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Les Jacobson: Protect democracy – Evanston RoundTable

The RoundTable’s fall fund drive is underway, and if you’re not a contributing member, you should consider joining our membership family. These are the supporters we rely on to help us provide award-winninground-the-clock coverage of our beloved city – everything from breaking news and thoughtful analyzes to delightful and informative features, wonderful photography and timely event calendars.

I know the importance of local journalism because half a century ago I started my career that way. In 1973 I joined Lerner Newspapers as a cub reporter. Founded in 1926 by Leo Lerner, the paper’s focus was always and exclusively local news. “If a bomb went off in the Loop,” we were instructed, “our lead would be, ‘North Side windows were shattered.'”

Newsrooms have changed dramatically since this all-white, all-male New York Times Journal newsroom in 1920. Photo by Welcome to All !ツ from Pixabay Credit: Image by

Local news consisted of several dozen different weekly editions, covering neighborhoods from Belmont Avenue in Chicago to Highland Park.

I have a vivid newsroom memory, after only a few days on the job, of busy scribbling a first draft of a story on yellow legal paper when our crusty managing editor, Art Rotstein, suddenly loomed over me.

“What are you doing?” hey growled.

“Uh, writing a story?”

“Well, write it in your typewriter.” So I did.

I had a lot to learn, and Lerner offered a great training ground. Eventually I went from reporting to assigning and editing stories, designing pages and working with typesetters to lay out the paper.

The newsroom staff of writers and editors was a welcoming, garrulous, conscientious group. I was privileged to work with many Chicago journalism icons in their formative years, including later media columnist Robert Feder, TV and radio sports and political analyst Bruce Wolf, longtime Crain’s reporter Greg Hinz and a promising cub reporter named Mark Miller.

This was in the heyday of Woodward and Bernstein, and at Lerner we took it as our mission to provide the best coverage possible, given our limited resources and vast amount of territory to cover. Over the course of six years at Lerner I managed the North Side chain of papers, which included the communities of Rogers Park, North Town (west Rogers Park), Uptown, Ravenswood and Albany Park.

Later I “graduated” from Lerner to work on metropolitan daily papers, but I always missed the focus on community news that only a local paper could provide. That’s why I was thrilled to join the RoundTable in 2008 as an arts columnist, later a movie reviewer, still later a copy editor and occasional news and feature contributor and finally, six years ago, a regular columnist.

Somewhere along the way I became familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” (emphasis added).

With apologies to Jefferson, this is an overstatement: the goal is for both newspapers and government to work together, the former informing the public and elected officials, and they in turn relying on and demanding the best, most responsible journalism.

We take that mission seriously at the RoundTable. Founded in 1998 by Mary and Larry Gavin as a free bi-weekly newspaper, available and accessible to everyone, we honor and continue their legacy and tradition. The eponymous “round table” was a metaphor inviting everyone to read, learn and contribute to the goings-on of our beloved city. As Mary Gavin explains, the name “was probably a pun on/conflation of our dining room table (where we’d had great conversations for decades) and our intent to include as many people as possible in our conversations about Evanston.”

Tracy Quattrocki, executive editor of the Evanston RoundTable

In 2019 we went online exclusively and in 2020 we converted to non-profit status. But despite those seismic changes, the RoundTable’s dedication to free access and fair, complete and accurate journalism remains undiminished.

As just one example from a recent morning array of stories on our site, where else could you read about our new police chief’s top concerns, allegations of systemic racism faced by Black city employees, pandemic learning loss suffered by District 65 school children, a fervent appeal from a Black minister to battle anti-Semitism, and coverage of the Title IX conference at Northwestern? And where else could you enjoy the great photography of Richard Cahan, Joerg Metzner and read incisive reviews, arts coverage and essays?

Nowhere but at the RoundTable.

These are just a few examples of how, as our mission statement says, we “seek to foster civic engagement and empower people to address complex issues facing our diverse community, promoting a better understanding and appreciation of people of all races, ethnicities, and income levels.”

Nationwide, the news media face serious challenges. Our fall fundraising drive appeal points out that in the United States, “25% of newspapers have ceased operation, and 2,000 community newspapers have closed in the past 15 years. The vacuum created when local journalism declines poses a serious threat to democracy. Our democracy relies on a free press to educate its citizens about the critical issues facing our communities.”

RoundTable Editor Susy Schultz (top) interviews Margaret Sullivan, author of Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life. Credit: Mark Miller/Evanston RoundTable

As Margaret Sullivan writes in Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life, “When local news fades, bad things happen in communities: polarization increases, civic engagement goes down, municipal costs go up. People retreat even further into political tribalism, not even able to talk to their neighbors about important concerns.”

Sullivan, former public editor of the NY Times and media columnist for the Washington Post, was interviewed by RoundTable Editor Susy Schultz on Nov. 10 at the RoundTable’s online webinar about her book and the state of journalism. The book urges people to “subscribe to or donate to news organizations in their communities.”

“It’s very important to support local news organizations,” Sullivan said at the event. “We need the public to step forward and help us so we can do the job for the public.”

Protect our democracy, strengthen our community, support local journalism. Support the RoundTable.

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