40 years in, building Journal's future

Looking back for a moment but focused on what's next

Opinion: Dan Haley

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

It's the 40th anniversary of Wednesday Journal. July 30, 1980. 

Good time to get all weepy and nostalgic. 

Or we could summarize. We worked hard. We did good. Sometimes we screwed up.  Growing a company from scratch is a wild ride. But spending 10 years shrink-fitting your company, which we've done since the 2008 recession and the growth of digital, is emotionally exhausting. 

So here we are now, reinventing independent community journalism as a nonprofit 40 years in. Exhilarating — also exhausting. 

But it is the single path to a future for an independent community newsroom. And we're doing our damndest to build this out. It's a hybrid model and, so far, a rare bird in community publishing. We're still in print. Pre-COVID-19 selling a healthy amount of advertising. Relying on loyal subscribers. And building a wide base of donors from among our readers, local philanthropists, and, a small number of generous foundations which see how precarious is the state of local news. 

Are we going to pull this off? Yes. If you help. 

Our four flags across seven neighborhoods all have deep connections to our communities. So in our first months as Growing Community Media, more than 1,200 readers have stepped up. We'll need to double and triple that as time goes on. We're aiming to add 250 new donors during August as part of an anniversary push. You can donate at GrowingCommunityMedia.org. 

Forty years back, there were three of us on the staff that launched this improbable venture. My two co-founders each left Chicago within a couple of years. Anne Duggan moved to Iowa City where her husband Ken got a post teaching history. Sharon Britton moved back to Boston after her husband John finished his residency at Cook County Hospital. I've endured and too often get too much credit for founding this outfit. Sharon and Anne (and our spouses, including my Mary) were essential partners. 

None of us had a nickel. So we invented a new way to start a newspaper. Seems sort of familiar to what we're doing now. We sold shares of stock in a newspaper that would be intensely focused on Oak Park and River Forest. More than 70 local people stepped up. Most invested $1,000. Over time many of them joined our board of directors which was led for decades by Bob Downs, a local attorney. Ed Panschar, a local CPA, kept track of our limited finances. One of the early investors, Andy Johnston, came on staff at a critical moment and played a vital role in our growth over 30-plus years.

This week, because we are in full generational shift, we are carrying the obits of two of our early investors: the wonderful Marge Gockel and Mary Lee Janis. Best to Galen and to the Janis family.

Next week we'll announce the members of the new board for Growing Community Media. It is a stellar group and I can't wait to work with them and for them.

Way back when, circa 1980, my primary motivation for working to launch the Journal was to cover race and diversity in Oak Park. It is still the most compelling story in our villages. We've evolved from a focus just on racial integration to getting to the root of systemic racism, the opportunity to not just pat white folks on the back for moving to Oak Park but to demand better, to demand more of ourselves as white people.

Now there's the rub. Feel-good Oak Park, always an illusion, meets real Oak Park. 

Working on a 40th anniversary section sends you to the archives. An aside, but since our physical downsizing a couple of years back, all of the back issues of our papers and all the barely sorted file folders of photos have been on permanent loan to the Oak Park River Forest Museum. The right caretaker for this trove of history.

And while I'm mostly proud of our coverage of race, it is undeniable, looking at the staff photos, that this has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise. It has limited our perspective, perpetuated our myth-telling and diminished the critical role of people of color in these villages.

We need to do much better.

That's why we've got another 40 years of work to do. 

Thank you for being with us up until now. And I ask that you join actively as our partners in fostering an independent community newsroom for the next 40.

Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

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Reader Comments

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Jill O'Mahony Stewart  

Posted: July 30th, 2020 10:50 AM

Congrats on a phenomenal achievement and happy anniversary, Dan! On your side all the way! Thanks for the many, many contributions you make to Oak Park and its residents.

Susan Beyersdorf Beach from Forest Park  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 7:01 PM

I have read and been an ardent supported of the Journal since 1983 even before we moved to the village. The Journal and I (Dan) have not always agreed and yes, there were missteps along the way that Dan acknowledged, but through all those years, the Journal has been my go to for local news, either via OakPark.com or with the actual paper. I have not lived in Oak Park for nearly 20 years now, but count myself a long-time subscriber and patron. I trust the Journal to bring us the stories that help us see all the work that needs to be done in our communities for racial justice and equity. Congratulations to the Journal.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 10:11 AM

"We worked hard. We did good. Sometimes we screwed up." That acknowledgement seems more honest than some of your posts, MacMillan.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 9:39 AM

The myth telling continues, live from Berwyn.

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