We’re looking at more questions these days when considering our Chicago news ecosystem, than answers.

And those questions read a bit like the cliff hanger of a telenovela episode.

Can the problems of one metropolitan area attract attention in a national news cycle dominated by the doings in D.C.?

Which city daily will be the last newspaper standing?

Tune in next week as our above the fold story continues.

Chicago daily newspapers

In Chicago, we are no strangers to newspaper drama. A hundred years ago, there were about a dozen Chicago newspapers creating a time of crazed competition and compromised ethics finally captured in the play “The Front Page” (written by former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur).

Newspapers were at their height—and at their depth. Did we have good news and information? Were the news stories reliable and factual— or tabloid terrorism?

Today, we’re headed in different directions.

We thought we would be down to one Chicago daily newspaper or, more accurately, one newspaper owner. But instead of the businesses merging, Tronc and the Chicago Sun-Times ended up remaining competitors

But still, the negative voices are sounding the death knoll: Is it the end of news as we know it?

The answer: Yes, if what you know about Chicago news involves only the two newspapers.

But that just means, you don’t know what you don’t know about Chicago news.

We’ve been watching the Chicago daily newspapers shrink for years now.  And the two-newspaper, one-owner answer could work. It’s been done many times before.

In Chicago most recently, Tronc’s former namesake, the Tribune Company, operated the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Today.  Field Enterprises operated the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News.

In both cases, the newspapers remained in a fierce four-way competition— until they weren’t.  Today folded in 1974, the Daily News in 1978.

So success is possible. The Tribune and Sun-Times are two newsrooms filled with amazing talent (albeit very different cultures). In fact, one owner may actually fuel the rivalry, almost like sibling survival.

Journalism success means evolution

But here is the hitch. If both papers continue in the same manner. Nothing will change. Survival is going to take more than healthy competition. We need innovation, bold innovation. These newspapers have to step outside what is comfortable, what is status quo and move the work forward.  And in this case, innovation just might be defined by. . .  cooperation.

To go to a cliché here, what if, along with the competition, we all just tried to get along? What if we accentuated the positive? What if that was the innovation?

We’ve already seen the Sun-Times and Tribune work successfully with the Better Government Association on many stories. But what if we all just decided that partnership was the future?

Public Narrative recently attended the Collaborative Journalism Summit organized by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. The room was full of people sharing success stories and imagining what future partnerships could be possible for journalists.

Collaboration is not a suggestion to lift ideas from one another. Instead, it is to lift up those who are innovators as we hold up their work as a good example of what is working.

What does that look like? Well, what if our newspapers worked with some of the other phenomenal news resources in the city? What if we put aside institutional egos and just looked at who was doing it right regardless of who did it?

I know many people think the challenge for journalism these days is finding a good business model. But I think the biggest challenge for journalism — and particularly local journalism — is how to remain relevant in people’s lives. And when you are playing to such a diverse audience, while your resources are shrinking, it’s time for creativity.

I like the theories of Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics and Mark Deuze from the University of Amsterdam. They wrote in their essay, “On the Role of Emotion in Future of Journalism“:

The challenge for the news industry is neither finding working business models nor figuring out what to do online—it is becoming a meaningful, insightful, and trustworthy part of an emerging affective media ecosystem.

In essence, these men tell us that as people feel disconnected by the bewildering array of news sources, journalists face the burden of building community, while—and this is crucial—still maintaining integrity and standards in their work. It’s the recipe for build an audience, as well.

In other words: What if we started celebrating the entire community of Chicago journalism? Could we find new ways to pool information so we could have a better chance at knowing—and reporting—what’s going on?

What’s going on in Chicago news?

What if the newspapers celebrated The Chicago Reporter’s database on police lawsuits by making sure people saw it by putting a blurb on page one?

What if they looked at the work that WBEZ does covering not only the symptom of the city’s problems, the guns and violence, but the root causes of the violence—the real story of the city, racism, institutional poverty?

What if we looked to the example of Charlie Meyerson’s new online newsletter, Chicago Public Square, which aggregates national and local news to add depth and help Chicago readers make sense of the world?

Or—back to databases. Think of all the databases that our newspapers have collected over the years. It’s a wealth of information and context. What if we put all that information together and added it to the information collected by organizations like Smart ChicagoWBEZ has already collaborated with Smart Chicago, as has the Chicago Justice Project, which also publishes Freedom of Information requests.

What if we did a hack-a-thon for investigative databases, with coders helping editors set clear standards and practices, so different databases from different outlets could be compatible?

Mick Dumke, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, recently presented at Chi Hack Night on the value of public data and what he learned from accessing the Chicago Police Department’s data.

What if the newspapers also took a page from City Bureau’s fantastic and interactive book to help people from the community understand all the collected data? Their large investigations are not finished until the audience understands exactly what it means to them. The weekly public newsrooms mean something to people. They have, in a short time, built a working community.

More engagement means more readers are buying in. This is not advocacy journalism. It is inviting citizens to be their own advocates by understanding the many stories the data are telling.

Let me say it again—none of this works if you compromise journalism ethics.

What if the newspapers looked to social-media examples such as that of Jackie Serrato, who, as an activist and fast-food worker, harnessed Facebook for Little Village, LaVillita, setting up a community page that now has more than 113,000 followers? There is a rich social media community supporting our neighborhoods and it seems invisible to those in the mainstream. La Villita Facebook Page

(Serrato has spent her recent years learning how to be a reporter from some of the city’s best and is now a contributing reporter at DNAInfo, another news outlet doing so much right in covering news by looking to the neighborhoods.)

What if we actually used Twitter to its full potential, not just to read the president tweets, but to build beats, listen to the community and find the variety of voices that should be our sources? People are on social media and it’s not where you go to just talk about what you’ve done, you go there to listen and be social.

What if our newspapers listened more to such voices as that of the Black Youth Project and its principal investigator Cathy J. Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago? We have many leaders in the resurgence of the civil rights movement here in Chicago. Where are their voices in the newspapers that are supposed to be relevant to all Chicagoans?

What if the newspapers looked to the innovative ways that Scandinavian newspapers include readers? Reader bylines and pictures go to the people who call in with news tips.

What if they listened to such organizations as Hearken about how to listen to readers, not just on the features and fun stuff but on the investigative stories, as well?

And I have barely begun to list the possibilities. I’ve not mentioned the hundreds of community and ethnic media that build strong communities around who people are and where they live.

I’ve not talked about youth media programs, such as, Free Spirit Media, TrueStar and Yollocalli that are teaching young people how to tell relevant stories, while building the next generation of news-literate consumers.

They are part of a vibrant youth arts scene in Chicago that is nurturing poets, music, messages and voices in places you probably didn’t even know about.

Have you looked at the Goodman Theatre’s Education Department programs and seen who they are reaching?

Do you know how deep Young Chicago Authors runs in the Chicago community? They organize the largest youth poetry festival in the world, Louder Than A Bomb.

News executives and those looking to effect Chicago news need to think way out of the box if we’re to keep our local ecosystem healthy and relevant. After all, many of us are distracted by national news these days.

And if, as those at WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers) have said, the future is creating one-on-one experiences for readers. It just can’t be done without new and better partnerships.

And now on to the future for newspapers

So, yes, this is the passing of an era in Chicago newspapers. But there is no reason to mourn news and innovation in Chicago. It is out there. It is happening. And it is actually very exciting.

Chicago has always been innovative when it comes to news. The city not only birthed the first newspaper column, but also a new form of narrative storytelling via our very own Studs Terkel (Public Narrative’s mentor and the namesake for our journalism awards).

And we still need to be at it.

Hold fast to what makes news vital: ethics, integrity, standards. But leave room for innovation and, most of all, people. You build a healthy news community, a healthy ecosystem, by being strong. That means you are not afraid to bend or to invite others in.

Because if the city’s two newspapers come together in new ways—and find a way to strengthen the news community by adding new voices— they might just be able to blow the lid off of being successful.


Susy Schultz is president of Public Narrative, a nonprofit housed at Columbia College Chicago that teaches journalists and people in nonprofits how to tell better stories.