As media across the board faces buffeting winds, local journalism could use an activism boost. This is according to Logan Square resident and activist Rob Reid. Last year, he founded a group of like-minded readers, journalists and activists to help shore up neighborhood news in the wake of funding collapses.
The group, called “Save Chicago Neighborhood News” (SCNN), launched days after a tidal wave hit Windy City local media. Billionaire investor Joe Ricketts abruptly killed DNAinfo and Chicagoist on Nov. 2, a week after staff voted to unionize.
Getting involved in activism had helped Reid deal with troubling political times, he said. So, he wanted to bring that spirit to local journalism.
“I felt really grounded by going back to the basics—by following local news more closely, something that we have more of an impact over,” he said. “I think so many people realize that the way we get past this sense of helplessness involves acting locally. But people just don’t know how.”
Though DNAinfo’s demise provided a big spur, Reid said his support for local news goes back further. When discussing the group, other activists told Reid he had “been talking about this for so long, even before DNAinfo went down, [and] that local news is a vital part of our democracy.”
And the recent creation of the Block Club news site by DNAinfo alumni means SCCN’s activities may evolve, Reid said. Now with about 90 members, the group has held meetings in Logan Square and Hyde Park. According to the group’s mission statement, members “support and promote independent community-based news in Chicago, based on a belief that this reporting is an integral piece of maintaining a functioning democracy.”
Building Chicago Community
A Chicagoan since 1999, Reid grew up in southeastern Massachusetts. The small-town community there spurred his interest in activism and local news in Chicago, he said at a recent event for candidate Delia Ramirez. (Ramirez is running for the state congressional seat in the 4th District, which includes much of Logan Square.)
Reid moved to Avondale in 2002, transitioning to Logan Square last year. His political activism began in 2015, on Amara Enyia’s mayoral campaign.
Canvassing, Funds, Networks
Reid spent countless hours knocking on doors and talking to neighborhood voters volunteering for Ramirez. That experience strongly influenced his views on supporting local news, he said.
“I feel like there’s really no substitute for the same kinds of grassroots organizing that people do on political campaigns,” he said. “Just to have these discussions, find ways to convince people that local news has a value.”
SCNN has also discussed fundraising ideas, collaborations and—above all, Reid said—making connections among news readers, journalists and activists.
“I feel these mechanisms are all connected—the engagement of people in the local news [and] the improvement of local news because of that engagement,” he said. “I’m a systems thinker… Maybe we make new connections, and from those connections, something else happens.”
More concretely, the group has evaluated fundraising approaches, like the “wealthy benefactor” model (which formerly funded DNAinfo), memberships and subscriptions. At the group’s February get-together, lawyer and activist Samay Gheewala covered those and other fundraising options, such as selling special content.
So far, the group has favored the membership approach, Reid said. “I think this group understands that who funds the outlet is who the outlet is accountable to,” he said. “So, the preferred model is to have people support it.”
The group has also looked into collaborations, Reid said. That includes working with Susy Schultz, president of Public Narrative, who’s proposed on an online resource listing all Chicago neighborhood news outlets. (The Public Narrative nonprofit provides trainings and other resources to Chicago journalists and nonprofits.)
Block Club and SCCN’s Future
In early February, three former DNAinfo Chicago editors launched a Kickstarter for a new local Chicago news organization, Block Club. The nonprofit quickly blew past its fundraising goals and plans to take subscriptions from readers.
The Block Club announcement, coming a day after SCNN’s February meeting, went a long way toward addressing some of the group’s goals, Reid said.
“I felt very positive about it,” Reid said. “I remember having this sense that here we are talking about local news, and while we were talking, someone actually took action and did something.”
With Block Club directly addressing the loss of DNAinfo, Reid has refocused to some extent on smaller local news outlets. Now volunteering with the Our Urban Times community news site, Reid said future SCCN efforts could help shore up support for existing neighborhood sites. Our Urban Times, for instance, covers Bucktown, Ukrainian Village and other areas, including parts of Logan Square, while the Herald newspaper serves Hyde Park, Reid said.
In the last Save Chicago Neighborhood News meeting, members also proposed letter-writing efforts to promote important stories and steering committees for fundraising. Reid said he trusts the connections and ideas coming from journalism-focused activism can contribute to a healthier Chicago news landscape.
“What I would like to see is a city where basically every neighborhood has something like the Hyde Park Herald, that has an Our Urban Times that’s fully funded,” he said.
Want to Help Out?
Those who also want to support local news should join the SCNN Facebook group, watch for future meetings and, most importantly, seek out their with local news sites, Reid said. That might include volunteering tech skills to help build a website (or attending a LoganSquarist event, hint-hint). Reid also recommended supporting City Bureau, a South Side-based civic journalism lab, and the ProPublica Illinois nonprofit newsroom.