Publish a new daily or magazine and display it at a newsstand, and it will look the passing consumer in the eye. A new website has a serious hurdle to surmount: there's no tangible evidence it exists. Scoops prime word-of-mouth. So does day-in, day-out reporting on a compelling local story that is a little smarter and quicker than the opposition's—which is how DNAinfo likes to talk about its New York coverage of Hurricane Sandy.
Here's an example of DNAinfo's Sandy reporting being cited by other media—in this case Salon. The Sun-Times picked up Cox's Stroger scoop Tuesday morning, but skipped the credit. The Sun-Times might be a little miffed. DNAinfo took away Mark Konkol; it took away senior editor Dave Newbart, who'd been an assistant city editor at the Sun-Times. And on Tuesday DNAinfo announced that it had finally hired a managing editor—Shamus Toomey, who'd been the Sun-Times's metro editor.
Sheer professionalism also slowly but surely gets people's attention. On the basis of a couple of conversations I've just had with DNAinfo representatives, I'd say professionalism is the ace in the hole they're counting on in Chicago.
"These people are real reporters," said someone talking on background. "They’re not people in bathrobes in basements. They're people like Mark Konkol, Ted Cox, young people with serious experience. The idea is to do old-school reporting in a new medium. Knocking on doors. Shoe leather."
Konkol spoke for the record. Last year he and two Sun-Times colleagues shared in a Pulitzer for local reporting for their study of violence in Chicago neighborhoods. But when DNAinfo offered him the job of writer-at-large, he accepted. "This is why I got in the business, to write stories, to write about Chicago," he said. "I'm really looking forward to the multimedia portion of this—taking photos, writing captions, capturing Chicago as it is now, rather than how it's perceived to be. I'm not going to sit at my desk and look at the river and see what comes into my head. This way I'm out in the neighborhoods writing about Chicago."
DNAinfo was launched in New York in 2009 by its CEO, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade, whose journalistic tenets, to quote the website, are that "news stories should be told by journalists who rely on facts, not spin," that "news reporting should be useful, fun, and fearless," and that "a nimble news operation available across all digital platforms can attract viewers and make money." Reporters steeped in the ways of Chicago journalism will give Ricketts his first tenet, stand up and cheer at his second, and, as for his third, hope to God he knows what he's talking about.
The overwhelming emphasis of DNAinfo is on neighborhood news, but this won't be the first attempt to squeeze a digital living out of Chicago's nooks and crannies, and no one's come close to the jackpot yet. And although the New York operation has succeeded in getting its name out and about and in making itself a news source to be reckoned with, the few ads on its website there can't be enough to pay the freight. DNAinfo doesn't talk about its business recipe, beyond tying neighborhood stories to ads promoting neighborhood businesses. But it looks like the sine qua non remains Ricketts's own deep pockets.
But Ricketts has a hill to climb in Chicago he didn't face in New York, even though it was the New York Times that last May broke the story that Ricketts had commissioned the study that came to be known as "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good."
It was a plan Ricketts hadn't signed off on yet, and he certainly wasn't about to—not after Chicagoans, from Mayor Rahm Emanuel on down, pointed out that his son Tom was trying to put the arm on Chicago taxpayers to cover some $300 million in improvements at the ballpark where the family-owned Cubs play, while the old man commissioned schemes to drive the city's favorite son out of the White House.
I asked Konkol for his thoughts on this unhappy piece of DNAinfo provenance. "Joe Ricketts doesn't have any editorial influence. He's the owner," said Konkol. "He has no role in the editorial decision making or in shaping news coverage. I don't think regular folks put the two together."
DNAinfo will operate strictly within the Chicago city limits, and Konkol let me know that just as there won't be a reporter in Winnetka there won't be anyone in Springfield either. Other attempts to offer hyperlocal news online he dismissed as little more than blogs that solitary idealists maintain until they collapse from lack of support. "This is different," Konkol said. "It's a central news desk [at 233 N. Michigan]. It's every story read twice. It's reporters pitching stories. It's different reporters dispatched. This is like a chain of local neighborhood papers in one spot. And the model worked in New York."
He went on, "We're in your neighborhood and we're able to get these stories straight to you, and the other news outlets will have to follow us. We're not just in the north side. We're in Englewood, Hyde Park, Chatham, South Shore. I live in Pullman—I'm going to write about that. We're in Wicker Park. We're in Lincoln Park. We're covering Pilsen. We're chomping at the bit to open the gate." And when DNAinfo Chicago formally launched on Monday, Konkol said there were already 400 stories on the website that its reporters had put there after they were hired.
I find an editorial staff of 17 pictured on the Chicago website, some of them editors and some of them beat reporters like Cox. In addition, DNAinfo says it's rounded up freelancers. But Chicago is a big city. I click on the picture of reporter/producer Victoria Johnson and learn that she covered police and fire for Sun-Times Media. Before that she was a freelance reporter for the SouthtownStar and briefly ran her own hyperlocal website, Logan Square Local. She's been assigned Logan Square, Avondale, Hermosa, and Belmont Cragin.
Another reporter/producer is responsible for Lincoln Square, North Center, Roscoe Village, Irving Park, and Albany Park. Chicago is full of stories, and these experienced reporters DNAinfo has rounded up will certainly find their share. But stretched thin like that, it can't pretend to be the digital equivalent of a paper of record. Not even of neighborhood record.
"I don't think papers of record exist any more," said Konkol. Besides, he said, "It's a launch. It's going to grow."