Nonprofit owner plans a merger for two pioneering Chicago magazines

For more than a quarter-century, the Chicago-based newsmagazine Catalyst has focused exclusively on the city’s public school system, the third largest in the nation. Although it never had a large staff, Catalyst’s coverage of the schools was more detailed than most of the major news outlets, even those with dedicated education reporters. In 2013, the nonprofit newsroom broke one of the most consequential stories in its history, leading to the federal indictment last year of the city’s schools chief.

That reporting was supported by a nonprofit business model, making Catalyst a precursor to the niche newsrooms that have sprung up around the country during the last decade.

But the long-term sustainability of many of those outlets is not yet clear, and in recent years, Catalyst itself has faced financial struggles. Now, it is being merged with the Chicago Reporter, its sister publication, which is also owned by Community Renewal Society.

Editors of the organizations say the post-merger publication will be poised to deliver big-picture education coverage through the lens of race, inequality, and poverty, the Reporter’s longtime areas of focus. The trade-off is a move away from some of Catalyst’s traditional strengths, such as oversight of the public schools bureaucracy.

“It won’t be the same, but the legacy of what we’ve done will live on in some fashion,” said Lorraine Forte, Catalyst’s editor and interim publisher, who announced the merger in a column last month. “You’d prefer to see that than to see it struggle.”

 

[It’s] a timely solution and one that will strengthen our efforts at investigating the many ways that racial and economic injustice are destroying the social fabric of Chicago.”

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News of the merger follows a period of reshuffling and consolidation on the masthead. At its staffing peak, Catalyst had a publisher, two editors, a data journalist, and three reporters; it now has Forte and two reporters, who will stay on following the merger.  Forte herself was laid off from Catalyst last year when the newsmagazine’s founder, Linda Lenz, merged Forte’s position with her own as publisher. When Lenz retired earlier this year, the Community Renewal Society brought back Forte, a former staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times and Daily Southtown. In addition to her role at Catalyst, Forte is also now executive editor at the Reporter.

Curtiss Paul DeYoung, executive director of the Community Renewal Society, said the society provides in-kind support to both Catalyst and the Reporter. But publishers of the individual outlets have always taken the lead in fundraising, with most revenue coming from foundations and some from individual giving and subscriptions, DeYoung said.

“Fundraising for nonprofit journals has become more challenging in the past few years, and the CRS board was concerned about the ability of an organization of our size to sustain two journals,” DeYoung added. “The idea of merging education reporting into the Chicago Reporter was embraced as a timely solution and one that will strengthen our efforts at investigating the many ways that racial and economic injustice are destroying the social fabric of Chicago.”

The news comes as a disappointment to Sarah Karp, an education reporter for WBEZ, who was working at Catalyst when she broke the story about a no-bid contract that eventually led to the indictment of schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

“Losing Catalyst means [Chicago Public Schools] loses a watchdog with institutional memory,” said Karp, who lobbied against the merger before she left Catalyst last year. “Catalyst could get into the nitty-gritty. Things like teacher training that, while not easy to sell to an editor thinking about a general audience, are very important.”

But Susan Smith Richardson, editor and publisher of the Reporter, sounded an optimistic note. The merger will mean “bigger and more sweeping” education coverage, she said, that looks beyond CPS, extending to the community college system and four-year schools.

The Reporter also plans to do more on the children and families beat, including juvenile justice.

“We know education is an economic ladder issue, and it’s always been part of a civil rights agenda,” Richardson said. “What we really hope to do is sharpen the coverage at the intersection of opportunity and racial inequality, which is at the core of the Reporter’s brand.”

While Catalyst has published its last print issue, it will continue to publish new stories on its website and on the Reporter’s website until the merger is complete next year. At that point, the Catalyst name will largely disappear, although it will live on as a separate presence on Twitter.

“The brand may go away, but we’re still going to do and are committed to doing education reporting in a way that the dailies are not going to do,” Forte said. “Yes, we’re looking at it more through a social-justice angle and students of color, but that’s mostly what’s in CPS anyway. We see things happening in higher education that affect all students, but particularly black and Latino and first-generation college-goers. There’s plenty to write about.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.