The Community Media Workshop performs an exemplary media service: it connects Chicago reporters looking for stories to tell with neighborhood organizations whose stories need telling. Over its 25 years of playing this role, CMW has made itself a fixture in Chicago’s media ecology. But now it faces a threat to its existence: there are fewer mainstream-media reporters than there once were, and the ones who survive aren’t looking as hard at the neighborhoods. Thom Clark, president of CMW and one of its founders, remembers the time when you could call the reporters on the dailies’ urban affairs beat—reporters like the Tribune’s John McCarron—and pitch them stories from the hood “on housing development, job creation, new community arts centers, daycare center openings . . . ” But who do you call these days?
“As McCarron [now retired] will complain to me,” says Clark, “no one’s following the Plan Commission meetings any longer. That’s symptomatic. It’s a public agency using taxpayer money.”
The dailies aren’t the worst. Every year since 1994 CMW has given out Studs Terkel Media Awards honoring local journalists “for excellence in covering and reflecting Chicago’s diverse communities.” (The Reader‘s Steve Bogira will receive one in March.) “There’s a whole swath of enterprise journalism we don’t see as much of,” Clark told me. “We struggle every year to find worthy TV journalists to give a Terkel to.” (This year they found Alejandro Escalona of Telemundo.)
The passing of urban affairs beats from mainstream media doesn’t mean neighborhood organizations have nowhere to go with their stories; there are more ways than ever for CMW to help them get those stories out to what Clark calls “key audiences.” He listed some: newsletters, blogs, the NGOs’ own websites, hyperlocal media such as DNAinfo. But Clark admits, “Who’s paying attention to all those—I’m not sure yet.”
And the impoverished state of the mainstream media is just one gale-force wind in what Clark calls the “perfect storm” CMW has sailed into. The other is the economy that’s been blowing in all our faces since 2008. It’s battered the neighborhood NGOs that CMW serves, forcing them to cut back the programs CMW helps them promote, not to mention the fees they can afford to pay CMW for its workshops and other services. Over the years CMW has received about half its revenues from those fees, the other half from grants. And though Clark praises his major donors for their loyalty in tough times, he allows in his next breath that “donor fatigue” has diminished their generosity.
The upshot: five years ago CMW ran on a budget of about $750,000 a year; that’s shrunk to about $600,000. Two years ago Clark had a staff of half a dozen people, plus just as many interns and students (CMW is based at Columbia College) and a dozen consultants. Today’s workforce is half that. Some programs have been dropped, such as a study CMW was making of new media. “In a lean, mean environment,” said Clark, “we decided to step back and figure out the best way to proceed.”
In these gloomy circumstances, is enthusiasm warranted? Emphatically, yes, Clark tells me. The reason for it and the source of it are the same. This Thursday Clark brings on a new executive director, Susy Schultz.
- Community Media Workshop
- Thom Clark
Schultz is an old hand at fiscal adversity. Her first encounter with CMW was a couple of decades ago when she was a Sun-Times general-assignment reporter. “Things were tight,” she remembers. “We didn’t have the budget to take people to lunch.” She was trying to develop a social services beat she could cover part-time, but she also didn’t have the time it normally takes to develop contacts. Then CMW invited her to one of its classrooms meetings with NGOs. “It’s such an amazing thing,” she says. “You’d spend a couple of hours listening to pitches and come out with a couple of dozen story ideas you could jump into right away.”
Last July I wrote about Schultz to share her thoughts on Chicago’s Association for Women Journalists, which she’d cofounded and which was turning 20. A charter member told me, “”Susy’s a natural leader. She’s so full of fire and dynamite we would have followed her into the Grand Canyon.”
Schultz has done pretty much everything in her career as a journalist. She’s reported, edited, freelanced, taught at Medill and Columbia College, and in recent years acted as a readership consultant with the Small Newspaper Group, showing it how to shift its resources to the Web. She ran Chicago Parent magazine for four years. She handled public affairs for the Chicago region of the Department of Health and Human Services for two.
She has a background, she tells me, “that fits fist in glove” with CMW.
Fist in glove?
“Fist in glove,” she says. “I’m passionate and I’m excited. I love taking on something where you can see a great road map, where you can see the challenges. I am not mitigating how hard it is to be a veteran journalist. But I do think it is a phenomenally exciting time.”
And she believes that for all the avenues of communication that new media have opened for community organizations, the mainstream media will stay central to what the workshop does. “It may be not as powerful as it was,” Schultz says, “but the mainstream media still drives a lot of what we read and what we hear. The blogs can be reactive. One of the first thing TV news editors do when they come in is flip through the papers. There are still millions of people across the country that get the Sunday newspaper. And whatever platform you’re talking about, it’s still important for people to know how to tell a story. Sometimes I think we all get lost in the technology and we forget we have to tell a story.”
Like many another journalist with faith in newspapers, Schultz is inspired by Warren Buffett. Buffett’s bought up more than two dozen papers over the past couple of years and explained himself by saying this: “Newspapers continue to reign supreme in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town—whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football—there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.”
That job requires the services CMW continues to offer, Schultz explains. “We teach people how to tell their stories and we tell their stories to journalists.” Even if nobody has quite figured out the future of journalism yet, she’s someone who believes it will always be first and foremost about telling stories. Anybody who doesn’t get that isn’t going to be part of the solution.
As for Clark, he has his own story to tell. He’ll remain with CMW as president as least through the Terkel Awards ceremony and 25th-anniversary celebration on March 6. But he’s putting his day-to-day duties behind him. He’s got a book to finish. “I was tried in 1971 as part of a group of four folks from Loyola who poured cow’s blood on draft board records and prevented a bunch of kids from Skokie from being drafted,” he tells me. “We went on trial in federal court and we beat three of the four charges.” They were convicted of conspiracy to commit the crimes they were acquitted of, and those convictions were overturned on appeal. Clark said he’s framing his book as a mystery: “How does a former seminarian boy scout end up breaking the law?”