The Collapse of Chicago Media


When the satirical humor weekly The Onion announced it was moving its editorial staff from New York to Chicago it was considered quite a coup by boosters of the Windy City. Yet the hoopla surrounding revealed more about Chicago’s decline as a media center than any significant uptick. This includes news of a staff rebellion at the Onion in which writers attempted to scotch the move, with some ultimately deciding not to come. The strong celebration of a relatively small relocation in the grand scheme of things also shows a city looking hard for good media news where there has been so much bad recently.

The biggest blow of the all has been the end of the Oprah Winfrey show and her departure for Los Angeles to start a new network. She was the one legitimate mega-star who came from Chicago and built an empire recognizably Chicago-based. When she left, her network, which has struggled to obtain distribution and viewers, carried a Rosie O'Donnell talk show based in Chicago that ultimately folded as well. Similarly, Playboy, another iconic Chicago media brand, also departed for LA.

Some of this reflects national trends that have led to a greater concentration of media in New York and, to some extent, Washington. All across America, local media has struggled. The Tribune, Sun-Times, and alt-weekly Chicago Reader all went bankrupt, and while they continue to publish, they have become in many respects shadows of their former selves. New mayor Rahm Emanuel, while still engaging with local media, has frequently decided to bypass it, going directly to major national media to get the city's story out. For example, he hosted New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, resulting in a fawning profile.

Daley also had occasional good luck with the national media, getting glowing stories in publications like the Economist and the New Yorker. Many of these read like classic Sunday travel section pieces in their boosterism. One possible reason for that is that they are travel pieces. Chicago never had a huge number of national bureaus, and the number has shrunk in the past few years because of the difficulty in supporting a national footprint generally. For example, the Washington Post closed all of its bureaus, and the Chicago bureau was a casualty. Today most national news outlets don't have a boots on the ground perspective of the city, and thus are open to being spun by clever locals.

This lack of out of town and foreign media means that what coverage Chicago does get is often positive, but the flip side is that Chicago doesn’t have a built in platform for getting its message out nationally or globally. New York is America’s media center. DC, LA, and the Bay Area all have a robust out of town media presence because of the industries based there (government, entertainment, and tech respectively). They have a megaphone to the world that Chicago doesn’t. That’s perhaps one reason Emanuel made what many consider an ill-advised play for the NATO summit: it was a rare opportunity to showcase Chicago to global journalists.

Chicago also falls short in new media. In many cities, the decline of the daily paper has been offset by a robust new media infrastructure. This includes sites like Crosscut in Seattle or MinnPost in the Twin Cities.  Major national sites like Gawker or the Huffington Post have tended to be based in traditional media center like New York or Washington. Chicago has been curiously absent here. An attempt at a non-profit online new site, the Chicago News Cooperative, failed due to financial difficulties, despite seven figures in funding from the MacArthur Foundation and a contract with the New York Times.  

Where major platforms have arisen in Chicago, they've often left in order to pursue their ambitions. For example, music site Pitchfork, which started out of a music festival in Chicago, moved its editorial staff to Brooklyn. Statistical journalist Nate Silver likewise moved to New York.

The challenge facing media and journalists in Chicago was best perhaps summed up by JC Gabel, a die hard fan of the city.  He relaunched the historic Chicagoan magazine in an effort to rebuild the sort of infrastructure the city once had. He wrote in the launch issue:

By all accounts, it should be an exciting time to live and work in Chicago. But there is little well-paid creative work available for the hungry freelancers—the writers, artists, photographers, editors and designers—who call Chicago home. Locally, what work there is pays a pittance; nothing that could sustain the kind of long-form storytelling we were discussing.

This might help explain the mass exodus from Chicago of creative minds of our generation throughout the last few years. Opportunities on either coast—or overseas—eventually come calling, and although they retain pride in their erstwhile Midwestern hearts, they cease to be Chicagoans by physical address.

Stop Smiling, the magazine I co-edited and co-published for more than a decade from Chicago, ultimately couldn’t have made it without also keeping a New York office and a strong West Coast presence. By and large, a majority of stories were executed in Los Angeles or New York, and all the money we raised through ad sales came right out of the agency machines on either coast. But Chicago was always our inspiration, a place where we retired to—first to brood, then to get our work done.

I know firsthand how difficult it is to carve out a national niche audience in a city that many still consider fly-over country, despite its rich history and inventive spirit.

Part of the challenge for Chicago lies in the ongoing changes being wrought by the internet and globalization. These are both spreading around some activities and ever more concentrating others. Media is among those undergoing further centralization into the handful of fortress hubs, notably New York and DC. This has hit Chicago, always a second-tier media center, hard.

But the good news is that Chicago is full of talented folks like Gabel with a passion for their city. Chicago actually does have the critical mass of talent to support a far stronger media ecosystem than it has today. And with the low barriers in the internet age, there's no insurmountable obstacles to making that happen. But clearly anyone trying to make a go of it in media in Chicago today is swimming upstream against a fast flowing current of decline.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.

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