How the Chicago Independent Media Alliance fundraises as a collective — and why it’s successful
In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was making itself known in the U.S., the Chicago Reader lost a large chunk of its advertising revenue.
The Reader has been a staple in Chicago’s independent media community for 50 years. But many of its advertisers are in arts and entertainment, and suddenly, with no events to promote, there weren’t many ads to run — threatening both the Reader’s budget and its very existence.
It was a similar scene at most newspapers, magazines, online publications, and radio stations. The world was shutting down, and for many journalism outlets, already crumbling business models were pushed to new extremes.
Fortunately, the Reader had started to band together with about 50 other independent Chicago media outlets before the pandemic even began. This budding organization — the Chicago Independent Media Alliance — would set out to save Chicago media when it needed it most.
Introducing the Chicago Independent Media Alliance
The Chicago Independent Media Alliance (CIMA) is the brainchild of Tracy Baim, the Reader’s president and co-publisher. Baim co-founded the Windy City Times, a newspaper covering the LGBTQ+ community, and has been a force in Chicago’s media community since the 1980s.
“When I took over the Chicago Reader in late 2018, one of my first goals was to increase support for local journalism in general, and to bring together other local media for collaborations and clout,” Baim said.
Along with Karen Hawkins, the Reader’s co-publisher, Baim was set on forming a collective of independent media voices. But they needed someone to lead the charge.
In summer 2019, Yazmin Dominguez joined the Reader as media partnerships coordinator and reached out to more than 100 Chicago-based media outlets and non-profits. She created an extensive survey asking about each organization’s budget, employees, demographics, and more — gathering information and data to get a better idea of Chicago’s media ecosystem.
After months of following up, CIMA met for the first time in February 2020, with about 50 of these media outlets in attendance. Dominguez was pleased, as it proved to be a useful space for the media outlets to find ways to connect and collaborate. In addition, Baim invited several Chicago foundations to share insights about how to apply for and receive grants.
But CIMA’s first in-person meeting would also be their last. Just a month later, the COVID shut-downs forced everything to go remote. And like most organizations, CIMA started doing monthly Zoom calls, a silver lining in what was an otherwise catastrophic development.
With that close communication, it was clear that most CIMA outlets were in an emergency situation. So Dominguez sent out another survey asking about COVID impacts and revenue losses and put together a report with data and insights from each of the CIMA publications.
Baim, sensing an opportunity, sent that report over to Chicago foundations: the Field Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, McCormick Foundation, Joyce Foundation, and Chicago Community Trust. They all wanted to give grants to help out, and Baim wanted to run a fundraiser and use the grants as matching dollars.
The resulting campaign — CIMA’s first major fundraising action — would be chaotic, emotional, and wildly successful.
Fundraising for Chicago’s independent media in a pandemic
Impossibly, Dominguez and the Reader pulled together CIMA’s first fundraiser in just about one month. From May 8 to June 5, as the pandemic upended life, 43 independent media outlets and several foundations came together to raise more than $160,000.
The Reader worked with a website developer to build savechicagomedia.org, a platform that could support payment methods and information for each of the 43 media outlets. Dominguez gathered logos and coordinated communication among the outlets to fill out the site and get it up and running.
CIMA’s website is set up so that donors have the option of giving to one or multiple outlets or have their contribution split up amongst any number of selected outlets. The software payment platform Stripe is used to directly transfer the raised funds into a bank account for each outlet.
“The joint fundraising has been successful because we are trying to uplift this ecosystem, and most members understand that people give for different reasons,” Baim said. “Sometimes to individual outlets, but sometimes people will give even more when they see collaboration.”
To promote the fundraiser, the Reader’s design team created general branding materials for social and print ads, and each of the outlets customized them as they saw fit. The slogan “Journalism for the people, by the people” was the cornerstone of the campaign, and the outlets all used #SaveChicagoMedia for promotion.
The Reader also worked with a video animator to create a short promotional video, with a script that Dominguez translated into Spanish for an additional video.
In the end, a diverse range of outlets benefited most from the campaign. Rebellious Magazine for Women topped the fundraising leaderboard with $9,825, the Reader itself next with $7,147, and the Korea Times after with $6,715. The McCormick and Joyce Foundations each gave $20,000 in matching funds split up amongst the outlets, along with several other foundations matching contributions in the thousands.
Building trust, maintaining clear communication, and keeping everything organized were all key to CIMA’s fundraising success (“I have, like, 10 different Excel charts,” Dominguez said). But it can be difficult to get 43 media outlets all on the same page, Dominguez admitted, and there were varying levels of excitement and effort put into the fundraiser.
Being transparent also proved to be important. Because CIMA only had about one month to create and test the website, there were some issues with the online payment systems and processing donations. Though it was stressful, Dominguez had to be open and honest with the outlets.
“Be very conscious that there will be screw-ups in your first year,” Dominguez said. “They will happen. Come in expecting that. But if you establish trust and communication, and own up to your mistakes, then you can get through any issues.”
Iterating and improving on the fundraiser
Despite the short time period to set it up, CIMA’s first major action was proof of concept: collective fundraising could work in Chicago. One of the main reasons for this success was having a dedicated collaborative project manager in Dominguez.
“Yazmin has been phenomenal,” Baim said. “Karen and I both had experience with collaborations that had failed, in part because they relied on volunteers who were already busy doing their own projects. That’s why we felt it was key to hub it at an existing publication, and to have a staff person. That has helped continuity and forward progress.”
As Dominguez was looking to improve on the fundraiser, she knew that there was the benefit of additional time and resources in the second year. So, she set up a fundraising committee to consult on decisions — from events to art and language.
“There are so many little tiny details that go into building something so big,” Dominguez said. “With a committee to help guide me, it was so much smoother. That’s my number one tip: definitely involve your members in the decision-making process.”
The committee also benefited from the expertise of two fundraising veterans: Shawn Campbell, the founder and general manager of CHIRP radio, and Andrew Hererra, the director of network growth at City Bureau. Campbell noted that each of the CIMA outlets had different levels of experience and comfort with fundraising, so it was important to discuss best practices and how to effectively encourage audiences to give.
Campbell and Hererra led a training ahead of the 2021 campaign to help all the CIMA outlets learn and implement these fundraising strategies. They also kept tabs on the ongoing dialog in CIMA’s slack channel, where members asked fundraising questions or made suggestions.
“Effective collaboration starts and ends with strong communication,” Herrera said. “Having that space to engage with leaders from across Chicago’s independent media landscape was critical for putting together the kind of collaborative campaign we were able to execute together.”
In 2021, CIMA’s fundraiser went even further, raising more than $169,000. E3 Radio, a radio station playing queer and independent music, as well as BIPOC and QTPOC podcasts, led the charge with $26,053 raised through CIMA.
Anna DeShawn, E3 Radio’s CEO, had already set up a crowdfunding campaign of her own in pursuit of raising the funds necessary to create an app, The Qube, that could house the radio station and podcasts. But once the CIMA fundraiser started, she found that the collective effort could be even more beneficial to both E3 Radio and Chicago’s other media outlets.
“Instead of drawing people to our crowdfunding Indiegogo page, I drew people to the CIMA page,” DeShawn said. “I know that some people who went there to donate just to E3 Radio also donated to all the other outlets, too.”
Building off CIMA’s model
Now going on year three, CIMA is picking up steam and continuing to grow. Dominguez hinted at more special plans for the 2022 fundraiser, and the Reader has had the resources to hire another fully dedicated employee to help Dominguez with CIMA.
Plus, multiple organizations have reached out to Dominguez to ask about replicating the collective fundraising model. Dominguez said she spoke with the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) and the Neighborhood Media Foundation in Northeast Ohio about CIMA’s success, and how the model might be transferable to other communities.
Collaborative journalism is certainly becoming popular from an editorial perspective, as it’s now common for media outlets to work together on reporting and producing stories. But the potential of collaborative journalism from a business perspective is perhaps still yet to be realized.
Some organizations like CoastAlaska have pooled together fundraising efforts and resources for years, but overall, geographic-based collaboratives focused on the business side are just starting to emerge.
As media outlets everywhere continue to experience financial struggles — especially independent outlets — CIMA’s model of collective fundraising and resource-sharing is an innovative solution that can help strengthen healthy and diverse media ecosystems.
“What CIMA is doing is a great model for other cities to do something very similar,” DeShawn said. “We are all more powerful together than we are separate. Everyone is doing their piece, and we all need support.”
Will Fischer is a journalist covering the intersection of technology and media. He’s worked for Business Insider and New York magazine, and conducted local news research for City Bureau. Follow Will on Twitter @willfisch15 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.