The Chicago News Cooperative owes its existence to the New York Times, but its future hangs on a website it still hasn't unveiled. "Coming soon," announces the current website, a placeholder: "An innovative news site dedicated to building communities through quality journalism." But the current site used to say its successor would arrive in 2010. Then it wasn't 2010 any longer.
When managing editor Jim Kirk arrived at the CNC last May, he told me a "more aggressive web presence" was his "first order of business." Was it too tall an order?
"Most deadlines are self-imposed, and ours was as well," Kirk explained when I asked about the delay. So why rush and stumble? The new CNC site has to function just so, because it's the heart of the big idea that woke up CNC founder Jim O'Shea at three in the morning when he was a fellow at Harvard three years ago. When O'Shea launched CNC in October of 2009 he described it as a "fresh, innovative approach" to reversing "the news industry's precipitous decline." He intended to marshal "community forces interested in quality journalism for Chicago to build a self-sustaining, member-based organization dedicated to solid, accountability journalism." Eventually—O'Shea had a five-year plan—the CNC would sustain itself through client fees, website ads, "service fees off news groups we want to form," and sponsorships.
The website would be the pulsing agora where those enlightened community forces and journalists of quality convened.
Despite his stirring language, it's never been clear to me just what O'Shea has in mind. A former managing editor of the Tribune (and former director of the Reader's parent company), he's put together an impressive staff anchored by former Tribune senior editors—such as Kirk, once that paper's business editor. He rounded up half a million dollars in start-up funds from the MacArthur Foundation, added some smaller grants, and brought on John Canning Jr., deep-pocketed chairman of the equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners, to be the CNC's chairman of the board. "This is just invaluable," O'Shea told the Tribune's Phil Rosenthal when Canning signed on last year. "John has a lot of contacts in his Rolodex."
The grants have kept coming—including another half a million dollars from MacArthur, a quarter million from the Knight Foundation, and a quarter million from the Media Development Loan Fund, which was founded by George Soros, had never before given money to a domestic recipient, and has earmarked most of its CNC grant for development of an education-focused website. In the last three months of 2010 more than $250,000 arrived from individual donors.
This largesse reflects the professional pedigrees of O'Shea and his staff and the importance some people place on reinventing journalism. But aside from the political website earlyandoften.org, a CNC coproduction with a short life expectancy, the big thing O'Shea has to show for his efforts remains the four pages a week the CNC creates for the Chicago edition of the Times. They're an interesting departure for the Times but no sea change for journalism.
That's why a lot of us have been eager to see the new site, where we hope all will be revealed—especially the reasons why O'Shea thinks the public will pay to visit it. Kirk (who spoke to me in O'Shea's absence) says the site is just a few weeks off but its first order of business will be to establish the "brand" a little better, and it will remain free until that happens. But he describes it evolving into a constellation of pay sites, each covering a different "vertical area" in fine detail and the first area being education. Kirk said, "I think the pay model is the future for everybody—some sort of pay model."
Journalists tend to assume a pay model is the future if there is a future—something they don't assume. Pay sites have generally gone over about as well as RedEye did when it cost a quarter. But the New York Times intends to launch a "metered" site this year that will tolerate freeloading drop-ins but demand compensation from readers who spend a lot of time there. The Times experiment could be historic, establishing whether any pay wall can exist beyond the realm of niche audiences and highly specific, esoteric content. (Think Wall Street Journal.)
The CNC will rise or fall on the niche audiences its website captures. "The core has always been the website. That was the idea," Kirk said. "But it happened to coincide with the New York Times wanting to get up and running here. That obviously helped us immensely in terms of getting us started"—the relationship meant high visibility, instant credibility, and a revenue stream. But it also meant the tail would wag the dog. Kirk went on, "All the energy was focused on content for the Times and it delayed the start of thinking about what do we want from this website. Since I've been on board, a big focus of mine has been to get the staff focused internally, and the limited resources we have delayed us a little bit. Now what we're trying to do internally is change the culture a little bit. The core of the Chicago News Cooperative is our website—and we provide content to the New York Times." Kirk said the staff was racing to roll out the new website before the year ended and thought better of it because the stakes were so high. "We took our foot off the gas a little bit to make sure we had it right."
We've already had a taste of what the CNC means to do with its vertical areas. Last October the CNC and Aldertrack jointly launched Early and Often, charging $175 for subscriptions to what it boasts is its "unmatched" election coverage. (Subscriptions now cost $45 a month and will run through the April 5 runoff municipal elections.) "We found very quickly," said Kirk, "that there is an audience—albeit small—who'll pay for very granular news about certain subjects. Given what we want to do with education and other vertical areas, we've learned a lot." Which other areas? "Health and science is a possible area," said Kirk. "Arts and culture seems a natural." As for Early and Often, the question is whether there's a market for the same tightly focused political coverage between elections. "It's something we're studying," Kirk said.
Kirk hasn't been as involved with Early and Often as David Greising, the former Tribune business columnist who became the CNC's deputy editor and general manager. "We launched Early and Often for several reasons," Greising emailed me: "To further underscore our presence as a leader in political coverage, as an execution of our cooperative strategy (i.e., the joint effort with Aldertrack), and as a test of paid content on the Web. It has succeeded on all fronts, especially on our ability to break news and build an enthusiastic, paying audience."
Greising wouldn't get into numbers, and neither would Aldertrack's Mike Fourcher. But Fourcher told me Early and Often has turned a profit, and it's shown him pay walls are tenable if enough people believe there's something of value behind them. Early and Often attracted a subscription base of people "who think Chicago politics is something they should pay close attention to," he said, and though a lot of these people do business with the city or want to, that's not true of everyone. "The knee-jerk is to say it's all about politics—but it's policy too," Fourcher went on. "There are lots of nonprofits who are subscribers, and a lot of them have an interest in social welfare policy. Whether you're out for yourself or are trying to make it a better world, the [same] information is important. You need to know who are the decision makers."
Aldertrack was created as a website four years ago by Jimm Dispensa, a data cruncher for the Chicago Public Schools who aggregated what Fourcher describes as "every last piece of information on every candidate." There was nothing slick or pretty about Aldertrack, but its bounty took Fourcher's breath away. "Those of us in politics talked about it like it was the holy grail," Fourcher, who at the time was involved in some aldermanic races, once told me. When he heard last year that Dispensa intended to get Aldertrack up and running again, he proposed teaming up, hooking on with an established news site, and turning Dispensa's hobby into a business. The Reader said no to the idea, and the CNC said yes. The cooperative provides the site's original editorial content, Dispensa scours the web aggregating information nuggets, and Fourcher handles the business end. In April, Fourcher told me, he and Dispensa and O'Shea, Kirk, and Greising need to sit down and figure out if they have a future together. "I hope," he says. "I can't imagine a better team of journalists. But I'm a businessman and nothing's set in stone."
As a businessman, Fourcher has other irons in the fire. He's publisher of two hyperlocal news websites, CenterSquareJournal.com and RoscoeViewJournal.com. I live in the first site's coverage area, but I can't say it ever occurs to me to drop in online to find out what's up in my neighborhood. But the other day somebody was handing out flyers outside the Irving Park Brown Line station. On one side was an ad for Motiv, a personal training studio that's a Center Square Journal advertiser, and on the other side a promotional for Center Square Journal, "your neighborhood news site."
I asked Fourcher about the flyer. "Isn't that great!" he said. "They paid to advertise and we put it out. Imagine that—journalism supported by advertising!"
The site's coming up on its first anniversary, and Fourcher says it's breaking even. On the expense side of the ledger there's one salary—the editor's. The ad salesperson works on commission; and as for the reporters, "we compensate them with love," said Fourcher.
Is that enough? I asked. "A lot of these people are excellent writers—they all are," he said, "and they all have other ways of earning their living."
Fourcher has put himself where the action is. If the CNC doesn't reinvent journalism with its pay walls and granular reporting, maybe Center Square Journal will do that with its love-based model. Cynics who don't think journalism can run on love alone may never have tried hard enough to find out.