By Tracy Baim • Publisher, Chicago Reader

Every city or region has a unique media ecosystem and common denominators with other parts of the country. In Chicago, we can learn from prior successful collaboration attempts both in this city and elsewhere.

What is not unique is the crisis facing media of all kinds across the United States, both before and including the COVID-19 crisis. This has meant cuts in newsrooms, but also more willingness to work together on collaborations.

In the summer of 2019, the Chicago Reader, newly independent and on the path to nonprofit status, launched a peer-to-peer project, the Chicago Independent Media Alliance. Members paid no fees; they just completed a survey of their operations, including their greatest needs. As of October 2020, there are 67 members in CIMA, and many of them — including the Reader — are participating in Solving for Chicago, a Local Media Association journalism and business transformation collaborative.

One of CIMA’s most important findings is that most media organizations surveyed do want to collaborate across multiple areas, including editorial and revenue projects. As this chart shows, more than half would work on editorial projects with one another. Significant numbers of publishers said they would collaborate on a wide range of other areas, including events and advertising sales.

In just over one year of operations, we have seen that a peer-to-peer model of collaboration has both strengths and weaknesses, and there are many things needed to make it sustainable, but most importantly is the staff and financial resources to ensure media organizations of every size can have success with the collaboration.

Tracy Baim

Because CIMA is community-based media, and many were devastated during the first wave of COVID-19, we had to pivot and accelerate a joint fundraising project. Forty-three of our members participated in a May-June 2020 online fundraiser, collectively raising $104,000 from individuals and $60,000 from foundations. After we surveyed our members on the impact of COVID-19 and shared the results with local foundations, a group of foundations soon came together to raise more than $400,000 for local media entities, both nonprofit and for profit.

What is most important to success is that CIMA has been staffed full-time, with some part-time support. The Chicago Reader has also dedicated hundreds of staff hours, mainly its publisher, co-editor-in-chief, development director, social media coordinator, and some sales staff. There is a lot more to do, and much of that will be dictated by funding. Collaborations need staffing support to be sustainable over a long period.

CIMA membership includes volunteer-run news websites, 120-year-old established newspapers, podcasts, nonprofits, radio, ethnic TV, and other media projects. This means we have some areas with a lot in common, and wide gulfs in needs. Many have very few if any staff, so they can’t take advantage of some of the larger institutions’ support. We have to be realistic about ways to collaborate when so many outlets are struggling day-to-day.

CIMA has done a few editorial collaborations, but has mainly worked by creating a wide range of content on a single subject, such as the U.S. Census and COVID-19, through grants to the publications to pay for that coverage. We believe direct payments to the media outlets are the best way to get more stories out on an agreed-upon subject area.

CIMA members have also worked together on revenue projects. We assist many members in creating better media kits, pricing support, and even getting the basic demographics of who they serve. Once the media entities are “leveled up” to one another, the goal would be to work together to market the media ecosystem. This allows corporate and government clients to make clearer choices from the range of media offerings. We look to the City University of New York’s Center for Community Media to see how they advocate for more government marketing contracts for their list of hundreds of community media outlets.

Solving for ChicagoThrough CIMA and Solving for Chicago, we can see the clout in working together, whether on editorial or revenue projects. But to do all of this, there has to be staffing support, because every media outlet is already stretched thin. Creating a nonprofit model for this work requires more transparency and less competition to get the job done. As we near the end of 2020, the Chicago Reader has now received its nonprofit designation for the Reader Institute for Community Journalism (RICJ), and it will begin operations as RICJ before the end of the year, which will bring CIMA under a nonprofit as well.

The goal is to find new money, new grants, new branded content, and new sponsors — not to cannibalize existing resources. There are many land mines along the way, but given the state of the media landscape, collaboration is one proven way to save the local media ecosystems.