Thursday, April 25, 2019

Enhancing Collaboration, Engagement, and Entrepreneurship

This article is the third in a series, written by program officer Andres Torres, introducing the Democracy Program’s work in journalism. Read our prior posts to learn about our goal to create an information-rich region and our first strategy to support this goal: telling the untold stories.

In my conversations with people in local media, I have heard many compelling ideas for how to improve the process of developing and telling our region’s stories. Some of these ideas have been tested, others have yet to be attempted. In the Democracy Program, we hope to support innovative activities with the promise to set the practice of local reporting on a more sustainable path. Specifically, we are interested in work that invites partnership, engages the region’s residents, and experiments with new solutions.


To optimize limited resources. To leverage complementary skills. To extend reach. To augment impact. Our partners in media cite numerous reasons for informally and formally collaborating with each other. From cross-platform, multi-outlet, polylingual publishing partnerships to informal peer editing exchanges, collaborations are yielding dividends, and we are excited by the benefits further collaboration might unlock. Benefits to audience trust, to the bottom line, and to our region’s democratic health are all potential outcomes. Despite the benefits, we understand that building the trust and structures to execute successful collaborations can be resource-intensive, which presents an opportunity for us to draw on our role as grantmaker and convener to facilitate greater collaboration in the Chicago.

Community Engagement

The collaborations that we believe are critical are not just those between newsrooms, but between reporters and the people they serve. This can be a challenge in a region that is diversifying and in which people of color make up nearly half of the region’s population, though they made up less than 17% of newsrooms in 2017. But the cost of not genuinely engaging residents is too high, not just to journalism’s bottom line, but to the sustainability of our democracy.

Less than a quarter of Chicagoans say they have ever communicated with a journalist, according to a recent study by the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin. This figure is even lower on Chicago’s South Side where only 17% of residents have ever communicated with a journalist, compared to 30% of the city’s North Side residents. Seeing these statistics, it is hard not to wonder at the impact differential engagement has on trust in media and news outlets’ sustainability, not to mention to level and quality of information all residents have to engage in our democracy. We believe more, and more regular, engagement is needed in journalism and we seek partners who are committed to engaging residents before, while, and after they report their stories.


Embracing engagement and committing to collaboration will require updating the ways journalism works. This will require new outlooks, tools, and, perhaps, new organizations. With the pace of change in journalism, it’s difficult to predict how today’s solutions might apply to tomorrow’s situations. Tomorrow will surely bring new challenges and hopefully present new opportunities. In either case, we believe entrepreneurial thinking is needed to sustain and strengthen journalism. We welcome ideas for how we might move forward together.

Our Role

In the Democracy Program, we will work to identify and empower outlets, and the partners that support them, to be collaborative and engaged. We will also continue to work with universities and other organizations researching how to shift the way journalism works and collect and share the insights they bring. To this end, we look forward to continuing to convene and connect our partners to advance our shared learning and inform our respective work.

The Democracy Program is currently accepting applications from nonprofit organizations that believe their work helps advance our goal to enhance collaboration, engagement, and entrepreneurship. We are also accepting applications for work supporting our other three journalism strategies, which you can learn about on our website and read more about on this blog.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Telling the Untold Stories

This article is the second in a series, written by program officer Andres Torres, introducing the Democracy Program’s work in journalism. Read our prior post to learn about our goal to create an information-rich region.

In 2015, 15 locomotives operating in five Chicago railyards were upgraded. There are likely hundreds of locomotives operating at any given time in our region, so are 15 new ones significant? To some, including residents living near those railyards, they might have been. The government invested almost $20 million to upgrade the old engines because they were releasing over 7.5 tons of particulate matter and almost 200 tons of nitrogen oxide annually. The overhauls cut emissions by about 75%, comparable to taking about 10,000 cars off the road.

In 2014, concerned citizens noticed healthy trees being cut down in their neighborhoods. There are often worthwhile reasons for taking down live trees, but these residents were unsure. They brought their concerns to a local environmental organization that investigated these claims. It examined public records and confirmed hundreds of live, healthy trees had been removed, despite a backlog of thousands of dead, standing trees remaining, and in contrast to the municipality’s environmental position that acknowledged the role trees play in improving air quality and addressing chronic flooding.

Should these stories be told? It’s not for me to say, but the McCormick Foundation sponsored a study that revealed last year that only a third of Chicago’s residents believed the media were doing a good or very good job covering the issues that most mattered to them. Americans continue to value news, especially local news. It is a resource critical to active and informed civic engagement.

The health of democracy in the Chicago region requires a local news ecosystem with a broad range of reporting that is sufficiently deep and accessible to inform and inspire residents in their civic activity. Yet, the media landscape is eroding. Reporter and correspondent jobs in newspaper publishing have decreased almost 50% nationwide from 2005 to 2017, with a less grim, but still serious decline in radio, TV, and even digital media.

Mirroring national trends, the number of reporters and correspondents in the Chicago region continues to decline. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 850 reporters and correspondents remaining in the region as of May 2018, a third less than a decade ago.

Presented with this challenge, the McCormick Foundation sees an opportunity to improve democratic practice in our region by investing in efforts to enhance and extend the information available to citizens.

Our first journalism strategy is to continue to support organizations and initiatives that provide essential public affairs coverage and help them broaden and deepen their reporting. When considering the evidence of increasing resource constraints at outlets, especially for reporting that takes more time to tell deeper stories, we see an opportunity for philanthropy to continue to support newsrooms to bring a broader array of questions into our civic discourse and dive deeper to explore and explain their interconnection.

How we can best support newsrooms is a question we are continuing to explore and intend to keep doing so with our journalism partners. A primary vehicle will be our grantmaking. In 2018, the Democracy Program supported eight news outlets with a mix of general operating funds and support for projects that expanded the breadth and depth of stories available to the public. For example, we supported Injustice Watch’s robust coverage of Cook County’s judicial system in the run-up to the November 2018 elections, when voters rejected an incumbent judge for the first time in 28 years.

The Foundation remains committed to partnering with outlets that are producing high-impact stories on public issues and increasing the volume, variety, and quality of reporting in the region. As we evaluate partnership opportunities, we will be seeking outlets that prioritize engaging with communities to ensure that the civic potential of broader and deeper reporting is realized.

We are also interested in supporting newsrooms that emphasize collaboration over competition, recognizing the advantages this disposition presents for optimizing limited resources to deliver a broader impact. Finally, we seek organizations aligned with McCormick’s commitment to embrace diversity and inclusion and create equitable opportunities.

Chicago has incredible reporters and high-achieving newsrooms. In them, we see promise to explore so many more stories. In our work, we see an opportunity to support these efforts. Whether these new stories investigate our transportation infrastructure and the policies that shape it, the challenges of our criminal justice system, the promise of our educational system, the opportunities for improving environmental policy, or other issues, we hope to invest our resources in building deeper and more inclusive narratives that inform and activate citizens to engage with the world around them.

The Democracy Program is currently accepting applications from nonprofit organizations that believe their work helps advance our goal to broaden and deepen public affairs reporting in the region. We are also accepting applications for work supporting our other three journalism strategies, which you can learn about on our website and read more about on this blog.

Creating an Information-Rich Region

This article is the first in a series, written by program officer Andres Torres, introducing the Democracy Program’s work in journalism.”

Every election, about a night or two before voting, my family gathers to caucus. Over a meal and a drink, we share research on candidates, try to decode any ballot initiatives, and discuss the merits of our options. We were fortunate during Chicago’s recent election to have a range of sources to draw from and inform our debate.

New initiatives like Chi.Vote collected articles from local outlets so we could see, for example, education coverage from Chalkbeat Chicago alongside campaign finance data from Reform for Illinois and an article from The Daily Line offering context on the donors fueling the campaign. New outlets and new ventures augmented coverage available from long-standing sources, such as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, WBEZ, and local TV stations.

As we moved down the ballot, however, we had to dig harder to find information. What are the prospective rewards and risks of a public bank? Just searching City Treasurer candidates “Conyears-Ervin and Pawar” in Google News returned a fraction of the results that “Lightfoot and Preckwinkle” did, leaving us with more questions than answers. This challenge grew exponentially more difficult as we sought to sort between our incumbent Alderman and his several primary challengers.

There was some great neighborhood-level political reporting in the most recent election, such as Block Club Chicago’s reporting on aldermanic forums or the City Bureau and Austin Weekly News collaboration to bring resident concerns into election coverage. However, as my family wrestled with our decisions, we found less, and less credible, information on the races closest to home or on issues that might be pressing to us, but perhaps weren’t central to the campaign, such as support for cultural programming and public art.

I acknowledge my family’s privilege in confronting the challenge of finding relevant and reliable information to inform our participation in Chicago’s election. We can access information in English, we have reliable internet access, we have high educational attainment, which has helped us develop the analytical skills needed to sort fact from fiction, and we have robust networks with educated and civically engaged peers who can help us fill the gaps in our knowledge. But many Chicagoans lack these privileges.

Information is essential to educating and activating citizens to participate in their democracy. Without civic participation, our democracy withers. While we are acutely aware of our need for civic information when we have a pressing decision, such as a ballot to punch, a healthy democratic society needs information perpetually and universally.

It is around this lofty goal of creating an information-rich environment that supports all residents across our region, regardless of race or ethnicity, to be informed and engaged citizens, that the McCormick Foundation’s Democracy Program is focusing its investments in journalism. Our hope is not just to augment the quantity and quality of public affairs reporting, but ensure that across the region, all people have access to this information.

We have developed four strategies for achieving this goal, and we are now accepting Letters of Inquiry (LOI) for grants to support organizations and initiatives that advance one or more of these strategies. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be introducing these four strategies on our blog to offer insights into how we came to these priorities and how we envision advancing the work. In the meantime, I welcome your questions.