“A chance for legacy and continuity”: The Evanston RoundTable becomes nonprofit

An+empty+office+at+the+Evanston+RoundTable%2C+1124+Florence+Ave.%2C+Suite+3.+The+Evanston+RoundTable+transitioned+to+a+non-profit+in+hopes+of+ensuring+its+legacy+financially.+

Courtesy of Heidi Randhava

An empty office at the Evanston RoundTable, 1124 Florence Ave., Suite 3. The Evanston RoundTable transitioned to a non-profit in hopes of ensuring its legacy financially.

Erica Davis, Reporter

The Evanston RoundTable joined the torrent of local newspapers filing for nonprofit status in April in an effort to escape the fate of the 1,800 small regional papers that have gone under or merged since 2004.

“The advertising model seems to be broken,” Mary Gavin, president and publisher of the RoundTable, said.

Gavin said the print edition of the 22-year-old RoundTable was not expanding, and the paper needed to find a new way to ensure its survival. As a group, the RoundTable’s reporters and publishers decided becoming a nonprofit would allow them to vie for “a chance for legacy and continuity,” she said.

While filing for nonprofit status is not a magic-bullet solution for all dying news sources, many local papers, including the RoundTable, have recently shifted their revenue models away from ever-decreasing advertiser support and toward tax-deductible donations.

To govern the RoundTable’s transition from a limited liability company to a nonprofit model, the paper formed a board of directors composed of writers, editors and Gavin herself. The RoundTable is now a nonprofit in Illinois, and the board has applied for nonprofit status under the IRS, which would make the paper tax-exempt, Gavin said.

Heidi Randhava, a reporter and member of the paper’s board, said the transition was challenging because board members needed to juggle the application process in addition to their daily reporting responsibilities. Leaders like Gavin often found themselves working 18-hour days to keep pace, Randhava said.

It was also difficult to abandon the style of production the paper had maintained for over two decades, Randhava said.

“It was a mourning process for us,” she said “And a lot of people really loved our print paper. They love the tactile feeling of it. It’s an old school idea, but people loved getting it on their porch.”

In addition to phasing out physical paper distribution, the RoundTable has also shifted away from including calls to action in its political coverage, Gavin said. 501(c)(3) status expressly prohibits the RoundTable from supporting candidates or participating in advocacy of any form.

Sourcing more funds would allow the RoundTable to remain a free paper and continue its mission of educating the community, she said.

“We don’t have subscriptions, and that’s very much a part of what we want to be,” Gavin said.

There was some pushback to the 501(c)(3) regulations from members of the RoundTable who have occasionally urged readers to call their legislators, Gavin said. While she has written a few “fiery” editorials, Gavin said she hasn’t found the nonprofit regulations too restrictive compared to guidelines the paper followed in the past.

Victoria Scott, a writer and columnist for the RoundTable, said she hasn’t noticed a difference in her daily reporting since the paper became a nonprofit. What has really affected her reporting is the pandemic, she said — and she finds it difficult to separate the two ongoing processes.

Transitioning to a nonprofit is a learning curve, and the staff of the RoundTable is working as a family unit to adhere to the new set of guidelines, Randhava said — but the staff’s commitment to each other and to the Evanston community has remained consistent.

“Going to nonprofit status was one way that we could stay true to what we’ve been doing all along, which is educating the public,”Randhava said. “That was our best chance to continue to do that.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @EricaCDavis1

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