Chicago news hounds have put enough skin in the game

Originally published in Huffington -Post
Show us the money.

“Us” being the new newsrooms.

The whole world has weighed in on solutions: Combine online with newsprint, news blogs with legacy investigative reporters, news aggregation with editorial curation, then crowd-fund, throw in some Google analytics, and subscription and accessibility fan clubs.

I’m not making this stuff up. To make your head spin do a Google or Twitter search on future of news or follow my Twitter stream @saduros.

Newspapers are meeting “secretly” and Google, Yahoo and other Web whizzes are conjuring new delivery systems.

I’ve talked at length with Tom Stites, who has worked at the Sun-Times, the Tribune and the New York Times. He has some great ideas for the future of journalism as a co-op that he’s laid out at the Banyan Project.

But as he says:

“The revenue model for making money from online journalism is a Rubik’s Cube that somebody’s got to crack the code on.”
It’s going to happen so let’s be ready.

Ideas float about like so many soap bubbles. It’s time to stick pins in a few and see which ones don’t pop.

There’s been little talk about the “m” word. The real dirty little secret that it takes time (and money) to report and write news.

Finally the respected Jon Margolis, formerly of the Tribune, weighed in gently May 12 on the “m” word and how it relates to professional journalists vs. citizen journalists.

“That doesn’t mean there’s no place for the devoted, or even obsessed, advocate. But let’s save a place at the press table for the professional journalists, careerist though they may be (and those citizens are not? Gimme a break). Not the worst trait, careerism. Wanting to get ahead by doing the job right helps one…do the job right.
“And it is a job. Jobs in our society do and should come with paychecks, bringing us back to our basic questions: How big should the paychecks be? Who or what will finance them?”

As I write, Senate Bill 0239 creating L3Cs (a low-profit limited liability company that can accept grants) is awaiting Gov. Quinn’s signature. Upon its signing, any social entrepreneur will be able to create an L3C in Illinois.
It’s way past time to stop quacking and launch some new newsrooms for Chicago.

Let’s get everybody who has a stake in Chicago’s news world into a room to advocate and put to laptop their brightest ideas. Then let’s launch a competition to seed the most promising among them for start-up or, if they are already going, sustainable growth.

Let’s create an L3C seed fund for new-style newsrooms. And maybe we’ll find a few hardy news-web entrepreneurs who want to go the L3C route, too.

Come on Chicago. Let’s be bold. We gave the United States its first African American president. Why stop there? Paradigms are made to be shattered.

When I say “Let’s” and “We,” who do I mean? I mean Chicago’s philanthropic community, like the Chicago Community Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the McCormick Foundation. I mean family foundations who care. In the L3C, they take on the greatest risk that they will not receive a financial return. Also in the mix should be local businesses that would find an audience for their advertisements on these news vehicles — they represent the second tier of investment.

But I’m betting the seed fund will get a return, maybe some slow money, but money nonetheless. I’m betting the dozens of local entrepreneurs who have so much skin in the game won’t let anybody down.

Let’s build something new that works.

I say this because I have heard enough and seen enough dimness in the news business to last two careers.

Will the light bulbs over the heads of editorial types ever light? Do they really need to be told why their newspapers are sinking faster than slabs of concrete?

On May 21, yet another group of veteran journalists debated the future of news at the IFC Media Luncheon at the Newberry Library. A smart group of good people including my former boss, Don Hayner from the Sun-Times and Carl Bernstein, yes, he of toppling Richard Nixon fame. The end result? Poetic, eloquent mumblings about what used to be and little understanding of future direction, except for this nugget of wisdom that has been thrown at me twice: duck and cover if you are a journalist over the age of 35.

I asked the panel a question. Are there lessons to be learned from the way big businesses have run their newsrooms that could be useful in the future?

The panel response: blank looks.

This in the town where robber barons sucked the Sun-Times dry and Sam Zell is playing monopoly with the Tribune.

Lessons to be learned? No.

No. Of course, no.

For nearly two decades, newspapers have been challenged to evolve into knowledge-based organizations capable of adapting to the innovations of the Web. Instead of progressing, they’ve been traded as chits in a greedy money-grab game by short-sighted media conglomerates. Their mismanagement has buried the papers with debt and forced record staff layoffs.

The big-time editors have got to know this. Likely they don’t want to publicly admit to the corrosive effects of their industrial-age bosses that view newsroom staff as “things” to cut rather than “knowledge workers” to invest in.

Their policies have resulted in what Jane Stevens so rightly calls Zombie newsrooms.

“Definition of a zombie newspaper: a skeleton staff operating in an organization that provides them little support and no room to make a complete transition to the Web, holding a death-grip on the paper instead of modernizing it.”
Our dwindling newsroom staffs and move to wire copy has had an unintended consequence. In response to the dearth of relevant local news, a new ecosystem of Chicago blogs and news aggregators has developed on the web.

Web journalists operating out of passion found it easy to find stories to report.

There are a million stories in the naked city. And there are a million ways to report them on the Web. We are entering a golden age for journalism — right now.

Chicago has brilliant lights like Adrian Holovaty, who with his partners has created Everyblock, which is a digital age “aha”! How does data delivered by Everyblock — crime, zoning, businesses — change the job description for reporters and editors? Chicago is also home to the much-publicized online non-profit newsroom — the Chi-Town Daily News.

Other sites like those I recently wrote about, LISC’sNewCommunities, and the BeachwoodReporter are run by journalists committed to telling the local stories that the legacy newspapers haven’t had the capacity — or the mission — to report. You can see an extensive list of these types of sites at Community Media Workshop’s site.

As I write, all of these valuable newsrooms — and more –are looking for cash to sustain themselves.

These under-reported and neglected areas of coverage are the bread and butter of tomorrow and many of them are running on vapor.

High-quality local information — which is what readers demand– is something the legacy newsrooms have lost sight of as they have jettisoned staff. News is not throw-away wire copy to wrap around ads but real information that provides insight and history. Editors know this, but what to do when papa corporation needs to pay the shareholders? Look at the collective shrug at the IFC event to understand the answer to that.

A lot of smart people have been sitting round the table at the Chicago Community Trust trying to understand how Chicago’s foundation community can assist. Many of us believe that we must evolve a new way to finance newsrooms and we are looking with hope to the new social enterprise hybrid, the L3C.

As Dean Stackman writes in the Columbia Journalism Review on the failure of the business press to cover its beat and alert the public to the systemic Wall Street’s boiler rooms that led to this “economic winter:”

“Never, ever underestimate the importance of editorial leadership and news ownership, for in them rests the power to push back against structural conflicts and cultural taboos fostered by industry, to clear a space for … journalism to do the job it is clearly capable of, the one job that really needed doing.”
Newsrooms are all about mission, and mission is set at the top.

When newspapers start charging for online news they’ll need to recalibrate their value system. And they’ll need to understand their added value.

The added value for newsrooms online and in paper is local news. Local news that serves the audience. And advertising that delivers information to the targeted audience — and that is local advertising. The businesses that own and operate our new newsrooms will have to understand those values.

There’s a conference June 16 in Minneapolis on Economic Models for News, and several local conferences on Chicago’s news future. You can learn more about these on my blog at

Carl Bernstein, Chi-Town Daily News, Chicago Community Trust, Chicago Media, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Community Media Workshop, Don Hayner, Everyblock, Future Of News, LISC New Communities, Macarthur Foundation, McCormick Foundation, News Blogs, Newspaper Industry, Newsrooms, The Banyan Project, The-Beachwood-Reporter, Tim Stites, Chicago News