Catalyst Chicago: Small Is Beautiful

by mediachinwag

With Old Media disrupted, and New Media overwhelming us with dating advice columns and kitty videos, how wonderful it is to see a non-profit like Catalyst Chicago celebrating 25 years in business. Founder-editor-publisher Linda Lenz launched the publication in 1990 to provide extensive coverage of Chicago Public Schools. Catalyst has been an exemplar of community journalism since the print age, and it is also a model representing the possibilities of journalism in the online age.

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Lenz’s story of Catalyst’s origins, which she relates in a 25th anniversary issue, sounds like good strategy for an online start-up:

My idea for Catalyst Chicago began with the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988, which cracked open and breathed new life into a calcified school district. The key feature was revolutionary: creating elected local school councils—six parents, two community members and two teachers—that would have the power to select their schools’ principals, a make-or-break decision for schools regardless of who does the choosing.

That structure created a need, I thought, for an independent source of in-depth information on education issues so that council members and others newly involved in the system could knowledgeably participate in this grand experiment in local control.

For the previous decade, I had been the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, and I knew that the news media would not have the time, space—we were still a print world—or inclination to dig deep into school-improvement issues on a regular basis.

Creating an editorial plan was easy, but I didn’t know how to put it into motion, so I consulted a savvy news source, Anne Hallett, who was then executive director of the Wieboldt Foundation. Anne said: “Go talk to the Community Renewal Society,” which at that time had been publishing The Chicago Reporter, an investigative newsletter focused on race and poverty, for 17 years.

At CRS I reunited with Roy Larson, the Reporter’s editor and publisher, who had been the religion editor at the Sun-Times and my pod-mate. Roy melded my idea with CRS’s idea for a newsletter for parents, and together we went in search of funding. As it turned out, the MacArthur and Joyce foundations had been looking for a way to track implementation of the Reform Act, and The Chicago Community Trust was interested in assisting parents.

So in February 1990, the first issue of Catalyst rolled off the presses. Reviewing our early issues—and they are all online—I am struck by how little the major issues have changed. In our first few years, we reported on principal selection, testing, school choice, the shortage of bilingual teachers, funding equity and overcrowding in Hispanic communities.

Catalyst is published by but is editorially independent from the Community Renewal Society, a civic group founded in 1882 whose mission statement calls public engagement one of four primary components of a theory of change:

For citizens or organizations to take action on an issue, they must first be aware of the issue and its importance and understand its causes, its consequences and possible solutions to it. Effective public engagement is intertwined with building knowledge and understanding. Community Renewal Society’s newsmagazines—Catalyst Chicago and The Chicago Reporter—will surface issues and provide insightful analyses into pressing social concerns.

Catalyst, today an online publication that has reduced its newsmagazine run from nine to three issues per year, has gone on to do solid reporting on every imaginable issue confronting Chicago public education. It has won some 50 prizes for its reporting, including a Studs Terkel Community Media Award in 2011. In the last few years Catalyst’s coverage has included in-depth reports on the shortage of funds for sports facilities, the challenges high school graduates face in completing college, drugs in schools, and teacher turnover.

In October, a 2013 story by Catalyst reporter Sarah Karp on a $20 million no-bid professional development contract to train school principals yielded spectacular results: the federal indictment of former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett on charges of funneling contracts to former employers in exchange for kickbacks; within days, Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to one count of fraud in the bribery and kickback scandal, and agreed to cooperate on further cases.

Karp’s story had pointed out that Byrd-Bennett had worked for the company receiving the no-bid contract immediately prior to joining Chicago Public Schools, initially as a consultant. Karp’s reporting intrigued the school system’s inspector general, and soon federal prosecutors were on the case. The fact that it was a community publication that broke the scandal, and not the major Chicago media players like the Tribune and the Sun-Times, is testimony to the critical importance of community journalism.

As Lenz told the Columbia Journalism Review: “What we do is give our staff the gift that most journalists want, which is time. Our journalists have time to go through reports. They become really expert on the nitty-gritty, how a school system works. And then they have the time to go after things.”

How does Catalyst manage to pay its great journalists? Its longtime business model is one that more and more media organizations are starting to consider. It is funded by print and online advertising, contributions from individuals, and grants from companies and foundations including: the Boeing Company, The Chicago Community Trust, Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, McDougal Family Foundation, Oppenheimer Family Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, Spencer Foundation and the Voqal Fund.

—Scott MacLeod