On Wednesday night, in support of the fall NewsMatch campaign, the Evanston RoundTable hosted an online panel of journalists and journalism experts who discussed the challenges facing local news ecosystems both across the country and here in Evanston. 

Moderated by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism Dean Charles Whitaker, the November 17 panel featured Tracy Baim, President and Co-Publisher of the Chicago Reader and founder of the Chicago Independent Media Alliance; Laura Washington, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist and political analyst for ABC-7 Chicago; and Tim Franklin, Medill’s Senior Associate Dean and the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News. 

Vice President of the RoundTable’s Board of Directors Mark Miller, a career journalist himself, kicked off the webinar by updating the audience on the RoundTable’s progress in building the online publication into a local nonprofit news source, and also invited attendees to donate to the RoundTable’s reporting efforts here

After some quick introductions, Whitaker kicked off the discussion by posing a key question: What does the local news landscape look like right now, and what are the challenges and areas of opportunity? 

Washington pointed out that the greater Chicago region is lucky to count itself as a major innovator in the digital media landscape, with varied local news sources cropping up frequently over the last decade and beyond. 

“I think that we need to really celebrate and think long and hard about the wealth, breadth and depth of what we have in the Chicago area,” Washington said. “This has always been a megamedia town, and I think it continues to be. Certainly there are challenges, particularly in legacy media, but I think there’s a lot to be excited about.”

But Baim quickly added that the state of local news depends heavily on the region of the country. In the United States, there are more than 200 counties with no local news source, including three in southern Illinois, according to Franklin. That problem has become so dire that Congress has added a provision of the Local News Sustainability Act to President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation; if passed it would provide a tax credit up to 50% of a local journalist’s salary in the first year it goes into effect. 

“This may be the most profound legislation affecting local news in half a century if it’s passed,” Franklin said. 

And when it comes to what makes local news sources successful, all three panelists agreed that one of the most important points is developing multiple robust revenue streams, from subscriptions to events to advertising. 

With many larger legacy media organizations and print publications cutting down their workforces, journalists are finding a new entrepreneurial spirit to continue doing the work that they love, Washington said. One of the major changes in the modern media landscape compared with previous generations of news, for example, is that young journalists no longer even need a job to be able to write stories and produce their own content. Through social media and websites like Substack that allow people to publish stories as individuals, reporters can put their coverage online and grow an audience by themselves. 

Ultimately, the news world is currently at a crossroads, according to Franklin, but there are some exciting paths and opportunities that are presenting themselves to reporters. And rather than discussing the death of journalism, news outlets instead need to focus on ways to show the public the reliability and importance of the stories that they publish, Baim said.

“I don’t think the message of saving journalism resonates for anybody that’s not a journalist,” Baim said. “It really is about explaining a story and how it effected change. The stories are what resonates.” 

Follow this link for a recording of the panel discussion.

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...