Roughly two dozen Oak Park and River Forest journalists gathered Dec. 12 to support Wednesday Journal, Inc.’s coming switch from its long-time for-profit model to a new non-profit called Growing Community Media. 

Working journalists, retired reporters, and j-school profs came to Live Café, 163 S. Oak Park Ave., to learn more about the plan and during an enthusiastic discussion offered pragmatic advice and counsel on everything from reaching potential donors, the right software to track donors and ways to better connect with readers.

As 2020 arrives, the final steps will be in place to shift the assets of the 39-year-old corporation to the recently formed non-profit. Growing Community Media will take over publication of Wednesday Journal, the Oak Park-based flagship; the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark; the Forest Park Review; and the Austin Weekly News. The company sold Chicago Parent magazine to a Detroit publisher earlier this year. 

“I’m not positive, but we may be the first community-based legacy for-profit company to do this,” Dan Haley, publisher, told the group. “If we’re not the first, we’re right there at the starting line.” 

The move comes just two months after the Salt Lake City Tribune became the first large legacy for-profit daily in the country to switch to nonprofit status. 

There will still be revenue coming from advertising sales. Unlike the for-profit entity, however, the new nonprofit will also work to add philanthropic donations to fund reporting positions and initiatives. 

Under IRS regulations none of the four weeklies will be allowed to endorse candidates — a reality that gave Oak Park resident Elizabeth Austin some pause.

“As a voter, one of the most important things Wednesday Journal does is provide endorsements in local races,” said Austin, who has written for the Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications and is currently a communications consultant. 

“I fear that that’s going to leave a hole in which either the most strident voice or the best financed voice, or God help us both, will end up taking over village government because there will be no one serving as an honest broker and making everyone come in, sit down and give their bona fides,” she said. 

Haley said that while the newspaper won’t be able to endorse, it will still have an opinion section and columnists who may take positions. But when it comes to local politics, he said, the newspaper will pivot toward a different mission. 

“I don’t think we’ve done as good a job as we need to on voter education and voter guides,” he said. “We are a little uneven despite our sincere efforts. Part of the mission statement of the nonprofit is that we need to be a primary convener of people, so I would look for Wednesday Journal or Austin Weekly News to be convening a lot more groups around topics in our communities.” 

Much of the discussion centered on more practical matters, with many of the media experts in the room offering advice on everything from increasing donor revenue to engaging audiences. 

“You need a good software program to track your donors,” said Tracy Dell’Angela Barber, a former journalist and the executive director of the Oak Park Education Foundation. 

Charlie Meyerson, the founder of Chicago Public Square, a daily e-newsletter, who moderated the Dec. 12 discussion, said he’s been helping Wednesday Journal develop a podcast. 

“I love the fact that you’re doing a podcast,” said Dell’Angela Barber. 

Haley said it is part of a more comprehensive effort to rethink how the organization engages with local audiences. 

“The business model [of newspaper journalism] is not the only thing that’s broken,” Haley said. “What’s also broken is the way we listen to people, talk to people and report our stories — not just with respect to different platforms and so on, although that’s certainly a factor — but also with respect to who we choose to listen to. Creating a more diverse newsroom and company are all part of the more profound and interesting challenges that we face.”


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