Staff Editorial

Local Journalism Requires Public Support

Without public financial support, local journalism publications become at risk for financial disaster. In the void left behind, remaining publications strain their resources to cover more stories than they are able, continuing the cycle of financial ruin.

DNAinfo, a popular source for local neighborhood news, was abruptly shut down Nov. 2, with Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Joe Ricketts citing financial reasons for the immediate closure. The loss of DNAinfo delivered a heavy blow to Chicago journalism and should urge other publications — including The Phoenix — to step up their local reporting.

In a letter to the site’s readers, Ricketts explained that “progress hasn’t been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.”

Despite Ricketts’ explanation, it’s widely believed the unionization of DNAinfo reporters in New York the week prior was the driving force behind his decision. The writers for Gothamist, a local news source for New Yorkers owned by Ricketts, also joined a union. Ricketts shut down the site the same day as DNAinfo.

DNAinfo and Gothamist publications have been consistent sources of hyperlocal news for Chicago, New York and other cities since their inceptions in 2009. They offered city-dwellers accurate and up-to-date information regarding the neighborhoods surrounding the metropolises, on topics ranging from crime to housing developments.

DNAinfo reported on news that mainstream outlets such as the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times didn’t cover. The site treated each neighborhood as if it was the heart of the city, and the information was invaluable to the members of those communities. DNAinfo brought important stories to its readers that they weren’t getting anywhere else.

The shutdown of the site not only hurts readers, but the reporters as well. More than 100 journalists working for DNAinfo were given no warning that they’d soon be losing their jobs.

Ricketts is the founder of TD Ameritrade, a brokerage firm, an owner of the Chicago Cubs and currently worth around two billion dollars. Now a proud supporter of President Donald Trump, Ricketts initially spent millions of dollars to fund ads slamming Trump’s campaign before he secured the Republican nomination. Soon after, Ricketts began funding Trump’s controversial campaign.

Clearly, Ricketts’ loyalties aren’t set in stone, and this is evident by his sudden shutdown of DNAinfo. Despite praising his site’s excellent reporting in his letter, noting the “tens of thousands of stories that have informed, impacted and inspired millions of people,” Ricketts removed all archived articles during the shutdown. Many of the pieces are now available online after a wave of media backlash.

The future for hyperlocal news in Chicago undoubtedly looks dimmer without DNAinfo’s reporting. Local stories will likely fall through the cracks and go unreported, which is why it’s important for news sources to work to mitigate that loss.

The Phoenix spoke with Linze Rice, a former Rogers Park and Edgewater beat reporter for DNAinfo, about the shutdown and the importance of local journalism.

Rice, who worked for DNAinfo for three years, had her last day of work at the news outlet Oct. 27, as she had taken a new job. Rice said she was preparing for a going away party when she heard the news of DNAinfo’s shut down — at the same time the rest of the world did. She said her immediate reaction was a mix of emotions, ranging from shock to anger.

“You just don’t treat people like that and your employees. We’ve all been really dedicated to the city and to our neighborhoods. And just everything that we do, we live and breathe [because] we know it matters to a lot of people and it matters to us,” Rice said. “I think everybody has sacrificed a lot to do everything that we’ve done reporting wise and so just to see everything kind of end up this way was especially disappointing.”

While Rice personally has job security going forward, several of her colleagues don’t. Still, she said she knows they’ll go on to do amazing work. She suggests people put money behind local news and the affected journalists to show their support.

“If an opportunity arises to put money behind local journalism, do it. … It’s not [going to] be a cash cow. It’s just not. It’s not the nature of the business. Things have changed so much,” Rice said. “But it’s a public service that needs to be funded.”

Rice is right in saying that  local journalism isn’t profitable,  but it is necessary. And it’s up to readers to financially support local journalism to assure that this doesn’t happen again.

The Phoenix takes the absence of DNAinfo as a call to action. While we are a school paper first, we now see the duty to increase our coverage of our surrounding neighborhoods. We will aim to cover Rogers Park and Edgewater news as accurately and extensively as possible in every section of the paper.

All local Chicago publications — including The DePaulia in Lincoln Park, The Chicago Maroon in Hyde Park, etc. — have a responsibility to step up their reporting on neighborhood news to fill the void left by DNAinfo’s shutdown.

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