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Add yet another Tribune alumnus to the ranks of the Chicago News Cooperative. Former business editor Jim Kirk comes on this week to be managing editor. Kirk left the Tribune early last year and has spent the last 15 months coordinating Bloomberg News's Washington coverage.
The move will free up the CNC's general manager, David Greising, who used to work for Kirk at the Tribune, to do more reporting and writing. Greising's the number two to Jim O'Shea, who launched the CNC last October. Its most visible product remains the four pages a week in the New York Times's Chicago edition, but that could change when a greatly expanded Web site is rolled out, hopefully by June. Kirk tells me a "more aggressive Web presence" is his "first order of business." He adds, "But we'll need more money to do that."
And speaking of raising money, Kirk believes the recent naming of a new board chairman — John Canning, chairman of Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity group — is a "big step forward." As O'Shea told the Tribune's Phil Rosenthal in April, "this is just invaluable. . . . John has a lot of contacts in his Rolodex that will help me in going out and raising more funds."
How does O'Shea manage to attract so much former Tribune talent to such a speculative operation as the CNC? "Part of it is O'Shea's Irish charm," says Kirk. "It's a combination of that and some real hope that there may be a chance here to build a different journalism model and see if something works. The relationship with the New York Times gives us a unique base and they seem pretty pleased." It's his hope, though not his marching orders, that CNC's Chicago report in the Times will expand from the present two days a week, possibly to as many as five. He speaks of the Web site as another revenue stream to be developed, and of "nominal revenues" from partnerships between CNC and "people and groups" organized around particular issues, such as education, that would benefit form first-rate reporting.
Earlier, I'd asked CNC sportswriter Dan McGrath, who was once the sports editor of the Tribune, the same question I asked Kirk: what keeps attracting such impressive talent to such an iffy operation? "I liken it to 1990 when I went to work for the National, the sports daily," McGrath said. "We all knew it was a big risk, and it only lasted 13 months. But I think most of us would do it again even knowing how it ended. We had distribution and circulation issues but the product itself was really good."
The comparison of CNC with the National only goes so far. By and large, the National staff left good jobs to go work there and moved on to good jobs when it folded. "The landscape's changed," said McGrath, putting it mildly. The Tribune gave McGrath his walking papers before he started writing for the CNC, while O'Shea, a former managing editor of the Tribune, had been fired as editor of the Los Angeles Times. Greising, Kirk, and Dan Mihalopoulos, who'd been covering City Hall for the Tribune, left behind good jobs to join CNC; but if it fails there are no guarantees journalism will have anything for them as good as what they gave up.
As Greising told me when he took the plunge, "Staying at the Tribune was hardly risk-free. I said, 'What's the upside?' This thing could be successful, it could be great. What's the downside? This thing could fail. [But] you put two years into starting up something, you have that experience, that new media experience. You can still do journalism. These are acceptable risks in my view. And if you don't go, and this thing succeeds, then what do you think? You're still at the paper, still worrying about the next round of layoffs."