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The Chicago News Cooperative has made a move. After months spent quietly building an impressive staff that had little to show for itself beyond the four pages a week in the New York Times — it's been cranking those out since last November — CNC unfurled on Monday a new website, a new product, and a new revenue stream.
Earlyandoften.org is the site and it's promising "Chicago's best political news" — though at a price. "Every weekday get unmatched coverage of the 2011 Chicago mayoral campaign, aldermanic races and the city treasurer and clerk contests — right through the April 5 run-offs," the site promises. A subscription costs $150, but $175 after October 18. Early and Often is promising original reporting — though at this early stage you might already have read a lot of it in the Times - and an "aggregation of mainstream, neighborhood and blog news articles, broken out by ward."
CNC isn't doing this alone. It's partnering with Jimm Dispensa, who four years ago created Aldertrack, a crude but bountiful website that Mike Fourcher recalls Dispensa stuffing with "every last piece of information on every candidate" that Dispensa could find online. Fourcher, who was working on a handful of aldermanic races then, tells me, "Those of us in politics talked about it like it was the holy grail."
Today Fourcher runs the online news sites CenterSquareJournal.com and RoscoeViewJournal.com. He tells me that when he heard that Dispensa was thinking of cranking Aldertrack back up for the 2011 elections he came to him with an idea. "I said how about if we try to partner with some news organization and make this more than a hobby. We sat down with CNC and they said, 'Great, but we have to be in control of editorial.' So they provide news coverage every day. Jim does his unique scouring of the web."
Already this year Dispensa's come up with 1,300 pieces of information on 170 candidates, says Fourcher, sounding a little awed. And because Dispensa is a data cruncher for the Chicago Public Schools and this is his hobby, he's usually backed up the truck with his latest load of info by eight in the morning.
Fourcher has taken the title of business manager of Early and Often, which he says means "pretty much everything that isn't an editorial function" — mostly marketing.
After the elections he doesn't know where CNC and Dispensa will go with this, but as Chicago will clearly be entering a new political era and "lots of people will be trying to figure out what's what," there will be work to do. "This is the kind of entrepreneurialism journalism needs to be strong."
POSTSCRIPT: I've been asked if the Chicago News Cooperative intends to rob Peter to pay Paul. If the good stuff goes behind the Early and Often pay wall, to justify the cost of admission, what's going to justify a visit to CNC's free site, and what political stories will show up in the New York Times, which doesn't expect leftovers?
The rule of thumb is this: Wonkish, Early and Often; big picture, CNC; best of the big, the Times.
CNC's managing editor, Jim Kirk, e-mailed me:
Most of the news exclusive to Early And Often will appeal to political insiders, those who work with campaigns, fundraisers, and readers with a passion for coverage of the political process. Therefore, personnel movements within campaigns, news related to fundraising issues, stories about shifts in the dynamics of campaigns and subtle, but important shifts in candidate messaging, etc., will be right for Early and Often.
CNC reaches a broader audience and the political stories we run on the site reach a wider audience, including day-to-day news coverage of mayoral candidates and competitive ward races we think will have a broad impact on Chicago voters. For example, we put much of our coverage of Rahm's first day of the "listening tour'' on CNC. We felt it was a very public story with lots of media coverage, and something most voters in Chicago wanted to know about.
Like all of our stories in the New York Times, we attempt to step back and go deep into an issue or candidate to give readers something different than what they may have read earlier in the week.
There will be some crossover. At certain times, Early And Often will have to carry broader news and CNC, at times, will carry a more nuanced story if it speaks to a broader political issue. For the most part, we think the distinctions are pretty clear.