Saturation Point

A plethora of news outlets doesn't mean deeper coverage

Consider the situation in many local news markets—some coverage from a newspaper, some from television, maybe one online outlet making a go of it. And then consider Evanston, Illinois, the affluent Chicago suburb that’s home to Northwestern University, where at least six local print and online outlets compete for the attention of just 75,000 residents.

Until 2006, a trio of Evanston-based print publications ruled the roost: the independent, biweekly Evanston Roundtable; the weekly Evanston Review, owned by the Chicago Sun-Times; and The Daily Northwestern, which covers both city and campus news. Chicago-based newsrooms (the Tribune, TV) also pitched in.

In April of that year, Bill Smith, a veteran journalist and native Evanstonian, founded Evanston Now, the first online-only entrant to the fray. Before his web-paced, breaking-news venture’s first birthday, the Evanston wing of Backfence, an online citizen-journalism network, showed up—and closed down less than a year later when the parent company imploded. TribLocal, the Tribune’s hyperlocal project, came to Evanston in the spring of 2009, as both a daily web presence and a weekly insert in the parent paper. In September 2010, AOL’s Patch showed up, too.

With so much choice in news sources, Evanston has some of the country’s luckiest readers—or so it would seem.

Sadly, though, the volume of outlets has not always resulted in deeper or broader coverage. It’s common for five or even six reporters from the various outlets to show up at every city council meeting, but other civic-interest stories don’t get nearly as much attention. “There’s no publication in town that really has the depth to be able to send somebody off to do an investigative piece for an extended period of time, or even do a whole lot of in-depth coverage that takes away from the daily run of events,” says Smith.

Significantly, there’s not a single outlet in Evanston whose fate is going to be decided solely on the particular economics of publishing news in Evanston. The Tribune and the Sun-Times’s print and digital presences are part of broader regional strategies to sell advertisers access to all of Chicagoland. Patch’s Evanston site undoubtedly depends on the overall health of the national network. And The Daily Northwestern will probably be around as long as the university itself. This leaves the indies, Evanston Roundtable and Evanston Now; both have extremely low overhead and are likely to exist as long as their civic-minded owners wish them to.

But none of that means immortality. Asked if someone will have to eventually give, Mary Gavin, the publisher and part-owner of the Roundtable, expressed what must be on the mind of every Evanston publication: “Oh yeah. I hope it’s not us.”

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.