The occasion was the 2012 Chicago Community Information Summit of the Chicago Community Trust. The discussion focused on two new studies the CCT had commissioned:"The New News" by the Chicago Media Workshop "ranking Chicago's online news scene," and "Linking Audiences to News II" by Medill's Rich Gordon and Syndio Social's Zachary Johnson, examining Chicago's "new news ecosystem"—the ever-more-complex interlinking of news sites.
I'm cutting to the chase. CMW ranked the sites in various ways—for specialty news, hyperlocal news, arts and entertainment news, and for aggregated (as in, "we don't report but we connect you to people who do") news. But the best-in-show category would have to be "city-wide news sites," and here the Reader finishes a close second to the Tribune.
As I don't understand the judging methods well enough to comment on them, I will simply offer you the raw numbers.
Reach (scope of audience): 25 (out of 25)
News quality: 4.46 (out of 5)
Engagement: 3.46 (out of 5)
Total score: 32.92
News quality: 4.3
Total score: 32.7
(If you're wondering, suntimes.com finished in a tie for ninth with a total score of 29.7.)
CMW commented that the Reader site "drew praise for its great journalism and entertaining writing, although reviewers lamented the organization's diminished capacity for news compared to prior years." But this kind of lamenting is hardly confined to the Reader. The introduction to the CMW study, written by its president, Thom Clark, recalls that its 2009 study discovered "that local news coverage had been declining, for almost 20 years." And since then, he observed at the Summit, the most interesting and promising of the new online sites, the Chicago News Cooperative, had come and gone. Also gone, Gordon noted, was Brad Flora's Windy Citizen, which Flora could never figure out how to monetize.
The ecosystem study highlighted sites "that are either linked to most frequently by other sites or that actively link people to other valuable content on other Chicago sites." Again the Reader ranked high. Gordon and Johnson identified sites as Authorities ("many other sites tend to link to them") and as Hubs ("they link to many other sites"). Chicagoreader.com is both. It placed eighth local as an Authority (chicagotribune.com led) and eighth again as a Hub (huffingtonpost.com was first).
While all this sounds good, and reflects well on the Reader's decision a year or so ago to focus on upgrading our site, it's hard to know what to make of it. Clark said at one point Thursday that his study's Web-centric research will have to "evolve and change" if it continues because the quality of a website is becoming beside the point. Visitors don't go there because they like it; they go because they're sent. Because so much traffic is driven by social media, Clark said keeping up a site's Facebook page might be more important than keeping up its home page.
"Linking Audiences to News" amplifies this point. It separates sites by visits into small, medium, and large, with the only large sites being chicagotribune.com, suntimes.com, and dailyherald.com. "More than 23 percent of the referred visits in the ecosystem come from Facebook (18.9 percent) and Twitter (4.4 percent)," says the report. "The social media traffic is particularly important for smaller sites." For what Gordon and Johnson identify as the small sites they studied, 48.1 percent of the referrals came from Facebook.
A couple of curiosities:
"The New News" singles out the WBEZ website as a site "that follows its own news judgment in a civic-minded way and uses the tools of the web well." It's the only site that gets this treatment, though it finished tied for third (with chicagomag.com) among citywide sites. The citation felt like a consolation prize. "A thriving independent source of news," it says, as if the report's authors wish their own scoring system had placed it higher.
When Tracy Baim wondered out loud at the Summit how her Windy City Times site, windycitymediagroup.com, wound up in the category it wound up in, I flipped open the report to see for myself. It's 13th in citywide media: "Reviewers praised this site as information-rich, covering local Chicago news, politics and crime as well as LGBT issues, but also noted that the site's ad content is overwhelming."
Overwhelming? Chicago News Coop and Windy Citizen go out of business because they can't raise money and Baim's hammered because her ads are "overwhelming"? You can't win.
Though let's not sound ingenuous. Publishers go nuts trying to get ads on their websites. Visitors go nuts trying to avoid them.