The South Side Weekly and the Hyde Park Herald, two newspapers serving the South Side of Chicago, have merged under one nonprofit. The merger comes at a time when newspapers across the country face mounting pressure to develop new long-term models to financially sustain local journalism.
Both papers will continue to publish as standalone publications uninterrupted, now under the nonprofit organization South Side Weekly NFP. (Nonprofits cannot be owned per se — their assets can only be transferred.)
“This is an opportunity to build a scalable framework for community news, one that combines the Herald’s 140-year long commitment to neighborhood reporting with the Weekly’s community-centered approach to news-gathering on the greater South Side,” said Jason Schumer, the Weekly’s Managing Director. Ultimately, Schumer said, the partnership will strengthen both papers’ ability to support community journalism on the South Side of Chicago.
In an interview, Bruce Sagan, the Herald’s publisher since 1953, said “the economic changes in the journalism business are such that there need to be a shift.” The Herald was profitable in 2021 after partnering with the Weekly, but unprofitable in 2020 and 2019.
“The Hyde Park Herald standing on its own, like all newspapers, was losing revenue and losing circulation — circumstances we’re all now used to,” said Sagan. “The existence of South Side Weekly and the Herald, in terms of their contents, approaches to an area which is in some ways similar and in some ways overlapping — that offers an opportunity now to be taken that could lead to some understanding of a new economic structure for this kind of journalism,” Sagan said.
Printing and distribution have always been newspapers’ biggest expense after payroll. The Internet Age’s promise was to bring about a significantly different economic potential for the industry, as websites are relatively inexpensive to operate. That model went largely unrealized when classified ads overwhelmingly shifted to other online listings, the fundamental nature of advertising changed (i.e., consumers could use the internet to search for goods and services they needed) and online subscription revenue has not yet made up lost revenue except for a few national news organizations.
Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a former president of the Poynter Institute, said what is happening at the Herald is not unusual in the context of the broader crisis that local news faces, with revenue down on the order of 70% over the last 15 years because of declining print ad revenue and digital ad revenue not making up the difference.
“The business model for local news has been vaporized,” Franklin said in an interview. “The problem is also especially acute for smaller community publications, because they’ve also suffered the same loss of revenue that everybody else has.”
According to a June report from Northwestern that Franklin co-authored, within the last two years, more than 360 newspapers have shuttered. By 2025, the report speculates, the country is on track to lose a third of its newspapers.
By becoming a nonprofit, Franklin said the Herald “is at the front end” of an emerging trend in the industry “of commercial news organizations converting to nonprofit status.” In 2019, the Salt Lake Tribune sent shockwaves through the industry when it became the first big-city daily to go nonprofit. Locally, the Chicago Reader is transitioning to a nonprofit model, and the Sun-Times, acquired by Chicago Public Media, has become the second big city daily to go nonprofit.
Franklin said this transition opens the door to revenue that might not have been available otherwise, such as foundation and philanthropic funding from corporate and individual donors. “Those are dollars that (papers) would not get in all likelihood as a commercial enterprise,” said Franklin. “That’s the bet, is that there will be enough revenue from donors, individuals and foundations to help compensate for some of these other losses and to be on a path towards sustainability.”
In addition to subscriptions, philanthropy and advertising revenue, the Herald has been experimenting with volunteer payments for the news. “We say to some of those people, ‘It costs us more than we can generate through advertising, will you help?’ And the answer’s yes, at least for some people,” Sagan said.
Fred Bennet and Clarence Dresser founded the Hyde Park Herald in 1882, 29 years after Paul Cornell bought lakefront land seven miles south of a Midwestern boomtown called Chicago and the year before Hyde Park Township was annexed into the city. It is the third-oldest newspaper in Chicago, after the Tribune (founded in 1847) and the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (founded in 1854).
Sagan, Originally of Summit, New Jersey, has lived in Chicago since matriculating at the University of Chicago in the 1940s. He never graduated, having begun his journalism career in 1951 as a copy boy — the long-since obsolete position that entailed taking typed articles from one section of a newsroom to another — for the Hearst International News Service.
In 1953, then-Herald owner Michael Weinberg Jr. was on the verge of closing the paper because it wasn’t making money. So Sagan, 24-years-old and a night editor of the City News Bureau, bought the Herald for only $2,500.
Sagan went on to buy the Southtown Economist (now the Daily Southtown) in 1958 and made his fortune there; it eventually came to publish 30 community newspapers. After founding the Ancona School, 4770 S. Dorchester Ave., he moved out of Hyde Park in the 1980s and continued publishing the Herald.
Just as the nature of advertising has changed, Sagan noted that the nature of local journalism has changed. Forty years ago, he said the Herald was publishing next week’s church sermons and sundry announcements for the schools and neighborhood organizations.
“We were communicating for the institutions to their own participants,” he said. “Churches and schools now have their own ability to talk to their audiences. In the old days, we published all kinds of news, including the kind that I’m talking about, communications for the institutions, and we talked about the things that were governmental, etc.”
“Forty years we wouldn’t have published a list of the bills the state reps voted for, but we did this year,” Sagan said.
Schumer said the Herald-Weekly merger process began in January 2020 at a meeting brokered by Jamie Kalven, then the executive director of the Invisible Institute, the South Side investigative journalism nonprofit. Sagan told Schumer that he was interested in donating the Herald to South Side Weekly, meaning shared back-office, front-office and advertising managers with intact and separate editorial teams.
“A lot of for-profit newspapers, instead of scaling their operations in response to declining revenue, just close down,” Schumer said. “But to Bruce’s credit, he really wanted to keep this thing alive. And he realized that we could scale accordingly by combining forces.”
Medill’s Metro Media Lab has worked with South Side Weekly, which was founded as a nonprofit in 2013, and Franklin said that the news organization is healthy and doing well with its readers and community. He thinks that consumer perception could benefit the Herald.
“The Herald‘s success is going to depend on whether it can raise enough revenue from foundations, civically oriented individuals and corporate donors and memberships,” Franklin said, adding that most nonprofit news organizations — the vast majority of which are public radio stations — have membership programs. He said doing nothing was not an option, given the local news industry’s realities.
“I think we are in this moment where there is a lot of money to support journalism, and there’s a lot of interesting startups and ideas happening in Chicago in particular,” said Schumer. “(But) we know that the long-term sustainability of local journalism is figuring out how to get the communities that we serve to support it.”
The Weekly is still awaiting official 501(c)(3) status, which will make it exempt from federal income taxes. But the organization has a fiscal sponsorship agreement with the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., where the Herald relocated to in 2020, meaning that tax-deductible donations to both publications can now be accepted.
Schumer doesn’t plan to put up a paywall anytime soon. “Accessibility is super-important,” he said. “I think everyone has the right to access reliable information about their community.”
He noted that accessible, well-researched, independent and thoroughly fact-checked journalism is essential in combating the rising tide of disinformation online. “I think it only perpetuates (disinformation) when we make more reliable information hard to get,” said Schumer.
He plans to launch a membership program across both publications that keeps the core content free. A survey Medill did last year of South Side Weekly readers found that two-thirds support such a membership program, whereas just 15% of South and West Side news consumers Medill surveyed support the same kind of model.”
Schumer said the Herald is trying to find a solution without compromising the robustness of its news operation. He wants its staff to respond to breaking and timely news, and he also wants it to work closely with the communities the Herald serves to utilize their information and expertise. There will be more opportunities for community feedback and engagement.
He added that the South Side Weekly NFP is interested in expanding the model, perhaps opening other neighborhood-specific news organizations with a shared back-office.
“What would it look like to open up a newspaper in Englewood and have a small editorial staff that’s connected to the community like the Herald does?” he asked. “For us, it’s actually an interesting way to think about scale, to get the kind of quality coverage that local papers used to provide but really don’t any longer, other than a handful of papers like the Hyde Park Herald.”
Schumer said he hopes the Herald will keep printing a newspaper in perpetuity. He thinks print is a valuable medium for a lot of reasons, from aesthetics to accessibility. For South Siders without reliable internet access, people experiencing homelessness or incarcerated people, a printed newspaper is still the best way to share information.
Sagan plans to fully retire now, saying he can give advice but that “the world has changed remarkably.”
“We’ve put the Herald, I think, into a new situation with South Side Weekly, but the nature of news content is that the Herald deals with the very local back-and-forth and the Weekly deals in a broader way with the city and the South Side. Those two things, I think, are both very useful in the development of content that people will pay for,” he said. “And can we find out what will support that kind of journalism? That, in a sense, is the purpose of the combination.”
“I’m still active and doing things,” Sagan said — he is on the boards of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the Joffrey Ballet and the Chicago Public Library Foundation as well as the management committee of classical and folk radio station WFMT — “but in this particular circumstance, I know that what’s needed is a relatively long-range effort to find a solution. And I can’t be sure that I’ll last.”
“For me, the community newspaper has always been one of the things that has made a community,” Sagan said. “And it is a concern to me that with the loss of the community press, communities will lose that sense.”
“I’m doing this now because I believe this is an opportunity for the business model to be developed in a way that could be very meaningful to the whole situation,” Sagan said. “And having been through all the meaningful changes of the past 70 years, and there have been many, I know that they don’t happen in short-range terms.”
“It gives me great satisfaction to know that we may, if we’re very lucky, develop some ideas that prove the model for the future. Everybody’s looking for it. Everybody’s trying.”
A special insert dedicated to Sagan’s legacy at the Herald will be available in the July 28, 2022 editions of the South Side Weekly and the Hyde Park Herald.
Aaron Gettinger is a staff writer at the Hyde Park Herald.