If there was a better day to announce the formation of the Chicago News Cooperative, I can't think of it. On Thursday, a day after Mayor Daley's budget address -- one where his solution to a $500 million deficit was to raid every kitty, rainy-day fund and savings account the city has available -- the two major papers in town chose to run the exact same cover:
Yes, that's two entire front pages dedicated to a 24-year-old kidnapping. And the minimal amount of additional front page space? Given to a minor-league hockey team, the H1N1 vaccine ("too little, too late for Chicago?" -- classy!), an ad for a "luxury boutique for home building and renovation" (who wasted that ad buy in October?) and an ad for a new Victoria's Secret store. Mayor Daley's budget address didn't appear on either cover (to be fair, it does appear on the cover of the Tribune's subscriber-only edition, but still).
In fact, the budget address doesn't appear until page eight in the Trib and page fourteen in the Sun-Times and both papers may as well have simply republished the mayor's speech in full for all the actual journalism they offer. Covering the mayor isn't rocket science folks, record what he says and then look into it. You scratch that itch for a second or two, and it's going to start to bleed. The Trib, to their credit, does ask the hard questions -- in an editorial that runs 32 pages after the story itself (though I'll also point out that they dedicate more space to how to dress up like a zombie than to their entire Daley coverage, good and terrible).
As with everything in this city, the Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke do an incredible job dissecting the address and got it done within hours of the Mayor shutting his trap. And considering they're laboring as a twosome in a much smaller paper with exponentially fewer resources, there's really no excuse.
Which brings us back to the Chicago News Cooperative, announced Thursday with funding from the MacArthur Foundation and in partnership with WTTW (huh?) and possibly WBEZ (let's hope) with a paying customer in the New York Times' new Chicago-focused section due out in late November. As I said before, if ever there was the time, it's now.
The blood is in the water -- the Sun-Times is on life support and the Tribune doesn't seem to be able to do much of anything except descend further into mediocrity -- and so it doesn't take much to see that opportunity is there for the taking. The New York Times will be doing this dance with many news-starved cities in the coming future; Chicago is (once again) the second city: they started with San Francisco.
And so is the CNC poised to capitalize on that opportunity and bring real journalism back to Chicago? The proof will be in the pudding, of course. That the editorial oversight is from a lot of old Tribune muckety-mucks doesn't sit well (meet the new boss ... ), but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for now. The Tribune's problems were created far above the editorial boardroom and an organization of the Tribune's size is slow to adapt to anything (I still have yet to meet anyone who can explain to me exactly how a 350 person newsroom actually, you know, functions).
The organization that the CNC is proposing is a far cry from the bloated Tribune -- a small editorial staff of nine to 12, with content partnerships at quality news shops in the city -- sounds right, and as long as they don't chase the paywall dragon, a Web site that covers Chicago politics smartly will be a welcome addition to the field. And the partnerships they're proposing, especially the one with WBEZ, could bare some delicious fruit (toss the Reader into that mix as well, and you've really got something).
But, at the end of the day, I wonder if this is all there is. The cast of characters behind this is a pretty familiar one, Tribune hands almost all, and while it's nice to see the big dogs out for another run, one has to wonder if they've got it in them to truly learn some new tricks. Because it's not just about bringing real news back to a city that so desperately needs it (one wonders if the Olympic planning would have moved so far along if anyone other than the lonely duo of Joravsky and Dumke were digging into it), but also about rethinking how we can produce, distribute, and interact with news when you start from scratch in 2009.
Because the success of their endeavor -- and in all these experiments in nonprofit journalism -- really resides in that: rebuilding for today, not for yesterday. If they're not already, the CNC needs to start talking to the smart programmers, data journos, and social media kids around town. Because it's great to know that they're thinking of a website, but that's the bare minimum nowadays -- the "you must be this tall to ride" sign of modern news. Where are they on mobile phones? What's their social media strategy? How do they leverage user-generated content? How do they work with the larger web ecosystem here in Chicago and beyond? What content will be available via an API and how can I mash it up? Where do they stand on Creative Commons licenses? The questions go on and on and on. And sure, they're a pain in the ass to answer -- it's a lot easier to rebuild the newsroom you worked in for 40 years -- but they're the questions, and they'd better be able to answer every one -- because if they can, they win. And so do we.