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On pay walls and other potential signs of life

Reporters in Chicago are too busy getting their mojo back to be bummed about the biz


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When the publisher of the Daily Herald announced last week that his paper would be throwing up a pay wall around its online news content, public comment on the publication's website was overwhelmingly negative. "I'll be dammed if I would 'pay money' to read the poor info the DH provides," wrote one of the first posters, setting the tone. "This paper will go down."

Unlike the New York Times, whose new pay wall confronts only nonsubscribers who spend a lot of time at the Times site, the Daily Herald intends to put the arm on everybody. Subscribers will pay an extra dollar a week to read the paper on their computers—or on their cell phones or tablets, once those apps became available this fall. Nonsubscribers will pay a penny under $20 a month for those services. "As many newspapers are starting to understand, we cannot afford to give away our content any longer online," announced publisher Douglas Ray.

After decades of growth in Chicago's booming northwestern suburbs, the Q Q privately owned Daily Herald turned out to be no better than anyone else in dealing with the technological revolution and economic crisis that have pummeled dailies across the country. Recent years have brought pay cuts and waves of layoffs, and I wondered what Ray's battered staff is thinking now. Do they regard the new pay wall as a desperate roll of the dice all but guaranteed to accelerate disaster?

No, said Ray. "I've not seen an editorial staff so invigorated in a long time," he told me. "They like it that we're first to market. They like it that it's a bold move. They like it that we're going to the marketplace and saying, 'What we do has value.'"

Would I hear that from the staff? I called a couple of veteran reporters. "No, it's not rolling the dice," said film critic Dann Gire. "This is an educated and calculated risk where the benefits are going to hugely outweigh the detriments. I've been around long enough to know the difference between a company that wants to make money and a company that wants to make money and provide really good service to the community. And that's us. So I'm thrilled. The other option, waiting for someone to do something, is a slow train to oblivion."

The other reporter didn't want to be named but had pretty much the same reaction. "Some people are very excited because they think this is the wave of the future—to be giving away content just doesn't appear to be sustainable," the reporter said. If some colleagues worry that the Daily Herald is antagonizing its core readership, count this reporter among the enthusiasts. "There is value to what journalists do. There is value to what reporters at the Daily Herald do. Perhaps this is a step toward recognizing that, and perhaps our readers will recognize that too."

Years ago in college I studied John G. Neihardt's "Son of the Messiah," an epic poem on the delusion that swept the vanquished Sioux that they'd soon be divinely returned to glory. The 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee set them straight. Lost mojo is easier to recover than lost wages; but that said, it's my seat-of-the-pants impression that the panic and despair behind the Chicago Journalism Town Hall of 2009 are lifting. By any tangible measure the state of this city's mainstream media is still pretty lousy, but people can feel hopeless for just so long—especially people with the innate self-regard of a Chicago journalist. To put this in the language imposed upon the nation ten years ago by 9/11, Chicago journalism has adjusted to its new normal.

At the Sun-Times, a paper whose troubles make most others' look trivial, a veteran reporter told me, "I don't see great clouds hanging over here. On days there are layoffs people are really bummed. But on other days everybody is too busy working. Those folks who were really nervous left. The diehards think, 'What the hell, we'll stick around and see how long it lasts.' If I'd stopped to think about how am I going to pay for the kids' college, I'd have gotten out years ago."

Paul Botts, executive director of the Wetlands Initiative, offers this theory: "Perhaps the MSM is feeling less pressure as the fraction of Americans that pay attention to it keeps declining," he suggested on Facebook. "It's easier to be relaxed and even get a bit goofy when fewer people are paying attention."

True enough—though relaxation gets harder when the multitudes wandering off include the advertisers. But I think journalists feel less hopeless because they see less to feel hopeless about. In 2009 the mainstream media crowd was confounded by a marketplace that didn't seem to give a damn about newspapers and their profits—the news was nothing you'd pay for. Now some MSM journalists think they see a way forward. One of them is Hagit Limor, an investigative reporter for the ABC affiliate TV station in Cincinnati and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Those mobile apps that play a big part in the Daily Herald's pay-wall strategy could save journalism, Limor believes. "The Internet revolution overtook us much more quickly than we anticipated," she says, "and we didn't think through the monetization before creating free websites. However, I believe media companies have learned a lesson. People have gotten used to buying apps, and I think many companies will create mobile platforms that will keep that lesson in mind."

Limor doesn't have data to back up her hunch, which plenty of people disagree with. But it resonates with history. Newspapers, like mobile apps, were first and foremost a convenience, the news of the day assembled and prioritized for easy consumption. No one in any era ever thought that if they didn't buy the news in a newspaper they weren't entitled to it. Of course they were entitled! They lived in the world; they had a right to know what went on in it! It was the medium they were paying for, not the message.

Chicago's chapter of SPJ is the Chicago Headline Club, which every spring holds its Lisagor Awards dinner. Last April's dinner surprised a lot of members—by being a big success. The attendance of 281 was the highest in years. And the mood was different. "I firmly remember two years ago, in 2009, there was like this death pall over the dinner," says a CHC official. "But this year was quite a festive occasion."

No one is sure why. "It almost looked like times are better in the industry, but we kind of know better than that," says Sue Stevens, the club's president at the time of the dinner. Here and there were signs of tangible improvement. For instance, Crain's Chicago Business sent one person to the 2010 dinner; this year it bought a table. "During the depths of the downturn we decided to save money on things like this that obviously are noncentral to the newsgathering operation," says editor Joe Cahill. "This year we did get a full table again because the situation is improving."

This doesn't mean an evolutionary change in the Lisagors suddenly went into reverse. More and more journalists in recent years have paid their own entry fees and then paid for their own dinners—either because they're freelancers or because their employers want to save money. The CHC membership (401 in June) is the highest it's been in years, but this doesn't mean laid-off reporters are flooding back to work. On the contrary. When a young copy editor looking for a job in Chicago had breakfast with me last month I told her to join the Headline Club and network because that's what her competition's doing.

The dynamic underlying the Lisagor Awards is different, but the result was a dinner that reminded old-timers of the good old days. After a spell of dread and perplexity, the Chicago news corps has decided it will keep on trucking. v


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