One of the bright ideas the media have come up with for staying in touch with the public (not to mention replacing skilled labor) is a wiki-style community journalism called "hyperlocalism." Last April the Tribune launched its own model, the suburban online newspaper Triblocal.com. You could go to the site, click on your suburb, and immerse yourself in news posted by your friends and neighbors. Then you could write a story of your own.
There's a user agreement you have to OK before you can contribute. It begins, "Triblocal.com is designed and operated so you can decide the news you want to share and read." Then, the Tribune being the Tribune, it continues for another 4,000 words. Don't bother to read them—what they boil down to is that the Tribune takes no responsibility for any libelous hooey you might post and promises to pay you not a penny for your efforts.
Unlike RedEye, which passes itself off as an edition of the Tribune, Triblocal.com and its print spin-off, Trib Local, merely claim to be "sponsored" by the Tribune. They're produced by the Chicagoland Publishing Company, a Tribune Company subsidiary that works the frontier known as "niche publishing." That's where editorial and marketing get together and cook up schemes.
Triblocal.com promises that "you'll work side-by-side with Triblocal.com's editorial staff to produce coverage of your community with your news items and your photos." This suggests trained professionals standing by to teach greenhorns the ropes. Well, yes, a few paid "reporters" have been assigned to Triblocal.com, but aside from managing editor Kyle Leonard, these professionals have precious little experience, and as a contributor you probably won't have any contact with them anyway. "Our stories go up immediately," Leonard says. "Photographs need to be approved. We don't edit the stories. If we find a story inappropriate we delete it—or leave it up."
So what do the paid reporters do? "'Reporter' is probably not the exact right term," Leonard allows. He says their main job is to go out into the communities and stir up interest in Triblocal.com.
Patrick Corcoran says he began contributing to Triblocal.com after one of these reporters began telling suburban campaigns that they'd welcome political stories. In September his byline began to appear regularly on the site. By now he's published a dozen stories, and he's fixated—his only subject is the Democratic congressional primary in the Third District. More precisely, Corcoran's only subject is the campaign of Mark Pera, who's challenging incumbent Dan Lipinski. "Mark Pera hits the airwaves with new TV ad," said the headline to a Corcoran report last October. "Pera's bid for Congress endorsed by Citizen Action/Illinois," said a headline a month later.
The Triblocal.com kind of citizen journalism has at least one conspicuous defect—nothing gets written about unless somebody feels like doing the writing. For weeks nobody was paying the kind of attention to the Lipinski campaign that Corcoran was paying to Pera's. And despite Triblocal.com's efforts at self-promotion, the Lipinski camp remained oblivious to its existence.
The Pera camp, by contrast, knew all about Corcoran's efforts and exploited them. Pera's Web site, markperaforcongress.com, posts links to news stories favorable to his campaign—for instance, Carol Marin's January 16 column in the Sun-Times, "Lipinski inherits ethical questions." Another link is to Corcoran's "Democrat Mark Pera pushes the pace in his bid against Lipinski," published December 26 at Triblocal.com.
But the other day the Lipinski camp finally woke up. The Tribune has begun to "reverse publish" Triblocal.com: every week Leonard and his staff choose stories from the Web site to run in Thursday's free print version, Trib Local. "The newspaper is delivered as a topper to subscribers of the Tribune and to newsstands and coffee houses," says Leonard. "Things like that."
Topping the front page of Trib Local's January 10 edition was the story "Democrat Mark Pera picks up support," by Patrick Corcoran, "citizen contributor." The story had appeared online three days earlier. The parents of a Lipinski staffer—folks who might never have stumbled upon Triblocal.com but who subscribe to the Tribune—spotted Corcoran's story in the insert and mentioned it to their son.
The Lipinski camp recognized the byline. Patrick Corcoran is no mere partisan—he's Pera's campaign media guy. So a call was made to the Tower. Then the Tower made a call to Leonard. He cracked down. Leonard e-mailed Corcoran and told him that from now on his stories on Pera at Triblocal.com would identify him as the "campaign spokesman for the Mark Pera campaign."
That's it? I asked Leonard. No further measures required, he said. "This site is about letting people have their voices heard."
Corcoran's fine with the new rule. He'd been writing stories for Triblocal.com because "it seemed like a good resource. It was something we'd included in the media plan." He expects to go on writing them.
Leonard wishes Corcoran had identified himself with the Pera campaign from the get-go, but he knows he doesn't have much to complain about. "If he were trying to pull a fast one, why would he use his full name?" he reasons. "He could have signed on as 'Pera08' or he could have signed on just as 'Patrick.' But he used his full name, so I can't accuse him of doing anything wrong."
To submit to Triblocal.com you have to register first, and to register you have to give your real name, phone number, and e-mail address. But that's where full disclosure ends. "You can create a screen name that says anything," says Leonard. For instance, the Forest Preserve District of Kane County submits stories as "Kane Forest," and Geneva's school district 304 submits them as "Geneva 304." Says Leonard, "It's very obvious who's posting"—but it doesn't have to be. Corcoran could have signed his articles "S.U. Burble" or "Neada Change" or "Nomar Lies"—not that I'm trying to give anyone ideas.
"One of the aspects of these Web sites is that they're self-policing to some degree," says Leonard. "Everybody knows everybody else and after every story [readers] can post comment. We rely a lot on that."
The game would have been up the minute a Triblocal.com reader who knew who Corcoran was posted a comment blowing the whistle on him. But nobody cared. Or maybe nobody even noticed.
And the game would have been up if anyone at Triblocal.com had wondered why a Patrick Corcoran was writing frequently, exclusively, and enthusiastically about the Mark Pera campaign and had made a phone call to find out. Nobody did.
Where the game definitely should have ended was with the decision to put a Corcoran story on the front page of the print edition. Leonard says Trib Local is supposed to be subjected to the same old-fashioned editorial scrutiny as the Tribune itself. "The person responsible for putting that page together made a mistake," says Leonard. "That person should have made a number of phone calls she did not make, and I talked to her about it and we fixed the problem. These are young reporters, and they're working in an environment where even if you were a reporter with 20 years' experience, this is a different environment than any normal newsroom."
The Lipinski camp found out that both Leonard and Corcoran used to work at Pioneer Press—Leonard as an editor, Corcoran as a reporter. Were the two in cahoots? Were Corcoran's privileges a signal that the Tribune, which had yet to endorse anyone in the Third District race, had made its choice?
Pioneer is a far-flung operation, and Leonard tells me he never worked with Corcoran and didn't place the name when he saw it.
On January 15 the Tribune spoke. "We were tempted to wash our hands of this race," said the Tribune editorial page. But it detected an "arrogance" to Pera's campaign that suggested "he would contribute to the political divisiveness in Washington." Lipinski, on the other hand, is "bright and . . . growing into the job in his first full term"—though "it would be much easier to endorse him if he didn't have such a cozy political relationship with his father, former Rep. William Lipinski," who two years ago handed him the seat.
By the time I reached the Lipinski camp the Tribune endorsement was in print. Lipinski's spokesman, Matthew Mayer, might have decided to leave well enough alone, but instead of a "no comment" he obliged me with a statement. "Battling for yard sign locations is one thing," Mayer dictated to me, "but attempting to deceive voters by manipulating the news media is another. These types of activities perpetuate the politics of cynicism and fuel the public's mistrust of politicians and the media."
It was a nice piece of writing—righteous, indignant, and totally directed at the other candidate. If Triblocal.com had any part to play in its manipulation, Mayer wasn't going there.
For more see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.