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By Tanveer Ali
For journalists in Chicago today, the city serves as a large laboratory for “new news.” Experimental conditions include troubles facing old models, a growing startup culture, continuing demand for local news, and questions about the sustainability of new approaches.
While Chicago’s two storied daily newspapers continue to pursue innovations even as they struggle with bankruptcy and large-scale layoffs, new editorial and technology-based pioneers are working to fill the city’s storytelling voids, and then some.
Following a heavily-leveraged buyout by billionaire Sam Zell, the Tribune Company (which owns the Chicago Tribune) filed for bankruptcy in December 2008, and the contentious process has dragged on. Three months after the Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times also filed for bankruptcy; it was sold to a group of local investors, emerged from bankruptcy and was sold again last year. Financial volatility coupled with dwindling print subscriptions and shrinking newsrooms represent clear challenge to journalism in Chicago.
But these difficulties haven’t prevented new editorial, financial and technological approaches from emerging at the two dailies.
At the Chicago Tribune, journalists who tell stories with code and not necessarily words or photos have a growing presence. A young news apps team helped lay the framework for the community-focused TribLocal (launched in 2007) and niche-based Chicago Now sites (launched in 2009) and have harnessed data to tell stories that supplement and sometimes outdo their print counterparts.
“We’re not here to ‘save journalism’ (whatever that means) — we’re here to save democracy,” says Brian Boyer on the team’s blog.
Arguably, that commitment to technology and data-based storytelling may be seen as a threat to traditional reporting. Tribune recently announced that it is laying off TribLocal reporters and outsourcing the operation to Journatic, a data-mining content producer that has been hiring writers for low-wage, per-piece work.
The Sun-Times recently introduced a paywall charging its heaviest users for access to online content and also purchased the editorial work of the recently closed Chicago News Cooperative for potential use on future projects.
CNC (for which I did some freelance work) was formed by a group of former Tribune journalists in 2009. They sought to produce in-depth coverage of City Hall and the city at large, and they provided local content to the New York Times. The organization never launched the innovative news website it had promised, and operations were suspended earlier this year following tax status problems and the end of the relationship with the Times.
Prior to CNC, Chi-Town Daily News tried to build a citywide online newspaper harnessing citizen journalism. It ran out of money and closed in 2009.
While startups challenging the big operations head-on with professional news staffs have fallen prey to funding shortfalls, the city’s news landscape is dotted with dozens of niche sites. Sites like the Better Government Association (government accountability), Catalyst Chicago (schools) and the Chicago Reporter (race and poverty) garner a small fraction of Chicago’s online news traffic, but are highly regarded and influential in their respective realms.
Though Chicago’s tech startup scene is not comparable to Silicon Valley’s, there is a growing programming movement in town, especially with the rise of Internet discounter behemoth Groupon. Also fueling that culture is an open data movement supported by new city and county administrations. In 2011, several local government agencies opened their databases for the Apps for Metro Chicago project, with prizes awarded to ten developers of apps that help users navigate and participate in aspects of city life.
The net result is that Chicago has become a focal point of innovation for programmer-journalists.
Independent programmers and smaller startups in Chicago have developed several innovations that could be applied well beyond the city. Brad Flora, the brains behind the local news aggregator Windy Citizen, founded NowSpots as way for advertisers to generate banner ads using content from social network posts. Narrative Science, a startup that grew out of projects at Northwestern University, consumes data produced out of a baseball game or a day at the stock market and produces finished news stories using artificial intelligence technology.
“There’s more and more data all the time,” said Larry Birnbaum, chief scientific adviser for the firm. “It’s easy to collect it, but the question is how to make it actionable. We want to present people with information targeted to their interests, in a way that’s useful to them.”
He argues that automating basic newsgathering functions allows journalists can turn their attention to higher-level storytelling.
Last year the Knight Foundation awarded a four-year, $4.2 million grant to Northwestern University for a news innovation laboratory aimed at developing technology for journalists. A collaboration between the Medill School of Journalism and the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering, the lab seeks to get technology into the hands of publishers who can use it to make the entire news publishing process – reporting, presentation, distribution – more efficient and effective. Its most notable creation so far is its open source timeline, which can be used by any journalist looking for a chronological presentation of their work.
The demand for news
Of course, with the growth of new approaches to journalism, there’s always room for more innovation, and journalism in Chicago has some big-name patrons. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation earmarked up to $6 million for its Why News Matters program to promote news literacy, particularly among young people. The Chicago Community Trust has an ongoing Community News Matters program, supporting the creation of local news.
As part of this program, Community Media Workshop facilitated a local reporting initiative for underserved communities and produced two surveys of the new media landscape. The 2010 report found a great deal of activity but raised questions about its sustainability. “Despite the apparently large number of consumers of online information, it doesn’t appear there has been any explosion in the number of people actually earning a living producing this information,” according to the report.
Still, the rise in traffic suggests there’s plenty of opportunity. Analytics from Compete.com show that the number of unique visitors to Chicagotribune.com increased 47 percent from March 2011 to March 2012. While that doesn’t solve the big problem of the Tribune’s ongoing bankruptcy — or the larger question of how online news can support professional journalism — it does point to one thing: The news still matters in Chicago. And from the looks of things, new and old media are coming together to ensure that the news will be told.