The Chicago Reporter, which CRS launched 40 years ago to examine issues of race and social justice in Chicago, is about to welcome a new editor/publisher, Susan Richardson, and unveil a rebuilt website.
But the most volatile area of CRS might be the part that looks steady as she goes. Catalyst, founded by the Community Renewal Society in 1990 to cover school reform, is still run by its founding publisher, Linda Lenz. And she's been looking around.
Lenz has nothing but praise for the CRS, which has backed Catalyst financially and never interfered editorially. But she tells me that a couple of years ago she began thinking that "if we went someplace else we might get a new and bigger audience and more digital support." With CRS's knowledge, she shopped for a new home. "I talked to WBEZ—it didn't work out. I called the journalism deans at the local universities. Nobody was ready to move in a partnership direction. The Sun-Times had bigger fish to fry."
"I sat there for a while," says Lenz. "To move things forward I recruited five advisers from the world of education to help me figure out our future. They said, 'you need a strategic plan first. Catalyst must be clear about its priorities.' So that's where we're at. And part of our strategic plan is to think digital through. We can't just do digital for digital's sake. We have to be careful about what audiences we want to serve."
CRS just approved what Lenz calls "a very substantial upgrade of their website and more technical support for the whole organization." And in the end Catalyst might decide to stay where it is. But at the moment, Lenz tells me in an e-mail, "Since we are doing strategic planning, everything by definition is on the table. That includes staying at CRS, staying and finding partners [to team up with on projects], and leaving for a different home. We truly do not know. And I'm sure we'll look at a range of issues, not just technology. (we just hired a consultant to help us think this through)."
As for those audiences Catalyst is thinking twice about, Lenz names the four it reaches now: educators, parents and community members, civic leaders, and policy makers. Maybe that's too many, she allows—"given the size of our staff."
Which is? "We have an editorial staff of three," Lenz tells me.
But where to cut back?
"We have two print products," she says, "and there's always pressure to curtail those. But we've made a commitment to serve a grassroots audience, so we wouldn't want to get rid of the parents' newsletter [distributed on report card day]." And Catalyst's quarterly, written for teachers, principals, and local school council members, offers the kind of analytical long-form reporting that to journalists such as Lenz justifies the life they've chosen.
And digital is the future. So where to cut? Lenz finds it easier to talk about expanding the mission than limiting it. "We need to work more on the policy makers," she says.