Business of News

For the Evanston Roundtable, local news is a labor of love

December 16, 2021

The Evanston Roundtable was born in 1998, when Mary Gavin, her husband, and a small group of colleagues decided to launch a free print newspaper, publishing every other week in their Chicago suburb. At the time, they felt other local coverage was simplistic and overly focused on sports and crime. “We thought that our paper would embrace the different communities that are here: the Latinx community, the Black community, the gay community, disabled people, people with mental illnesses,” Gavin says. “We wanted it to be a place where people could feel that they could send in their thoughts, to make a forum: not only to expand the audience but to expand coverage where we saw it lacking.” The paper was distributed on 15,000 front doorsteps free of charge, until advertising losses drove the print edition into the ground on November 14, 2019. Soon after, the Roundtable shifted online and converted to a not-for-profit model; their website now has 60,000 visitors per month.

The 1998 team began with six in the newsroom, eventually partnering with a rotating crew of about twenty regular freelancers from the community. “We weren’t able to pay people that much,” Gavin says. “Our joke used to be, if you can afford to write for us, we’d love to have you.” Then, advertising budgets shrank further. Within recent years, Gavin didn’t take a salary. (“Even when I was taking a salary, it was maybe $5,000 a year,” she says. “My husband and I put a lot of money into the paper.”) I asked Gavin whether this work had been a labor of love. “More than a labor of profit, definitely,” she said.

In some ways, the Roundtable’s story is emblematic of broader trends sweeping local newsrooms across the country; in other ways, the Roundtable’s circumstances, strengths, limitations, and challenges are uniquely its own. More than a few of these themes echo across the local news landscape: many community publications have lost advertising revenues over recent years, quite a few are finding some success in the conversion to not-for-profit, and I come across editors and reporters who have frozen or limited their own pay surprisingly often in my reporting. The “labor of love” model can pay its own dividends in other ways, but as Gavin says, it can really limit who is able to participate in the work of the newsroom. “We tried to make up for that through coverage, but everybody knows that doesn’t really make up for it,” Gavin says.

The publication’s surrounding community has rallied around the paper’s new non-profit iteration, current Executive Editor Tracy Quattrocki says: “There’s a lot of good will. People were grateful that for twenty years, they got this free newspaper. When we said, ‘Hey, we need help to stay around,’ they’ve been pretty generous.” The paper has received support from Northwestern University, as well as grants from the Evanston Community Foundation and Chicago’s Headline Club. They’ve also built up individual donations through a partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News’ NewsMatch program: they hope to have raised $100,000 in November and December, double the amount they received in last year’s campaign.

But fund-raising in the community is competitive. “We’re not a news desert at all,” Quattrocki says. She and some of the rest of her team are also currently eschewing a salary in order to keep paying their writers. They’re hoping their fundraising can eventually build toward a more sustainable future.

​​ “It’s so much work,” Quattrocki says. “And I think you’ve got to get really passionate people. It’s hard to duplicate that. My goal is to be financially secure enough that we’re not reliant on fanatics like me.”

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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year and a half, researchers at the Tow Center collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:

  • QUANTIFYING NEWSROOM LOSSES AMID THE PANDEMIC: In a recent report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Gabby Miller found that more than 6,150 news workers were laid off amid the pandemic, between March of 2020 and August of 2021 (and this number is likely an undercount, Miller added on Twitter). At least 100 news organizations have closed (though fourteen of those resumed work in some capacity). Another 42 outlets were absorbed into others. “Local news outlets particularly struggled to stay afloat, running on thin margins and operating with significantly diminished staff,” Miller writes. Explore more of the report’s findings here.
  • ALDEN SUES LEE ENTERPRISES FOR REJECTING BOARD NOMINATIONS: Yesterday, Alden Global Capital filed a lawsuit against Lee Enterprises for rejecting Alden’s three nominations to its board of directors as the hedge fund company continues to pursue a takeover, Poynter reported. “Alden’s strategy seems to have shifted back to gaining influence and seats on the board to make a case against Lee management,” Rick Edmonds writes, adding that Alden employed this strategy effectively against Tribune Publishing before purchasing the company. (On Friday, my colleague Savannah Jacobson detailed Lee’s attempts to hold off Alden’s pursuit, adding, “While ownership by Alden is a worst-case scenario for many newspaper employees, Lee Enterprises––which owns newspapers in metropolises across the country, from Buffalo, New York, to St. Louis, Missouri, to Casper, Wyoming––hasn’t exactly been a beacon of hope either.”) And elsewhere, Margaret Sullivan wrote for the Washington Post about Alden’s interest in her old newspaper, the Buffalo News, and “why we need to fight them off.”
  • “JOURNALISM IS A PUBLIC GOOD. LET THE PUBLIC MAKE IT.”: For CJR, City Bureau co-founder Darryl Holliday wrote about rebuilding public infrastructure to address the journalism crisis, which he says pertains not only to business models or trust, but to the purpose of journalism itself. “The best response to the current crisis in journalism is to get more people involved, at a level at which everyone is willing and able to participate,” Holliday writes. “Not just as news consumers, but as distributors and—most importantly—producers of local information.” Holliday points to the existence of information hubs like local libraries, PEG public access channels, low-power FM stations, and post offices as places to expand this work, adding: “There is no number of news articles that will save us from the challenges ahead, but there are a million people willing to take on the role of ‘Observer,’ ‘Courtwatcher,’ ‘Community Correspondent,’ ‘Info Hub Captain,’ or ‘Documenter’ for their neighborhood, block, or building.”
  • REBUILDING TRUST REQUIRES COLLECTIVE ACTION: Because so many news outlets have little credibility within marginalized communities, hiring a diverse staff often moves the burden of credibility onto reporters from underrepresented backgrounds, unless publications take responsibility for rebuilding trust themselves, Alex Sujong Laughlin argued this week for Poynter. “The baggage of flawed or irresponsible coverage from historically white journalistic institutions often harms journalists’ credibility with communities they cover, making it harder for them to do their jobs,” Sujong Laughlin writes.
  • US PUBLISHERS TURN DOWN GOOGLE DEALS: Over the summer, Google began extending offers to US publishers to feature their work on Google Showcase, but publishers turned down many offers because of underwhelming promised compensation and insufficient benefits, a PressGazette investigation found. Three local outlets told PressGazette that they would not participate unless terms changed substantially. “One local news executive said they would have expected their offer to have been five times larger. Another suggested ten or 20 times larger would be appropriate,” William Turvill writes.
  • INFLUENCING THE PRESIDENT THROUGH HIS LOCAL NEWSPAPER: A number of government interest groups have begun running print ads in The News Journal (Delaware), President Biden’s home-state newspaper of choice, in hopes of getting their message in front of the president, Politico reported. “During the Trump administration, political interests repeatedly took to Fox News to lobby their case directly to the president, who often spent his days glued to the conservative cable news network,” Hailey Fuchs and Max Tani write. “The attempts to reach Biden through The News Journal are decidedly less dramatic, though some seem designed to pull his heartstrings.”
  • ODDS AND ENDS: Podcasters at IHeartMedia Inc. are unionizing. CBS plans to launch a local broadcasting hub in Detroit. Report for America will add seventy newsroom partnerships in 2022, planning to expand their reporting corps to 325 members.
  • JOB OPPORTUNITY: Columbia Journalism School is seeking candidates for a new Professorship in Local News. “The Philip S. Balboni Professor of Local Journalism will offer a vision for rebuilding the public square in communities large and small, while nurturing the development of journalists who dig deeply into local issues, who connect with residents and who use innovation to build news organizations that can thrive,” the job description states.
Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites