Shake-ups, Shutdowns and New Models: The State of Chicago Journalism

Many Chicagoans are wondering about the future of the city’s largest newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, after the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital last month became the largest shareholder of Tribune Publishing.

Journalists at the Chicago Tribune and its sister newspapers have issued public warnings about Alden’s reputation for slashing newsroom staffs, with some even expressing a hope for a wealthy investor to take over the paper.

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“Hoping for an investor angel to fall out of the sky and save the Tribune is pie in the sky dreaming,” said Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He argues a better approach is a public campaign to help readers understand what they lose when their newsrooms are hollowed out. “It’s not just a matter of us losing these iconic media brands. We’re losing the watchdog function of these newspapers. We’re losing media outlets that helped us see ourselves in all of our reflected glory or in our trials and travails as well.”

Rob Elder, president of the Chicago Headline Club and chief digital officer for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, also warned against hoping for a civic-minded billionaire to save the day. “People forget that Sam Zell was that angel investor. People forget that Michael Ferro was supposed to turn (the company) around. That scenario has not necessarily worked in the Tribune’s favor.”

Two other Chicago news outlets are going by the wayside: Spanish-language newspaper Hoy (also owned by Tribune Publishing) and local cable news channel CLTV (owned by Nexstar Media Group, which recently bought Tribune Media). Elder thinks it’s possible other outlets can move in to cover the gaps.

“There are really interesting news startups, whether that’s City Bureau or Block Club. There have been some really interesting, really vital new news organizations that have sprung up from this era of uncertainty. I hope that somebody steps into Hoy’s shoes. CLTV I think just probably wasn’t able to change with the landscape,” Elder said.

There are potentially hopeful changes on the horizon, too; among them, longtime alt-weekly the Chicago Reader is moving to a nonprofit model.

“Everyone knows that the advertising-supported model for newspapers is dead and it is not coming back,” Whitaker said. “If we think about media as a public good and a public trust, we have to make that case to the public and ask the public to support it.”

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