By Sam CholkeSolving for Chicago Project Manager

Solving for Chicago has launched an initiative to engage with essential workers, coordinating across all 20 members of the news collaborative to ask workers about their experiences and what they need.

The initiative got an immediate outpouring of responses from workers. But it did more than raise the profile of the participating newsrooms among a broad slice of their audience. The responses also provided a new source for finding stories, created a constituency that can be tapped again, and unearthed valuable new insights about the newsrooms’ audiences.

Looking through the compiled responses, it was hard to miss the wealth of insights.

“Over 10 people have had COVID in my work area, including my immediate full-time bosses. We are not notified to get tests!” said one woman who works at one of the largest parcel sorting facilities in the region. “I don’t need to know who, just tell me we had COVID in my work area so I can get tested and protect my family!”

This worker felt frustrated that government and health officials hadn’t helped resolve issues in her workplace, but didn’t share her concerns with journalists until she was asked to. But it goes beyond individuals; the combined responses revealed clear priorities for ongoing coverage by newsrooms.

Essential workers make up approximately one-third of the workforce in the Chicago region, but survey responses suggested newsrooms have not fully identified the information of most interest to them. Workers repeatedly said they wanted to know how they could get a COVID vaccine. Newsrooms have reported this information many times, but buried it late in stories. This was one of many gut checks for newsrooms — that those most engaged in their coverage and actively seeking specific information were not finding it. It also showed there were active discussions happening among essential workers that newsrooms were missing, particularly around hazard pay.

We’ve already seen clear benefits from engaging with this audience, but the impact will go beyond that first contact, as newsrooms can now return to those respondents to see if the new coverage or change in approach make a difference. This ability to go beyond likes or unique views, and tap a targeted segment of the newsrooms’ audience to gauge impact, is immensely valuable. Newsrooms can demonstrate they are listening to and serving their community in ways that could be supported through memberships or subscriptions. Funders can clearly see the impact of journalism beyond policy change and the value they provide directly to communities. And staff members are happier because they get positive feedback that people are reading and taking action because of a story they reported.

Thanks to this audience feedback, newsrooms got new insights into how their audiences saw connections between their work and that of other outlets. Respondents were able to tag newsrooms they thought best able to report on their concerns. The newsrooms were then able to see which other news organizations their audiences considered peers. Chicago’s public radio and public television stations were frequently paired up in responses, but — surprisingly for both — several digital startups were also paired with them. None of the partner newsrooms had received feedback like this before.

Newsrooms weren’t fully aware that health care workers on the South Side wanted them to collaborate on coverage about hazard pay, or that grocery store workers on the North Side were looking to them for accountability reporting on workplace safety. Newsrooms in Chicago had never heard from their audiences the extent to which they wanted them to collaborate. That mandate gives reporters momentum to tackle a project together and gives real insights into where shared editorial content could make a significant impact on audience development and financial sustainability.

To learn more about the collaborative, visit To see more of the coverage from Solving for Chicago’s 20 newsrooms, visit