Net News in Chicago: Still Poor, Still Striving

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No one's getting rich. Hardly anyone's getting paid at all.

So we're told by The NEW News 2010, the second annual survey by the Community Media Workshop of what it calls "the Chicago area's online news ecosystem." The Chicago Community Trust commissioned the report, released late Thursday afternoon.

More than eight million visitors stopped at 146 local news and blog sites this May, says the report. It's a big number, and growing. Even so, "it doesn't appear there has been any explosion in the number of people actually earning a living producing this information....Most of the online sites surveyed by the Workshop rely heavily on unpaid bloggers and reporters and piggy-bank financing." More than 60 percent of the sites had no more than one person working full-time on them.

The big get bigger. Six of those eight million visitors were visiting the websites of the Tribune, Sun-Times, RedEye, and the Trib's blog network ChicagoNow. "Chicago's dailies are experiencing 20 to 40 percent gains in online traffic, dwarfing their own paid print circulation." For instance, at the Tribune, weekday circulation dropped by 2.9 percent and Sunday circulation by 1.1 percent in 2010 from 2009, but the number of unique online visitors jumped 20.5 percent. At the Sun-Times the corresponding numbers were -2.5 percent, -1.5 percent, and +37.05 percent.

But at the other end of the scale, 75 sites the report surveyed had too little traffic to be measurable.

The NEW News 2010 observes of ChicagoNow that what it calls the Tribune's "answer to Huffington Post is attracting more than a million unique vistors a month and reportedly is breaking even. But most contributors earn little for their labors beyond a byline. And the site's eclectic editorial mix — from pet grooming and food trends to entertainment chatter and CTA etiquette — barely achieves the 'journalism we want and need' criteria of helping people make good decisions as citizens that we first tried to measure in 2009."

An interesting observation follows. "Yet ChicagoNow is also home to prominent niche bloggers like Columbia College's own Teresa Puente or the hyper-local citizen journalism efforts of AustinTalks, the Chicago Reporter, Catalyst and District 299."

The Tribune is already dominating the delivery of old-fashioned newsprint journalism in Chicago — including its competitors. Apparently it's taking over the delivery of websites too. You can go straight to AustinTalks. Or you can reach it through ChicagoNow.

Depressing as it is that even the biggest papers can't figure out a business model that works online, the media landscape might get more depressing when the breakthrough comes. Anyone with boiling blood and a way with words used to be able to launch an alternative rag and leave a stack of copies in his favorite coffee houses and bars. Will the day come when the only way to reach an audience online is to go through the Tribune and ChicagoNow?

In an separate commentary, Realizing Potential: What Chicago's Online Innovators Need, Thom Clark looks ahead. "Revenue generation — whether it is attracting more advertising, securing memberships and sponsorships, landing venture capital or successful grantsmanship — is the chief issue bedeviling online news sites big and small..." he writes. "Since philanthropy's purpose is to create public good — often for those at greatest risk or with greatest need — then the journalism philanthropy supports should be no less ambitious. It should not be the news that could be funded in other ways but should help diverse communities — ones whose stories may have never been told well by traditional media — get the information they want and need. Philanthropic support should aim to support a sustainable, thriving online news ecosystem that is ethical, comprehensive and accessible by all Chicagoans."

That it should. Unfortunately, when times were good, you could sell a hundred ads in the time it now takes to write and submit a grant proposal. And the advertiser didn't think he'd bought the right to dictate content. Under the terms of the grant, your average philanthropist probably has.

Here's a link to CMW's home page on The NEW News 2010, with videos, a map of hyperlocal online news sites, and last year's report. Here's an array of materials from Chicago Community Trust, including the dozen local new media projects that won CCT grants last November, and a report from "NEW: Advancing Chicago's News Ecosystem: A Community News Summit," an afternoon-long panel discussion Thursday at Loyola University cosponsored by CCT.

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