CJA event highlights present and future of nonprofit journalism

CJA invited four veteran journalists from Chicago’s nonprofit newsrooms to speak at its Nonprofit Media panel on May 18. From left: moderator Lyanne Alfaro, Jared Rutecki (Better Government Association), Jackie Serrato (The Chicago Reporter), Bettina Chang (City Bureau) and Louise Kiernan (ProPublica Illinois). Photo credit: Yudi Zhang

In an era where local and thorough journalism is indispensable, nonprofit journalism organizations have become a centerpiece in conversations about reporting. Chicago alone has seen the rise of a few nonprofit newsrooms, including City Bureau and Block Club Chicago, which are taking the city’s media landscape by storm. 

On Saturday, May 18, the Chicago Journalists Association organized a panel discussion at DePaul University with veteran journalists from some of these nonprofit organizations to dig deeper into their inner workings and learn how this type of coverage could look in the coming years. The panel featured: 

  • Louise Kiernan (editor-in-chief, ProPublica Illinois)
  • Bettina Chang (co-founder, City Bureau)
  • Jackie Serrato (journalist, The Chicago Reporter)
  • Jared Rutecki (investigative journalist, Better Government Association)

The discussion focused on three main topics: how nonprofit newsrooms are sustainable, how they operate differently than for-profit newsrooms and budgeting within such organizations. All of the panelists agreed that reader impact is an important factor that shapes their coverage. 

“How are the readers going to consume the news you’re providing…is it going to have an impact beyond the day that you read the article?” Serrato said. These are questions she regularly asks about her work at The Chicago Reporter.

She also understands how to connect to a community and deliver information that affects readers’ daily lives. In 2009, she created the “La Villita, Chicago” Facebook page, in attempts to bring Little Village residents together and share positive news about the community. Today, the page has more than 130,000 followers.

But unlike for-profit newsrooms, which mainly survive on advertising revenue, nonprofit outlets make most of their money through private foundations. The panelists agreed that this model helps their newsrooms focus more on longer, meaningful stories and less on clicks for advertisers. 

Attendees mingle with the panelists following the discussion. Photo credit: Yudi Zhang

However, Chang pointed out that private foundations can be “fickle” when it comes to donations. While they might support a newsroom’s mission and coverage one year, they might feel differently the next year.

“The goal is to always grow the member support to a huge part of your budget,” she said. That way, if funding from foundations does wane, news outlets can continue producing good journalism through subscriptions from dedicated readers.

To help make readers and the community even more dedicated, City Bureau hosts several events, including free Public Newsrooms where journalists and the public can come together to express their concerns on community issues. 

“I think the greatest challenge for us…is we still need to persuade people that what we do is something of value and something that they need to support,” Kiernan said about journalism at large, both in nonprofit and for-profit newsrooms. “Not just with their ears and eyes, but with money.”

She further explained that ProPublica had roughly 3,000 online donors in 2015. Now, that number is close to 30,000 supporters, and she attributes the jump to the recent attention around nonprofit media. 

The panelists hope nonprofit journalism will continue to be a sustainable model. But Kiernan said an important question is yet to be answered for nonprofit and for-profit newsrooms.

“Can we make that shift in our culture so that people value journalism enough to pay for it, however they pay for it?”

View the photo gallery and panel discussion, moderated by our executive director, Lyanne Alfaro, at the respective links.

CJA is one of Chicago’s oldest journalism organizations and a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. Membership is free for aspiring, current and retired journalists of Chicago’s editorial departments. To become a member, send a CV/bio to chicagocja@gmail.com.