Like a lot of other refugees from print journalism, Dennis Robaugh and Bob Bong have taken their act to the Internet. What’s different is the way they talk about what they’re doing. Jim O’Shea struck a note of high moment last October when he announced the founding of the Chicago News Cooperative; CNC was “"designed to provide high quality, professionally edited news and commentary to the Chicago region on the Web, in print and over the airwaves,” said O’Shea, former managing editor of the Tribune and editor of the Los Angeles Times, who already had MacArthur Foundation money and a relationship with the New York Times to back him up. When Lorraine Swanson, last editor of the weekly News-Star, launched lakeeffectnews.com ten months ago, she promised “uberlocal” content written to the highest professional standards and she said, “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."
“We’re trying to have a little fun,” says Dennis Robaugh.
He and Bong used to work at the Daily Southtown, known in its current iteration as the Southtown Star. Robaugh, the managing editor, and Bong, the business editor, were laid off last April.
"He went off and did his thing and I went off and did my thing," says Robaugh. "As fall came, we decided to get together."
Bong's thing was a popular column that he'd introduced in the Southtown Star and continued to write for his blog, "Comings-n-Goings," a collection of notes on local businesses. He and Robaugh decided the column was strong enough to build a Web site around, and that's what they set out to do. They brought in Chuck Ingwersen, who'd been the Southtown Star's design editor before taking a buyout a couple years earlier, and together they created southlandsavvy.com, which has been up and running since late February.
Is it an online newspaper? I asked Robaugh. "No, no," he said, "Maybe one day it will evolve into that, but right now I don't think so." There's Bong's column, a few videos, a lot of links, placeholders for ads but no ads yet, some cartoons by Ingwersen, and a little of this and that.
Is there a business plan? I asked him. "Well, uh, without going into too much detail, we do have a plan, some ideas we've put together. But as I said, we're going slowly, and if all this ends up being is a hobby, that's great, that's fine. If it ends up being a small side business, that's fine too." Could it end up being your livelihood? "Probably not," said Robaugh. "If it does, fantastic. But I'm a realist."
Fortunately, he's got work. He's doing some editing and trouble-shooting for a string of health-care magazines run by Mark Hornung, a former Daily Southtown publisher. Ingersen's creating greeting cards. But the only thing Bong has going besides Southland Savvy is his blog, and he hasn't made a nickel out of either. "It's a work of love, a work in progress," he says of Southland Savvy. "Not that we'll ever get rich off it, but maybe we'll have a little fun and make a little money. We're newspaper guys. We miss it. With modern technology we're able to do it."
Bong made me realize how easy it is for an out-of-work journalist to hang on in the biz. He told me, "I was talking to my wife and she was saying, 'How much is this going to cost?' I said it hasn't cost anything yet. The biggest expense we've had was buying the domain name, and that was $10 a year."
Says Robaugh, taking the long view, "It seems a lot of people try to give birth to a fully formed online newspaper that has all the features or qualities you found in newspapers, and it seems that unless you have somebody with a big wallet to bankroll you, it's a herculean task. Look at the history of how newspapers started — the Southtown Economist, for example [the first iteration of the Southtown Star], it started as a shopper in 1906. The first editorial was published in 1917."
So the proper response to the Web publisher's lament, "This is hopeless," is a knowing, "You need to be patient. It might only be hopeless in our lifetimes."