Connecting diverse audiences: 5 questions with Tracy Brown, chief content officer for Chicago Public Media


Tracy Brown joined WBEZ / Chicago Public Media in 2019 as managing editor after spending more than 25 years in newspapers. She was promoted to chief content officer in April 2021, leading strategy and the station’s news operations across digital and broadcast. The NPR affiliate station now has nearly 550,000 listeners a week across radio and digital streaming platforms, and its digital audience for non-audio content has doubled in size to more than 1 million people weekly.

Before WBEZ, Tracy spent 12 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution where she helped launch the award-winning narrative series, Personal Journeys. She also served as co-chair of Cox Media Group’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. For more than a decade, she also worked at The Dallas Morning News in Texas, and in stints at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida and The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.

Brown

Tracy is one of the newest Local Media Association board directors. In this interview, we asked her about her experience, challenges facing the industry, and significant accomplishments.

You spent a lot of time working for for-profit media companies before joining WBEZ. What do you think for-profit media can learn from public media, and vice versa?

I was a journalist and newsroom leader for for-profit newspapers for more than 25 years. I often tell people there is one sentence in the job description that drew me to public radio, and WBEZ specifically, more than anything else: “We connect diverse audiences.” Many organizations would have said “serve,” but “connect” is so much more powerful. It goes beyond just giving people what they want, but takes on an added responsibility of connecting people, even past their differences. There are also lessons from the for-profit side, particularly in regard to disruption, which came not because newspapers weren’t doing great journalism, but because technology changed people’s news consumption habits. Unfortunately, many news organizations didn’t respond quickly or innovatively enough in adapting their business or editorial models, especially in regard to social and mobile.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the media industry today?

I don’t know that there is one big challenge on its own, but a set of challenges. The decline of local journalism and the subsequent loss of journalists, who move on to something else and never return because of perceived instability in the industry and a growing distrust of legitimate news organizations. Misinformation, political polarization, sustainable funding models, especially for print, are huge challenges. But I’m confident those are challenges that we can overcome, particularly through the work and support of organizations like Local Media Association.

What do you think is the greatest opportunity for the media industry today?

The greatest opportunity is actually leaning into the cause of disruption: technology. The work we do is no longer confined by delivery trucks or airwaves. The media industry has its largest audience ever thanks to the World Wide Web, social media, podcasts and on-demand audio. We also learned during the pandemic that we are resilient – even as deadly disease threatened our lives and our livelihoods. I had a newsroom full of reporters doing radio from the closets in their homes. And despite some of the attacks on the work we do, the public has continued to support our work through donations, memberships and subscriptions.

What is your single proudest accomplishment?

I don’t have a single proudest accomplishment as much as a moment. I’m very proud of the work that I get to do now as chief content officer at Chicago Public Media. Not because of the elevated position of authority but the elevated position of responsibility that comes with it. I almost walked away from journalism after my first newspaper job because I doubted myself — my ability and my voice. But the longer I stayed, the more that changed. I found mentors and coaches and teachers and allies — and ultimately, my voice and myself.

What attracted you to LMA, and specifically to join the board of directors?

Every year, we hear more about news deserts and the decline of local journalism. The work of the Local Media Association – the innovative business initiatives, news collaboratives and support of local newsrooms — is more critical than ever. Being a part of LMA as a member of the board of directors gives me an opportunity to really roll up my sleeves, not only on behalf of my organization, people of color, women or even the industry — but on behalf of the entire news community.