A new online news site has just been launched in Chicago, and because I like its pedigree I like its prospects.
Rooted in the storied old Lerner chain, the Booster and the News-Star were a couple of venerable north-side weeklies whose most recent owner, Wednesday Journal Inc., reluctantly ceased publishing them in March. Between them, the Booster and News-Star covered Rogers Park, West Ridge, Edgewater, Andersonville, Uptown, Ravenswood, Lincoln Square, North Center, and Lakeview.
Now Lorraine Swanson, the last editor of the News-Star, is launching lakeeffectnews.com to cover all the above territory plus Albany Park, which the News-Star covered before WSI took it over from Pioneer Press in 2008. "I was always kind of frustrated by the weekly format, and I'm looking forward to putting out a daily project," Swanson tells me. "We live in an instant age and everybody wants to find things instantaneously. They'll be able to find it now. People are hungry for news and hungry for coverage of their neighborhoods. I think the old Lerner flag was always kind of a watchdog for the neighborhoods. I want to continue that tradition. In a perfect world I'd supplement this with a print product but I don't have the money for that."
To give her a hand, Swanson has rounded up some pals who, like her, were laid off by Wednesday Journal, plus Jack Bess, a celebrated writer and editor from the Pioneer Press era, plus three interns. "As our ad revenue gets up," she says, "I do want to pay the professionals. I don't think professionals should work for free." One of her pros, Ben Myers, edited the WJI's Skyline until he lost his job in the March downsizing. She's paying Myers for his stories "out of my own pocket for now."
I like what she's doing because she knows her territory and she has no intention of passively allowing it to cover itself. "I want to follow the rules," she says. "I want to call people, and I want to follow the standards of the Society of Professional Journalists. I like the bloggers, but some of the things I read, rumor and conjecture -- I don't want to operate that way. I want to put out a news product people can rely on as a record for the neighborhoods. I'm not slamming citizen journalists, but I want to treat this as a news product."
Swanson has been doing neighborhood journalism since the early 90s, and she's got an attitude. "The value that the Lerner reporters and editors had was that they really knew their communities," she tells me. "When people were trying to find Berny [Stone]'s indicted ward superintendent [Anish Eapen] last year, he wasn't returning phone calls. I knew where to find the guy and I talked to him. That's good scrappy neighborhood journalism. We can handle the competition. We'll get the Tribune and we'll get the Sun-Times -- they're ten miles back trying to catch up."
She continues, "What I'm trying to do will have a lot of value and it will be hyperlocal -- uberlocal, that's what I like to call it. I say this very humbly -- my readers like me. I walk down the street and I don't know half the people saying hi to me. As my friends jokingly tell me, 'You're a brand,' Everybody on the north side has my cell phone number. I get calls at ten o'clock on a Saturday night asking me if I heard the gunshots go off in Uptown -- 'What's going on?'"
What about the blotter? -- to my mind the heart and soul of the old Booster. "Yeah, we will have a blotter," she promises. "I've already talked to the police commanders in the 23rd and 20th districts. I've yet to talk to the 24th commander but we're going to have a blotter. Oh, that will continue! Plus, I have a [police] scanner, and a lot of time it's just a five-minute car ride or a walk over to see what's happening."