Quality information, essential to preserving public health and coming from trusted voices, is needed to check the coronavirus. Credit: Bank Phrom / Unsplash

Daniel Ash is associate vice president for Community Impact at the Chicago Community Trust;  Lolly Bowean is program officer for Media and Storytelling at the Field Foundation; Kathy Im is the director of Journalism and Media at the MacArthur Foundation; Channing Lenert is a program officer at the Polk Bros. Foundation; Andres Torres is Democracy Program officer at the McCormick Foundation.

Earlier this week, the iconic Chicago activist and crusader Ida B. Wells was posthumously honored with journalism’s highest recognition: the Pulitzer Prize.

Among her many accomplishments, it’s worth noting that when Wells began investigating the horrific lynchings of Black men and women, she first published her work in the New York Age, a Black-owned newspaper that circulated widely. She later self-published her stories in a pamphlet, Southern Horrors, a publication that targeted African American readers and informed a broader audience.

From the time Freedom’s Journal was founded in 1827, African Americans have turned to Black-owned newspapers as a trusted source of information, and studies show that’s still true today. 

In fact, as the devastation of COVID-19 falls most heavily on lower-income communities of color, according to Pew Research, people of color rely on local news more than their white counterparts and turn to it more than any other source for coronavirus news. 

In Chicago, those local sources include community media institutions that have enjoyed loyal readership for generations, such as the Chicago Crusader and La Raza—trusted news sources that focus on providing the information their readers need and cannot otherwise get.

Nationally, local journalism is in crisis. Advertising revenue, long in decline, has evaporated along with the businesses that paid for ads. But smaller, minority-owned and -led newsrooms face decimation without support and intervention.

If community media disappears, their consumers, who have historically been underrepresented in mainstream media, will become further marginalized. This could not come at a worse time. 

Recent analysis by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning reveals how dependent we are on our region’s most vulnerable residents during this crisis. People of color are overrepresented among the essential workers continuing to stock shelves, ship packages, and support our health-care system. These essential workers mostly live in areas of the region where decades of disinvestment have produced health, wealth, and other disparities that exacerbate their risk of contracting COVID-19. And as they continue to go about their work, they are disproportionately being affected by the pandemic. Data from the Chicago Department of Public Health reveal the enormous disparity in infections and deaths between Chicago’s Black and white residents.

Quality information, essential to preserving public health and coming from trusted voices, is needed to check the coronavirus. Thankfully, Chicago has a robust media landscape that includes outlets operating in dozens of languages and serving the diverse communities that might not be able to access or be willing to trust information from other sources.

This landscape boasts new outlets, such as the Triibe, which is speaking directly to Black millennials, and Cicero Independiente, whose journalists are meeting with their Spanish-speaking audience on Facebook. It also includes long-standing publications, such as the Austin Weekly News, the Chicago Korea Times, and the Chicago Reader who have been printing for decades.

Together, community media are filling information gaps and countering misinformation, but they need our support to continue this work. This week, a consortium of funders is announcing investments of more than $425,000 in Chicago community media. With a great sense of urgency and deep respect for the reporters on the front lines of this pandemic, we came together in the first weeks of the crisis to develop a collaborative, rapid response model for funding local journalism. We are proud that these grants are principally serving outlets led by or serving people of color and publishing in half a dozen languages. But more is needed. We invite our colleagues in corporate and institutional philanthropy to join us. And we also invite you, the public.

Sunday’s global celebration of World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to reflect on the value of information to our lives, livelihoods, and democracy. But a right to information is not a guarantee of it. Therefore, it seems fitting that World Press Freedom Day was closely followed this year by Giving News Day on Tuesday, May 5, and the May 8 kickoff of a monthlong campaign in Chicago to #SaveChicagoMedia, a joint fundraising initiative organized by the Chicago Independent Media Alliance to support over 40 local outlets. They deserve your support. Will you join us in supporting them?   v

The Chicago COVID-19 Journalism Fund is a collaboration between The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Polk Bros. Foundation, and the Field Foundation.