Billionaires Can’t Build the News We Need

It’s time to build it for ourselves. Some thoughts on DNAinfo Chicago, City Bureau and the need for publicly supported media

The sheer churn of under-reported, neighborhood-level stories from DNAinfo Chicago’s dedicated, street-level reporters made it easy to forget that the model was unsustainable from the start. But, if nothing else, let this be a reminder: Billionaires can’t and will not build the local news ecosystem we need and deserve.

Stick with me for a minute — I promise this isn’t a post about what can’t be done.

I was hovering above a crowd of 200 people at City Bureau’s Soap Box Ball when I read the news about DNAinfo Chicago.

I started working at DNAinfo Chicago in 2012. It was my first professional reporting job. I was among the first batch of reporters hired on to the nascent staff, well before the site actually launched. I remember the thrill of that newsroom and the young reporters gathered there. I was 26 and the folks in that room would become some of my closest friends. The editors taught me how to report and supported me in my efforts. We were committed to redefining local news, working our neighborhood beats and telling stories that weren’t being told by the city’s big dailies.

I worked the “murder beat” for two years at DNA, literally chasing shootings during two of Chicago’s bloodiest years in the last decade. I was fresh out of journalism school and eager to do more than the scoreboard reporting on crime and violence that had come to broadly define so many communities of color on the South and West Sides — that had, in many ways, come to define our city. This won’t come as a surprise to many but DNAinfo did not, in the end, change perceptions of the South and West Sides. It too often fell into the same trap of one-note, clickbait coverage that loves a mugshot and a “good kid from a tough community” success story but struggles to find nuance and locate deeper narratives, despite some stellar daily-grind reporting by folks in the neighborhoods DNAinfo did cover. I like to think that my work now, while different in many ways, is informed by those early successes and shortcomings.

I often would come across critiques of DNAinfo on my Facebook feed from folks I respect who were nonetheless missing the point. When a reported piece missed the mark in their community, they’d pan the entire organization. Believe me, I understand—maybe more than most—having spent years learning how to report responsibly and, more importantly, how to report with respect for a source’s humanity and a community’s common struggles. But for every story that missed the mark, DNAinfo Chicago was producing five stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told at all. Anywhere.

No news outlet hits the mark every time. Stories are too complicated for any one telling and sources change their minds depending on changing circumstances, but we all need accurate information — and someone’s got to do the heavy lifting required to surface those stories. DNAinfo put reporters on the ground in neighborhoods across the city while other outlets were simply parachuting in from the Loop for a quote. The importance of that on-the-ground work cannot be understated — and we’ll all feel the loss in various ways, unless we figure out how to support local, equitable journalism without the help of deep-pocketed investors with familiar agendas (profit).

I was preparing for City Bureau’s Soap Box Ball, a first-ever fundraising event months in the making, when I learned that DNAinfo was shutting down (and that I may need to act fast to save my story archive). This is how I first heard the news:

Within minutes of DNA’s shutdown going public, City Bureau’s timeline was filled with people articulating the need for independent, publicly supported media to safeguard the kind of news and information that cities and towns across the country need.

I was blown away. This is why I co-founded City Bureau. This is why I’ve been preaching the gospel of diverse newsrooms, equitable coverage, trust-building with the public and the creation of sustainable media business models every day for the last two years. This is why I and more than 200 people were gathered at Bridgeport’s Co-Prosperity Sphere to raise funds for the organization that I see as a model for the future of journalism.

And at the same time, the work my DNAinfo family had produced across five years was gone. Literally replaced wholesale by a half-hearted message from billionaire owner Joe Ricketts citing DNAinfo as a business that needed “to be economically successful” in order to continue. In reality he was announcing that there would be~20 fewer reporters and editors in a city of 2.7 million.

Ricketts ends with a line that he and I actually agree on, though certainly not in the same way: “I’m hopeful that in time, someone will crack the code on a business that can support exceptional neighborhood storytelling for I believe telling those stories remains essential,” he wrote.

Think on that for a second — are we talking about a public good or a hedge fund? The truth is that many of the communities most in need of accurate, representational media simply can’t sustain a fully staffed news outlet that caters to their particular needs, and news in well-resourced communities is a fact of life that is largely taken for granted. Accurate information and open lines of public communication are essential parts of a functioning society regardless of where you live. The need remains regardless, and it’ll take a communal effort to ensure that the public — our public — is well-informed enough to leverage power within civic and governmental processes while understanding enough about each other to avoid the sort of fear and antagonism that results from a lack of nuanced, holistic stories about ourselves and our neighbors. We don’t need a business model, we need to own our own media.

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. We need to invest our dollars in sustainable and transparent models for news gathering now — today — because the proliferation of misinformation and the whims of powerful investors will certainly cost us more in the end.

You may not know it now but if you’re a Chicagoan, you’ll experience the loss of DNAinfo. You’ll miss the stories of your neighborhood and the connections that are created through daily, local reporting. It can be difficult to quantify the absence of a thing but one day you’ll want to know, and you’ll remember that your local DNAinfo reporter would’ve already told you last week.

Just remember that we can create what we’ve lost, and with your help we can improve on the design.

Fortunately, if you’re a Chicagoan you have a chance to take what remains of the local media ecosystem into your own hands. Now’s the time to simply get involved. Now’s the time to support a growing movement in local media — a civic-minded media focused on repair over disruption and public engagement over gatekeeper journalism. We don’t have to wait for a billionaire to save us. You can become a sustaining member of City Bureau for the price of a Netflix account. And you can donate to our newsroom at any amount now through December 31 to have your contribution doubled by the national #NewsMatch initiative. That’s the kind of support that keeps news independent of big money and institutions — and, instead, keeps it accountable to you.

Interested in seeing for yourself? Join City Bureau’s growing network of amazing Chicagoans by stopping by our weekly Public Newsroom workshops, become a City Bureau reporting fellow if you’re interested in the creation of good reporting or get paid and trained to document public meetings through our Documenters program to hold your public officials accountable.

To all my friends and fam at DNAinfo, I’ll see you tonight to toast all the good times. And I’ll wrap this up with a message from City Bureau’s Board President Adriana Diaz because, damn, she really laid it out:

As we celebrated City Bureau’s first (successful!) fundraiser last night, the irony was not lost on me that we were celebrating two years of amazing work, just as billionaire Ricketts had announced his decision to pull the plug on DNAInfo and Chicagoist.
While my heart goes out to colleagues who have lost their jobs, it’s as important as ever to understand why journalism belongs in the hands of the very communities it covers.
Not just because at any moment a union-busting fat cat can decide the fate of an outlet, but because media by the people, and for the people ensures accountability, authenticity, and representation. Our communities’ stories are worthy of the utmost care and attention. It only makes sense that the people living their experiences have a say in how a story is crafted; and to be discerning critics of journalists and their outlets just as people have been doing the last two years in City Bureau’s Public Newsroom.
That’s why I’m proud to put my money where my mouth is as a freshly minted member of City Bureau’s Press Club. Please join me and become a member too and help hold our newsroom to the highest of journalistic ethics and standards — yours.