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Forest Park Review journalists, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Oak Park and River Forest, held a panel discussion on the importance of community journalism Oct. 17. Suzanne Davis, Candace Enockson and Julianne Murphy Bonwit, co-chairs of the League’s Drinks and Dialogue Committee, organized the event, which was held at Shanahan’s in Forest Park.

The event drew guests from Forest Park, Oak Park and River Forest who filled the back room at the restaurant to standing room only capacity. Panelists were Review publisher Dan Haley; Forest Park Review reporter and editor Maria Maxham; Austin Weekly News editor and Village Free Press publisher Michael Romain; Wednesday Journal reporter Stacey Sheridan; Forest Park Review reporter and columnist John Rice; and Jill Wagner, circulation manager for the Review and Journal.

Haley discussed not only the importance of local media but also the difficulty of sustaining a profitable newspaper based on a decades-old model which has been disrupted by digital news delivery.  As a result, Wednesday Journal, Inc., publisher of four community newspapers, is currently transitioning into a non-profit.

This new entity, Growing Community Media, encompasses Wednesday Journal, the Forest Park Review, Austin Weekly News and the Landmark. These papers cover seven communities: Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park, Austin, Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside.

“All money we raise as a nonprofit will go straight back to the newsroom,” said Haley, who mentioned the need to add a new revenue stream to the existing mix of print subscribers and advertising. Donations will play a significant role as Growing Community Media continues to be on the front lines of independent local journalism.

Grants, too, will be important to the future of Growing Community Media, said Haley. The non-profit recently applied for a grant that would partially pay the salary of a reporter who would cover “normalcy” in the Austin neighborhood.

“We hear so many stories out of the West Side of Chicago about death and devastation; but there’s another side to life there. Austin is filled with people just going about their business and living their lives. We want to report on that too.”

Other plans at Growing Community Media include expanded equity and sustainability reporting.

The reporters discussed their thoughts on why local media is essential.

“National news is obviously important,” said Sheridan. “But local news is necessary too because it holds people accountable.” Going to local meetings, including those at the school district level as well as village level, is an important part of what community journalists do.

“We go to these meetings so you don’t have to,” said Sheridan.

Romain added that community involvement often starts with reading the paper.

“People read a story that shocks or inspires them. It’s what happened with the District 209 reporting. The corruption made people take notice and decide to do something about it,” said Romain.

Haley made it clear that, despite rumors, the local papers, including the Forest Park Review, will continue to be in print as well as on-line. And he wants Forest Park businesses and residents to donate to the non-profit.

“I want Forest Parkers to feel like they own this paper,” Haley said.

Bonwit, one of the co-chairs of the event, was excited about how well-attended the panel discussion was. 

“It was great to see so many people come out tonight,” she said.

Drinks and Dialogue discussions are held on the third Thursday of every month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The next event will be on Nov. 21 at Shanahan’s, 7353 Madison St., and is called “Migrant Protection Protocols.” It will feature local residents speaking about their first-hand accounts after visiting the US/Mexican border.

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