It won’t tell us much about the catastrophe in Haiti, but when a store closes on Lincoln Avenue a hyperlocal Web site can be all over it. As far as viable new media models go, for the time being hyperlocalism might be the best one we’ve got.
Last June political consultant Mike Fourcher was an organizer of the Chicago Media Future Conference, which sent the message that journalism's uncertain future belongs to the young, the bold, and the willing to go hungry. Now Fourcher's rolling up his sleeves. He and Patrick Boylan, a Chicago Now blogger, are launching the Center Square Ledger, which they describe as a "hyperlocal news site...focusing on Lincoln Square, North Center and Ravenswood Manor." As Fourcher points out, that's hyperlocalism to the tune of about 80,000 people, which, if they constituted a city, would be a city plenty big enough to support a daily paper.
"The kind of stuff we want to cover doesn’t make it to the Tribune and Sun-Times," Fourcher told me. "Now we're writing a little more about election politics — the state representative and state senate races. We'll run those stories next week. And also, where do you go to recycle your Christmas tree? — and the closing of the CB2 on Lincoln Avenue. It's important to the people in the neighborhood but it's not important to the city of Chicago, so of course the Tribune and Sun-Times won’t write about it."
The site's been up for about a month, but Fourcher calls that beta testing, and he says the formal kickoff is this Monday. "It's going to take time," he said. "The two of us are doing part-time jobs so we’re just going to chug along. It'll have to grow organically."
How are you paying for this? I said, wondering if they were going the not-for-profit, hit-up-a-foundation route. They aren't. "Our pockets," Fourcher answered.“Our credit cards. The costs for us are very low. We built the site ourselves. Big cost for us is our business cards, chamber of commerce memberships, printing flyers for the launch. Maybe we’ll hit a couple grand."
They're already sharing stories with one of their inspirations, Lorraine Swanson's Lake Effect News. The last editor of the News-Star, a onetime Lerner paper closed in March by its final owner, Wednesday Journal Inc., Swanson liked neighborhood journalism, believed she was damned good at it, and decided to stay in by launching a Web site that would cover the lakefront neighborhoods the News-Star had covered, plus neighborhoods to the west that had been served by the Booster, which Wednesday Journal also was abandoning.
I wrote at the time:
"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.'"
After talking to Fourcher, I called Swanson to see how she's doing.
"I would be dishonest if I didn’t say there were days I wanted to give it up, it’s a lot of work," she told me. "I probably put like 14 hours a day into it. But then, there are times, most times, when it's really rewarding." The worst part of it, she said, is selling ads, which as a journalist she believes it's improper for her to do. "I kind of lost the person I was going to have help me with advertising," Swanson said. "I'm between a rock and a hard place. I don’t want to have anything to do with ad sales, but I have to make a living."
Is she making a living?
"I'm scraping by," she said. "But you know journalism, I worked at Lerner, I know how to live cheap. That’s one thing Lerner prepares you for, how to live cheap. I'm paying the phone bill, paying the rent, my car payment, eating in — I do all my eating at home. I've gotten to be a much better cook."
Where do you want to be in five years? I asked Fourcher.
He said, "In five years? We’d love to have everybody in the neighborhood reading us."
And for a staff?
"I think it would be great if we had a full-time writer or two and maybe a sales person."