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The evolution of Chicago news media took a major step forward Thursday. Jim O'Shea, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and editor of the Los Angeles Times, announced that his brainchild is off the ground. It's the Chicago News Cooperative, "designed to provide high quality, professionally edited news and commentary to the Chicago region on the Web, in print and over the airwaves."
There was nothing to talk about until the CNC had a client, meaning a commercial revenue stream, but late Wednesday night O'Shea signed a contract with the New York Times to provide that paper with two pages of exclusive editorial content twice a week — for the Friday and Sunday papers. One regular feature on the Times's Chicago pages — which will first appear on November 20 — will be a column by Jim Warren, also a former Tribune ME. O'Shea speaks of an "enterprise main piece, some brief things, some cultural and sports coverage" in each issue, written by reporters he's still a little sketchy discussing. "I've got some people working with me pro bono or at agreements significantly below market value. Some people thinking about coming aboard we'd have to pay a wage to. And some contract freelance."
But the CNC, as O'Shea describes it, is about much more than the Times, which he says is simply "our first client." He speaks of a limited liability news corporation with an editorial staff of nine to 12 people, working cooperatively with other media, but presenting itself to the public primarily as a Web site called "Chicago Scoop" that O'Shea intends to launch early next year to "cover the city and state with news, commentary, investigative reporting and other services.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is O'Shea's primary source of seed money, but O'Shea has a five-year plan in which the CNC will wean itself off philanthropy and sustain itself through client fees, Web site ads, "service fees off news groups we want to form," and sponsorships. For the moment, the CNC is a nonprofit, operating out of the offices of WTTW, with which it intends to collaborate editorially. O'Shea says he's having talks with WBEZ about collaborating as well with that public radio station.
In a "backgrounder" O'Shea released today he calls the CNC a "fresh, innovative approach" that addresses "the news industry's precipitous decline." Lots of ideas have been knocked around, but CNC is "something different: the cooperative is marshaling community forces interested in quality journalism for Chicago to build a self-sustaining, member-based organization dedicated to solid, accountability journalism in a city and state known for corruption, rising taxes and staggering social problems."
Last year O'Shea was a fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy working on a book on the calamitous Tribune Company-Times Mirror Merger and meditating on journalism and what, if anything, someone of his age — he's 66 — experience, and connections might be able to do to give it a new lease on life. He tells me he woke up at 3 one morning with the idea of a co-op. He's been developing it ever since.
Here's his advisory board: himself; Peter Osnos, founder of Public Affairs Books; Dan Schmidt, CEO of WTTW; former FCC chairman Newton Minow; former WTTW chairman Martin Koldyke; Ann Marie Lipinski, O'Shea's editor at the Tribune; and Michael Davies, CEO of ALPHAZETA Interactive. A couple of other former Tribune hands who have signed on to bring the Chicago News Cooperative about are Bill Parker, who was the associate managing editor under O'Shea, and designer Tony Majeri.
Osnos is the publisher of the book that O'Shea, having been distracted by the quest of preserving quality journalism in Chicago, will be late delivering. This is apparently of no great concern to Osnos. The father of former Tribune foreign correspondent Evan Osnos, Peter Osnos has a house in Michigan's Harbor Country, shares O'Shea's concerns about journalism locally and nationally, and urged him to get involved in the quest to find new models that will sustain it. The 3 AM epiphany followed.
"He said we can extend the deadline," says O'Shea. "My goal is to get this [CNC] up and running, and then I can go back and complete my obligation of this book."
That's not his only other obligation, though if he'd been talking to anybody else the other one might not have come up. O'Shea is part of the editorial board that's putting the old Creative Loafing chain of alternative weeklies — that's the Reader and five other papers — back on its financial feet after Atalaya Capital Management won it away from the old owners in bankruptcy court in August.
"I'm helping there," he assured me. He thinks the Reader might even be able to take advantage of the cooperative structure of his new enterprise. "That could be a big benefit for the Reader."