Journalism at the local level is in rapid decline in Chicago and across the United States. Since 2006, 2,000 community newspapers and 25% of newspapers nationwide have ceased operation. News organizations that report on individual communities, counties and cities inform the government and protect democracy at every level says Charles Whitaker, Dean of Medill and member of the Evanston RoundTable Board of Directors.

On Thursday, Nov. 18, the Evanston RoundTable, one of Evanston’s local news sources, held a panel discussion on the future of local journalism. The online event was moderated by Whitaker and included guests Tracy Baim, president and co-publisher of the Chicago Reader and founder of the Chicago Independent Media Alliance; Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist and political analyst for ABC-7 Chicago; and Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean at Medill and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News.

“There are now about 1,900 communities and more than 200 entire counties in the U.S. with no local news sources,” Franklin said as he discussed the rise of news deserts across the country. “We’re talking millions and millions of people now living with no source of local news. That’s a serious threat to democratic institutions and it tears at the fabric of communities.”

Local news is a vital part of ensuring all voices are heard, Franklin explained, both within the community and among those in positions of power such as government officials. Without local journalism, these communities also lose an important check for holding leaders accountable. According to Whitaker, Evanston RoundTable is “on a mission to make sure those things don't happen here in Evanston.”

Although news deserts continue to occur in communities that lack the resources to maintain a local news organization, Chicago and its surrounding counties indicate signs of promise.

In recent years, nonprofit news organizations, primarily those that focus on a specific topic such as politics or sports, have emerged and even come to thrive in the Chicago media environment.

“There is a reason for optimism,” Franklin said. “Chicago is really a hotbed of innovation in the local news space. This growth of hyper-local news sites that are providing coverage that in some cases the city hasn’t had in many years, and I think that’s a great thing.”

The panel discussed how the recent surge of organizations local to Chicago, designed by and for a new era of media consumers, presents opportunities for evolution and positive change.

As nonprofits, these new organizations face their primary challenge in generating sufficient funding. Baim explained that adequate contributions can be difficult for small news organizations to secure. A possible solution would be to solicit support from organizations and foundations, whose work is often amplified by journalism.

“The foundation world needs to open up and understand how critical journalism is to every single issue they fund,” Baim said. “That’s what we need in Chicago that’s missing.”

When foundations decide where to give their money, Baim advocates for an emphasis on inclusion of all voices and backgrounds.

“We’ve got to be far more deliberate in the work that we’re doing to make sure that a diversity of voices are also uplifted, that institutions like Northwestern are part of a collaborative network that ties to the community media and makes sure that all the resources don't go in one direction,” Baim said.

As for Northwestern students’ role in preserving journalism, Franklin believes that there is hope for the future. Through teaching, Franklin has found Medill students to be mission-focused, with a deep care for society and commitment to making a difference.

“They’re more solution-oriented than previous generations have been,” Franklin said. “They see the role journalism plays in democracy. I think it’s exciting.”

More information about Evanston RoundTable, future panels, and their journalism can be found at Article thumbnail courtesy of Evanston RoundTable.