Tribune Tower was a Chicago landmark, erected by the newspaper’s larger-than-life publisher Colonel Robert McCormick through the mid-1920s, the final design the winner of probably the most famous architecture competition in history. So vast was the empire that he oversaw, McCormick commanded his foreign correspondents to bring stones to Chicago from world landmarks, 149 in all, including the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon and the Palace of Westminster, so that they might be included in the building’s walls.
For more than half-a-century, the newspaper was not only created in this Boul Mich edifice, but printed there as well. But by 1981, these tony confines could no longer contain the massive operation that printing the paper had become, especially on Sundays when the publication, inches-thick with ads, would deliver more than a million copies. And so the hulk of a factory, Freedom Center, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, opened up along the Chicago River, at 560 West Grand. Unlike the grand Tribune Tower, this massive brick-and-concrete building was all about manufacturing, wasting no resources on terra cotta or even windows. Trains could deliver newsprint directly into the state-of-the-art factory.
” Enormous 1-ton rolls of paper are brought in by train and truck and stacked high in a cavernous warehouse. The rolls feed 10 large offset web printing presses, where cylinders with aluminum press plates and rubber blankets transfer ink to paper at blazing speeds. Inserting machines are then used to place millions of targeted advertising flyers into the newspaper for delivery.”—Open House Chicago
When onetime Chicago newspapermen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play, “The Front Page” premiered on Broadway in 1928, the Tribune was one of eight Chicago newspapers represented in the cast of characters of reporters. Over subsequent years, the rise of broadcasting and the changing demographics of the American population drove all but the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times out of business. (The last to go, the Chicago Daily News, which folded in 1978, is fondly remembered by many as the very best, including its survivors.) By the late eighties, the Chicago Sun-Times was residing across the street from the Tribune on Wabash, sprawled along the Chicago River in a seven-story utilitarian building, erected in 1947 but not aging as well as the edifice that was the Tribune Tower.
By the late 1980s, the media landscape that would define Chicago for most of my lifetime had settled in.
Radio had adapted to its backseat status to television by shifting gears, and was driven by high-profile DJ personalities like Steve Dahl and Jonathon Brandmeier, who strutted as celebrities in their own right. (Dahl rose to fame in part by parodying the Tribune’s ratings powerhouse WGN and its number-one morning DJ, Wally Phillips, as hopelessly out of touch, with his song, “Oh Wally” sung by “the Lady from Tinley Park.”) Public radio hardly registered. Back then, WBEZ was tucked away in the upper reaches of the old Bankers Building in the Loop, in a ragged, shopworn space befitting an afterthought like a radio station, better known for its jazz shows than for NPR programming, that was founded by the public school system.
If these new-generation radio DJs were now luminaries, network-affiliate TV news operated in their own stratosphere, one where news anchors and weathermen were the A-listers of local celebrity, on the launching pad for a career of national news stardom. (A few who cut their teeth in Chicago: Lester Holt, Jane Pauley, Tamron Hall, Deborah Norville, Bill Kurtis, Don Lemon.)
Meanwhile, the Chicago Reader was in its second decade and had become an advertising powerhouse aligned with the rebirth of the city and the exploding Boomer demographic. It was printed on black-and-white newsprint that took three 56-page sections, tucked and folded into one thick bundle, to contain its long-form journalism and display and classified ads. (It would expand to four sections.) Even the Reader’s headquarters, a vintage River North office building that its owners had astutely purchased at a time when River North was still the not-so-attractive North Loop, added to its mystique. While sales people at other media outlets had to chase advertising dollars with wining, dining and miles of customer service on their cars, the Reader was almost ambivalent about the millions it raked in each year, requiring advertisers to queue up in lines that ran down the block on deadline day in order to place their ads and eagerly fork over their money.
For our part, Newcity launched in our South Loop rental apartment, followed quickly by a dingy not-yet-rehabbed office space nearby, where I once vanquished a mouse with a broom, flipping it across the room like a hockey puck. It was next to the Metra tracks, where the sound of idling trains would overwhelm conversations, since windows were kept open in the absence of air conditioning. We lasted there a year, until our lease was up, then moved into an upstairs loft right on Printers Row, where we’d stay for the next six years.
Today, more than three decades later, the mighty and almost-mighty from those days have fallen, with one exception.
WBEZ has soared in audience, in influence and in resources, acting as the launching pad for seminal genre-defining podcasts “This American Life” and “Serial,” as well as the national hit quiz show, “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” And befitting its status, the station now resides in state-of-the-art broadcast facilities in the city’s marquee Navy Pier.
As Robert Feder, the dean of Chicago media reporters, says, “There’s no question about the rise of WBEZ as a premier news organization in Chicago. The station’s ratings bear it out, its budget bears it out, and the growth of the newsroom bears it out. And it all coincides with the sharply reduced commitment of Chicago’s commercial stations to covering the news.”
The Sun-Times never recovered from its short era of ownership under Rupert Murdoch from 1984 to 1986—most visible was the loss of star columnist Mike Royko, who ceremoniously refused to work for the notorious Australian-born media mogul and took his audience and his prominent position in the newspaper to the hated Tribune. Before long, the paper passed into the hands of notorious right-wing Canadian press baron Conrad Black and his partner David Radler, who would both end up in jail for skimming and pocketing the paper’s profits. Black, the ultimate sycophant, would eventually be pardoned by President Trump in 2019, an occasion which prompted Feder to write in his column, “The once-profitable Sun-Times never fully recovered from the crime spree carried out by Black and Radler. Coupled with a downturn in newspaper advertising, the fallout from their convictions and related scandals led to the Sun-Times filing for bankruptcy in 2009.”
After bankruptcy, the left-for-dead newspaper passed through a succession of civic-minded owners. It’s owned by such today, calling itself the “hardest-working paper in America,” which says more about its partial ownership by labor unions than the potential appeal of its content. And its building? That prime real estate on the Chicago River was sold during the Conrad Black years to a notorious New York real estate developer, and now Trump Tower is the most despised edifice in Chicago. The newspaper occupies space in a West Loop building identified by most of us as the site of a prominent Goodwill store.
The founders of the Reader appeared to do quite well, selling their building during the hot River North market as well as the paper itself at or near the peak of newspaper pricing, right before valuations would collapse, garnering a reported thirty-to-forty-million dollars for it and its sibling Washington City Paper in 2007, to an investors group. That group was led by unsuspecting Ben Eason of the Atlanta Creative Loafing founding family, who raised private equity money for the purchase, only to see the transaction take his whole enterprise into bankruptcy the following year. The Reader, threatened by the well-established-and-expanding London publication Time Out’s launch in Chicago for what would be a high-profile if short-lived run as a weekly magazine, shape-shifted from its classic multi-section quarter-fold into a full-color tabloid, even experimenting with glossy covers. Time Out Chicago passed from the print firmament, and the Reader kept reeling, first under the ownership of moneymen, then for a while within the Sun-Times stable, thanks to the outsized ambition of then-CEO Michael Ferro. Today, the biweekly is independent again, and has given up on its profit-driven heritage entirely as it makes the transition to nonprofit status.
While the Reader was caught in its downward spiral, we weren’t doing much better at Newcity. Ownership stability saved us, as we were able to make decisive changes quickly to reduce costs and turn the business in a different direction. At the end of the nineties, we had sleek offices designed by Dirk Denison Architects holding sixty-five or so full-time employees; in 2010, we made the decision to go completely virtual, and have operated with a much smaller staff and dramatically reduced expenses since.
An apparent bastion of stability throughout this era has been Crain Communications, publisher of Crain’s Chicago Business, which has been in the same family’s hands since its founding in 1916. While it has no doubt suffered mightily with its many trade publications, including its best-known, Advertising Age, the Chicago operation has seemingly prospered from a decisive shift to digital with a rigid paywall. Even more, it’s benefited from the heritage of terrible business coverage at the city’s daily newspapers in a metropolis that boasts more Fortune 500 companies than any city outside of New York.
Chicago magazine has also enjoyed a steady if low-profile trajectory, with a heritage of high-quality journalism and dining coverage mixed in among service features targeted at the so-called suburban-soccer-mom demographic. But it has been part of the Chicago Tribune universe since 2002 and, unfortunately, its fate is inextricably tangled up in the Tribune’s ongoing ownership messes.
And what messes. Never have the mighty fallen so far as the Tribune Company over my adult lifetime. Gone are the Chicago Cubs, sold off to the Ricketts family, a pack of rich Trump backers who make the FDR-bashing Colonel McCormick look liberal by comparison and who played their own footnote role in the ongoing journalism narrative with their role in the abrupt shuttering of micro-local news site DNAInfo. (Though they did break the Cubs World Series curse, creating a conflicted sense of endearment for a Democratic city.) Gone is WGN, its network of TV stations, its ownership in the WB (which became the CW). Gone, too, is the Los Angeles Times, which should have been the crown jewel in the Tribune’s newspaper empire, the one it coveted for so long and landed in 2000, just in time for the entire industry to begin a transition from its era of easy, steady profits into one that rewards innovation. (See, for example the New York Times, which remains under control of longtime owners the Sulzberger family—notice a pattern?—and has quadrupled its valuation to more than $8 billion over the same five-year period that the Tribune has been churning in place. Or even the Washington Post, which thirty-five years ago would have been considered on a par with the Tribune but has, under the ownership of Jeff Bezos, re-established itself as a vital national force on a level that its onetime Chicago peer can only look up to with envy.) Also gone are Sam Zell and Michael Ferro, self-anointed would-be saviors who converted fortune in an unrelated industry into an entrepreneurial god complex. They would save newspapers through their maverick, disruptive style, a style that foreshadowed the Trump presidency. This led to purported sex acts in the executive offices in the Zell era, and astonishing idiocy in strategy (remember “tronc”?) blended with allegations of sexual harassment under Ferro. Just as Murdoch’s regime doomed the Sun-Times, so too, did this later run of owner buffoons destroy the Tribune.
Nothing is more emblematic of the Tribune’s misfortune than its real estate. Even though the Michigan Avenue headquarters and the printing plant in River West were specifically designed and built for the newspaper, the 2013 breakup of the company into two pieces—the broadcast business, which was sold to Nexstar Media Group in 2018, and the legacy publishing business—handed the real estate to broadcasting and left the newspaper as a mere tenant, paying rent. No one thought that would end well, and sure enough, just three years later, the paper was given its walking papers and was forced to take up residence just on the other side of the Chicago River at Prudential Plaza. The tower, once so synonymous with the newspaper that the newspaper company was often just referred to as “The Tower,” was converted to luxury condominiums, with a slick website that begs to be read in the “News on the March” voice from “Citizen Kane.”
“From the renowned Hall of Inscriptions to walls filled with historic relics of worldwide significance, Tribune Tower’s original design elements have been carefully and respectfully restored to preserve its dramatic impact. In its rebirth as Tribune Tower Residences, the building’s rich architectural elements are reflected in masterfully articulated new expressions—creating a seamless connection between yesterday and today.”
But at least the Tribune landed in a good place at Prudential Plaza, an address befitting the still-central role it expects to play in the city’s business world and public consciousness, right? Not for long. Under cover of the pandemic, the publicly traded company with annual EBITDA cash flow of nearly a hundred million dollars and more than ninety million dollars in cash on its balance sheet, skipped out on $4.8 million dollars in rent, according to a lawsuit brought by its landlord, which has led to moving everyone—executives, reporters and editors—into its off-the-beaten-path printing factory, the one without windows and an interior vibe more like the factory in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” than the bustling city newsroom of the classic Chicago newspaper noir, “Call Northside 777.” At least the editors can easily run into the pressroom and yell, “Stop the presses!” as if that was actually a thing. That is, until they are forced out again when the landlords decide to develop that increasingly valuable thirty-acre tract of property, a prospect under active consideration. Then they’ll need a new location for printing presses as well as people.
Talk about demoralizing. But it gets worse.
A few years ago, I was on a panel discussion with other media executives, one of whom had worked closely with Michael Ferro. While we were chatting after the event, I asked him, “What’s Ferro like?” “He’s Donald Trump,” he whispered. And like Trump, when he got “fired,” Ferro tried to blow everything up on his way out. And unlike Trump, he succeeded in doing so, selling his 9.07 million shares, representing more than a quarter of the company and enough to shape its destiny, to the secretive Alden Global Capital LLC, the Darth Vader of the newspaper business.
Alden is a New York City hedge fund established by Randall D. Smith in 2007, which controls more than fifty daily newspapers in the United States and has established itself as a strip-miner of newspapers, aggressively cutting costs (read: journalists) in the pursuit of profits. “The Hedge Fund Vampire That Bleeds Newspapers Dry Now Has the Chicago Tribune by the Throat” read the headline in Vanity Fair shortly after the deal was announced. That story recounts the efforts of two top journalists at the Tribune, David Jackson and Gary Marx, to do anything to stop Alden from destroying the newspaper, including reaching out to dozens of wealthy Chicagoans who might have the resources to take over the paper. None were interested. (A well-known Tribune journalist told me that “the saddest thing is that no one in Chicago wants to step up. No one wants to be the Jeff Bezos of Chicago.”) Around the country, journalists have been in open revolt against Alden; websites collecting petition signatures abound. Oh, one more thing. Alden founder Smith and his wife donated $100,000 to the Trump Victory Fund in 2019, according to the NewsGuild. Notice a pattern?
A side note. I got to know Randall Smith’s younger brother Russ a little bit in the nineties, when he parlayed his profits from selling the Baltimore City Paper, which he’d founded, into the brash NY Press, which aimed to dislodge the then-powerful Village Voice from its perch atop the alternative-weekly market in New York. Russ wrote a weekly column that led off the paper as “Mugger,” and his subjects were usually restaurants, the media and conservative causes. Yes, conservative. He was an odd duck in the aging-hippie milieu of alt-weeklies, routinely showing up at industry events or at his offices sporting business suits and Wall Street haircuts. But the NY Press under his leadership was really good: it published some of the best cartoonists and illustrators in the country, and hired some really terrific writers and editors, including Sam Sifton, now the highly visible food editor of the New York Times, but one of the top editors at the NY Press when I got to know him. You’d think that this experience with really good journalists would be something Russ could talk up to Randy at family gatherings, but alas, the commercial fortunes of the operation never matched its quality, and Russ sold it in 2002.
On Tuesday, Alden locked its vulture death grip around the Tribune’s neck; they’ll buy the remainder of Tribune Publishing in a deal that values the company at $630 million. No good thing is expected.
When the most recent Alden news broke, Chicago Tribune reporter and guild president Gregory Pratt tweeted out:
“Alden could own the Chicago Tribune and other TribPub newspapers outright by end of month, per the Wall Street Journal.
“This would be truly catastrophic for the people of this city and state, along with every other town served by the company. Yikes”
To which radio personality Peter Sagal responded:
“The worst thing to happen to our city since the Fire.”
But the fact is, the Tribune has been in an accelerated state of self-destruction for a very long time. The core product of a newspaper is its journalism, so consider this: the once-mighty Tribune Washington Bureau and its twenty employees was handed off to the Los Angeles Times when that paper was sold off to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, effectively signaling the end of its days when it established the Midwest as a force on the national stage. Today, coverage of Washington comes from Associated Press stories (sometimes the same ones that run in the Sun-Times, which at least has Lynn Sweet covering things from a Chicago and Illinois perspective). For example, the Friday, February 12, 2021 edition of the Chicago Tribune had ten stories in its Nation & World section; all ten were pulled from wire services, including its three lead stories, which came from the New York Times, which I and countless other Chicago-based New York Times subscribers had already read. Maybe the stones for the next headquarters can come from the IKEA in Bolingbrook and the Woodfield Mall.
At the end of 2020, the company offered buyouts to its top journalists: pulling the ripcord and jumping out included Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin, venerable dining critic Phil Vettel and highly respected classical music critic Howard Reich. Less than a year ago, the paper’s longtime rock critic Greg Kot took his own buyout. For people like me, with that crew went much of the reason I read the paper. I wish the news that the Arts & Entertainment Department at the paper has been renamed the Things To Do Department was an Onion headline, but alas, no; I got it directly from a member of that team. Is it any surprise that replacing the depleted ranks of critics does not seem to be a priority?
(Add to that list of departing journalists topnotch investigative reporter Gary Marx, he of the open revolt against Alden that was written up in Vanity Fair.)
I can’t help but fear that the Freedom Center will be the Chicago Tribune’s La Brea Tar Pits. But does anyone care? Does it matter?
If you are a believer in Schumpeter’s gale of creative destruction, probably not. From those fossils, something better will arise. And as prone to nostalgia as I am, I recognize that the Chicago Tribune has often disappointed me as a vessel of journalism my entire adult life. When it had the resources, it wasted them chasing demographics instead of stories. So I understand the impulse to get out the world’s smallest violin.
New things, maybe even better ones, are arising, although all operate with a tiny fraction of the resources that the Tribune still commands, even today. Most promising is Block Club Chicago, a digital journalism nonprofit formed from the remnants of DNAChicago, that ballyhooed multi-city experiment in local journalism bankrolled by billionaire family patriarch Joe Ricketts. When the New York staff decided to unionize in 2017, he unceremoniously shut the company down a week later and devoted his free time to raising money for Donald Trump. (On January 17, Ricketts announced a new foray into the news business, the Omaha-based Straight Arrow News, that, he told the Omaha World-Herald, “will do what other outlets aren’t doing — providing news without a political slant.”)
Within months after the DNA shutdown, three of its Chicago leaders, Jen Sabella, Shamus Toomey and Stephanie Lulay hatched a plan that would continue DNA’s mission of bringing high-quality journalism to the neighborhood level, but rather than rely on the vicissitudes of an autocratic rich man to fund it, it would be a nonprofit, with foundation support, yes, but more importantly, reader support through Kickstarter donations to start, and then subscribers to keep it going. In other words, a variation on the public broadcasting model. It’s working so far. The crowdfunding campaign raised more than $183,000 from thousands of backers, making it the most successful journalism project in Kickstarter’s history. Two-and-a-half years later, it consistently breaks news in Chicago, and has stepped up with comprehensive coronavirus coverage at the community level that delivers on the idea of public-service journalism in a fundamental way. According to co-founder and managing editor Stephanie Lulay, the company ended 2020 with a fifty-percent jump in paid subscribers over the previous year, to 15,000. This meant that seventy percent of their revenue last year came from their readers.
Block Club now has seventeen full-time employees, along with a network of freelance reporters and an annual budget for 2021 of $1.3 million. They are already a sustainable business. As great as this is, however, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds, if not thousands of full-time journalism jobs lost in Chicago in the last two decades. James O’Shea, who was managing editor of the Chicago Tribune from 2001-2006, cites a “newsroom of 700 journalists who won six Pulitzer prizes during his tenure” on his LinkedIn page. Today, that newsroom is lucky to be a third of that size.
According to Block Club’s Lulay, “The biggest difference between our newsroom and the legacy newspapers in Chicago is how we divvy up beats and allocate resources. At legacy newspapers, reporters working in a downtown newsroom are assigned by traditional beat—cops, courts, schools, etc. At Block Club, reporters are assigned to cover a small geographic area—typically three or four neighborhoods.
Our full-time reporters are embedded in the communities they cover, allowing them to report daily with context, respect and deep knowledge instead of parachuting in. Many of them live in the neighborhoods they cover, too. We believe this ground-level approach leads to a more accurate portrayal of a neighborhood and builds trust over time. Many of the neighborhoods we serve have long been underserved by legacy media.
Another key difference is of course our financial model and corporate structure. Block Club is a nonprofit, subscription-based newsroom run by journalists. We’re not owned by a hedge fund.”
Nonprofit news is trending, but could it become the preferred model for journalism after all? Public television in Chicago seems incapable of innovating, but that has not been the case for public radio. Beyond Block Club, the one-time money machine of the Chicago Reader has cast its lot with a nonprofit future as well.
The Reader is under the innovative leadership of publisher Tracy Baim, who left behind her baby, the now-digital-only LGBT newspaper Windy City Times, to have a go at the helm of a publication that certainly once filled her with envy for its profits. (I know it did me.) By pursuing nonprofit status, her shift in the publication’s center away from its onetime white boomers and toward BIPOC and LGBTQ issues is strategically shrewd as well as a social good as it aligns with the foundations and their objectives. Being a nonprofit is not a panacea; foundations replace advertisers in the priority pantheon, but are equally fickle, even mercurial, albeit in other ways. I speak from personal experience: last year, after the pandemic hit, but before the murder of George Floyd, a swelling of foundation and other corporate funds were allocated to save the media, which found itself free-falling into a dark existential well alongside restaurants and other higher-profile sufferers. But those funds, I quickly found out, had big strings—actually ropes—attached; in most cases they were allocated to coverage of the pandemic, to BIPOC issues, or some combination of both. Laudable causes, of course, but not a full representation of the damage being done. Coverage of the arts and artists—Newcity’s focus—though devastated by the pandemic, were not a priority. We were shut out. It was a cautionary lesson. At Newcity, we’re too committed to the idea of independent journalism providing a vital role as the ‘Fourth Estate” in a democracy to be comfortable with a path where your fate would be so deeply subject to the whims of a grant officer. Advertisers attempt to exert far less influence, and when they do, none are so big that we could not survive without them.
The experience of the Chicago News Cooperative might also be a cautionary tale. Started by James O’Shea, who had served as managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and editor of the Los Angeles Times, CNC was as high-profile an experiment in nonprofit journalism as the city has ever seen. O’Shea brought in James Warren, another longtime Tribune editor who followed him as managing editor, along with five other full-timers and an annual budget out of the gate of more than a million dollars. Their model was to supplement the journalism of other outfits, notably the New York TImes, who signed them on to produce a two-page Chicago section twice a week. They raised $3.5 million in their short life, including a million from the MacArthur Foundation, but when that well went dry, the CNC foundered in a heartbeat. “For O’Shea,” wrote Robert Channick in a Chicago Tribune postmortem at the time, “the CNC’s demise has convinced him that while nonprofit news organizations can be viable and vital, a business model based on philanthropy is doomed to fail. ‘If you cannot figure out a way that you can raise revenue from your content, and if you can’t diversify your revenue stream, you’ll never make it,’ O’Shea said.”
It’s a lesson that Block Club Chicago has clearly taken to heart, and that the Reader, with its frequent audience-donation drives, seems to get as well.
The Reader has become the leader in pushing the envelope, not only for itself, but in forming the Chicago Independent Media Association (CIMA), it has set the table for collaboration across a wide swath of entities, from Newcity to Kartemquin Films to non-English-language media to email newsletters like Chicago Public Square. It has led the way on collaborative ad sales, as well as group fundraisers—an emergency version under the rubric “Save the Media” last year raised $160,000, spread among more than forty member media companies (including Newcity). And, perhaps equally important, CIMA is serving as a journalism clearinghouse for special projects, including training and grants.
While many of us in CIMA are now old-guard media operations, the city has a proliferation of startups—many of them also CIMA members—with missions and methods targeted at very specific audiences, like The Triibe (“a digital media platform showcasing innovative content to reshape the narrative of Black Chicago”), City Bureau (“a nonprofit civic journalism lab based on the South Side of Chicago”) and AirGo (“a weekly podcast and cultural media hub in Chicago, showcasing the artists, rappers, poets, musicians, organizers, and changemakers reshaping the culture of the city and country for the more equitable and creative”).
Add to that list the increasing opportunity for journalists to simply go direct to audiences, whether through new services like Substack, which creates a direct monetization channel from writer to audience—no editor, no advertisers, just the service taking its ten-percent cut. Others build their own, like Michael Gebert with his excellent Fooditor project. Kris Vire rose to local prominence when he was theater editor of TimeOut Chicago; when that gig ended, he was forced into the freelance market. He was one of Chicago’s first journalists to start up on Substack with his Storefront Rebellion theater newsletter.
“At the time that I put the newsletter on hiatus last summer, I had just over 700 total subscribers, about 140 of whom were paying. At the rate I had set ($6 monthly or $60 annually), that worked out to around $740 a month in gross income, before taxes. A welcome supplement to other income, but certainly not enough to pay the bills.
I love Substack as a platform, and I’m proud to have been a relatively early adopter; I hope to get back to it when theater is back up and running. But I’ve struggled to figure out how to make sure that [a] paying audience gets something premium for their money, while also making sure the work I’m putting in has an impact beyond 140 people. I think there’s huge opportunity in newsletters on topics with broad appeal, like politics, business, tech or sports, and for writers who already have large and loyal followings — Roxane Gay just launched her Substack last month, and she’s already at the top of the leaderboard for the Culture category.
It’s tougher to reach critical mass with a focus that’s both inherently local and a niche interest within that local market, in a time when a lot of people don’t even want to pay for local newspapers. But Chicago has so many passionate theatergoers who I think would appreciate some expert guidance in their inboxes. I’ll keep trying to reach them.”
And then there are things like Facebook Groups. We started Newcity in 1986 as a neighborhood paper for the South Loop. We were way ahead of the curve in terms of the neighborhood and migrated to a citywide model, but other publications, in print, filled the void, including the late Chicago Journal and the still-going Gazette, which is centered in Little Italy but has consistently expanded its beat over the years. While I still read the Gazette, I rarely get neighborhood news from it; instead I turn to Sloopin, a blog that culls from social media and other sources, or even more so, the Facebook group Hello South Loop! (HSL), which crowdsources news (and a lot of “artistic” skyline photos) from its 15,300 members. Reading comments on HSL after the protests that followed the George Floyd murder last summer taught me that you really don’t want to get to know many of your neighbors too well, although the moderators did their best to steer the conversation in constructive ways. Plus, the way the site was used to organize clean-up for small businesses that had been looted was heartwarming.
Speaking of social media, it’s become a primary driver of how most of us get our news, curated based on our own social circles and their interests, along with some highly targeted advertisers. And we know how well that’s working.
Given the firehose of information we’re all trying to drink from, what does it matter that the establishment mainstream media, the Tribune and Sun-Times, have been dying a slow death before our eyes or, in more cases, out of our sight, as their audiences and number of journalists are a fraction of what they were at their peak?
Information diversification is a good thing. At its worst, which was also its peak of power and influence, the media was an oligopoly that routinely shut out diverse voices. But the problem now is that we’re in a transitional mess, where the pulleys and levers of social media allow dangerous nutjob causes like QAnon to speak with the same volume as, say, Black Lives Matter.
I was never a Pollyanna about the problems with big media, but in retrospect I overestimated the durability of basic journalistic values. Since scrappy little Newcity was able to adhere to them when we started, I assumed, wrongly, that they would endure through the explosion and media fragmentation that was to come.
The problem we’re facing now is that we’re losing the common conversation that binds us as a society. The horror show we endured during the four years of the Trump administration, culminating in the events of January 6, were a direct result of this; half the country still has confidence in mainstream media, the other half is watching Fox News and its political offspring and hearing an “alternative” reality. So far, this loss of faith in the veracity of established news sources has not soured the local punch—yet. But the weaker our journalistic institutions become, and the greater the diversity of news providers, the more likely we’ll find that we have nothing in common anymore. And that is dangerous for democracy.
One of the earliest memories I have of my father is of him reading the newspaper every day. I don’t remember ever discussing it with him, but it was conveyed to me that this was not for recreation or relaxation, but part of one’s responsibility as a citizen to stay informed. This was passed down from his father, and I have similar memories of my grandfather with the newspaper. For me, after graduating from college, getting a newspaper subscription was an automatic rite of adulthood. How could I vote, or participate in democracy if I did not try to keep up?
I’ve been writing about Chicago media for a long time; in the early nineties for a couple of years, I wrote a weekly column under the name Hildy Johnson (a nod to the star reporter of “The Front Page”). Throughout that time, I expressed forceful opinions grounded in the idea that we were all keeping up with the same news sources, with varying degrees of intensity, of course, but that the base was solid and shared.
I no longer have that confidence. I am older now but even more, our media base has shattered into a million little pieces. The only way I know if a friend reads something that I’ve read is if I share a link with them. We’re constructing our own information bubbles, customized to our interests and susceptibility to influences. To better understand this, I conducted a very unscientific study of the media diets of folks I connected to via Facebook, as well as via friends and family. (See Media Diets sidebar.) Though it skews big city, liberal and older and thus does not reflect all of “America,” it’s still sobering.
For thirty years or so, Newcity and the Chicago Reader were leading examples of the “alternative newsweekly” phenomenon. We positioned ourselves as credible outsider voices to the mainstream media. We prided ourselves on rigorous adherence to journalistic standards, to telling the truth to power, and to being great storytellers. Newcity left the alt-weekly world a few years ago, as that once-vital industry crumbled. Now all media are alternative. But there’s nothing left to be alternative to. The center is gone.