Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Future of (Chicago) Journalism – Part I – An idea: Interactive City News Bureau

April 26. Last Sunday Jon Marshall, a Lecturer at Northwestern University‘s Medill School of Journalism, spoke to the Ethical chi-nghbdsHumanist Society in Chicago. His topic was “Investigative Reporting in the Internet Age.” He, like other Chicago journalists, is following the recent collapse of traditional business models supporting investing reporting: in Chicago alone, they include the bankruptcies of the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times and the decline of the Chicago Reader. Like other journalists, Jon is on the lookout for NEW business models that could employ good numbers of investigative reporters (and other media pros as well). For in-depth coverage of the Chicago scene, see Whet Moser’s account in the Reader of the recent Chicago Journalism Town Hall.

Here’s an idea for a business model. How about reviving the local wire service concept of the late, great City News Bureau, but adapt it to a digital age. Let it be a multimedia digital medium linking all mainstream and community media. And instead of merely transmitting the news, let it be a problem-solving public service that makes all Chicagoans responsive and accoucook-co2ntable to each other in the shaping the future of our city, county and state. Let it employ dozens, scores or even hundreds of reporters and media professionals whose job it is to connect citizens and government and give all Chicagolanders the information they need to define and solve any and all problems at city, county or state levels. And let maximize all kinds of opportunities as well.

Let the revived City News Bureau (the old name works in a digital age, at least for me) employ part and full time media pros with all kinds of expertise. It would likely be headquartered on a robust website. It could sell stories to other media and/or piggyback on them. Properly produced, it could be a large audience affair attracting hundreds of thousands of regular users/participants. illinois-map

An information-age City News Bureau could sell stories a la carte or could monetize itself by selling subscriptions to other media. A 500,000+ city/suburban audience would ensure its financial support from very advertisers whose ads once sustained papers like the Tribune.

Can anyone tell me why a revived City News Bureau can’t or shouldn’t happen? Or, more to the point, why it hasn’t already happened? (I betcha the Trib never even dreamed of it and wouldn’t have gone with it if it had.)

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PS for the curious. The Tribune’s blindness to innovation has a personal history for me. In 1992, under the auspices of the Education Committee of the City Club of Chicago, I helped convene all three Key Administrators of Chicago’s public private and parochial schools: the three individuals – CPS Interim Superindentent Charles Almo (and later CPS Superindentent Manfred W. Byrd), Archdiocese Schools Superintendent Sr. Mary Brian Costello and Alvin Vanden Bosch, head of Illinois Coalition of Non-Public Schools – who were literally responsible for educating all 750,000 Chicago children. In 1993 we met with Tribune publisher James Squires and presented him with our 20-page proposal for an daily/weekly Newspaper Education Page, comparable to a sports or business page, but interactive and designed to empower Chicago parents, students, teachers and taxpayers to make education the key to Chicago’s future.We were looking to make The City That Works, we used to say, the City That Educates. We wanted Chicago, the “I Will” city, to be a “We Will” city.james-squires

Jim Squires, a respected newspaperman, was writing about the corporate takeover of American Newspapers at the very time we met him. Yet he dismissed our proposal out of hand, saying unforgettably that it would be “a waste of his paper and our time”. The average Trib reader, he said, lives in the suburbs, takes home delivery, and has two kids placed in fine suburban schools. In other words, Trib readers care little for the city. (Out of the goodness of his heart he did offer to set up an education paper for Robert Taylor Homes. That offer fell like a brick.)

Squires had a point, however, about the gap between city and suburbs: it sure does exist. Yet he himself seemed unaware of the fundamental interdependence of city and suburbs that groups like George Ranney’s Chicago Metropolis 2020 have been trying to manifest for years. This lack of awareness is pervasive today among but a very few. The solution? Again, its a problem-solving, opportunity-maximizing interactive media that puts all Chicagoland residents on the same page developing the region’s future.

A final point. Jim Squires missed something else: the circulation benefits to his paper from participation in an interactive multimedia network of Chicago community and mainstream media – newpapers, radio, TV and Internet.

By contrast, Sun-Times publisher Charles Price circulated the Chicago Education Page to his editorial staff with a note saying there was “lots of food for thought here.” But then he sold his paper to King Rupert of NewsCorp. What a shame. To this day I believe the three key school administrators had seen the future of education and mass communication as well. I suspect they’d have been thrilled to hook up with their suburban counterparts to make education the key to Chicagoland’s future.

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A Civic Media NCAA-Style Reality TV Tourney to Solve the Student Loan Mess!

April 21. Talk about seeding civic media. I LOVE this idea. Here’s why it’s important. At a time when default rates on students loans are soaring, this reality TV civic media format mimics the structure of an icon of American life  – the NCAA basketball tournament – to create an extended battle of wits and ideas that empowers college students, educators and other Americans to address and solve a superhot problem of vital importance to students and the nation.ncaa-basketball

  • Target Audience: college students, their parents, anyone concerned with the future of American education (conservatively 100 million people.)
  • TopicStudent Loans. Problem to be solved : Making college affordable. (Promote the contest using the first topic – an attention grabber – and focus on the second, which pits ALL possible solutions to the problem against each other in a contest to see which solution is best for students, universities and America.
  • Contest Structure: Use the reality TV format described here and integrate it with the bracket structure of the NCAA basketball tournament. This civic media contest has two phases or rounds The first round consists of eight separate, simultaneous first-level contests in Big 10, Big East, Pac 10, Southeastern Conference, Ivy League and independent universities pluse two more brackets for academics, university presidents and/or the companies that make student loans. (Anyone left out?)  This level occurs online, on any number of websites that are gathered together in a single official tournament website.  This robust site enables participants and viewers to follow, participate and vote – frequently – on the action as it occurs in the eight separate brackets. The second level round is both online and televised.  It pits the eight winning teams of the first-round brackets in a single elimination contest that moves from an Elite Eight to a Final Four and that concludes with a final two-team contest to determine both the 1) contest winner (best presentation) and 2) best solution (as determined by criterion that have been broadcast from the beginning of the tournament.
  • Ideal TV Host: CNBC financial channel, Discovery Channel, NCAA channels.ncaa-brackets
  • Team Makeup: To be determined. Team size might range from four to eight or even twelve members. Key roles to be filled include primary and secondary spokespersons,  researcher, cameraman, webmaster and perhaps faculty advisor.
  • Prizes and Awards Is a trophy sufficient?
  • Timing of tournament: Time the second (televised) level of the contest to precede or follow the NCAA tournament. Participants should know that team membership is a major extracurricular activity, comparable to playing on a varsity team or writing for a college newspaper.
  • Sponsorship and Governance. I treat these topics in my 2006 proposal for America’s Choice.  Part I is here. Part II,  which covers these topics, is available to people who contact me at sewall2020@comcast.net

Mark Cuban asks the Right Question. I Give the Right Answer.

April 16. The billionaire media entrepreneur and voluble owner of the Dallas Mavericks asks What’s the Next and 1st Biggest Broadband Application? And I answer (old wine in a new bottle to anyone who follows this site).

Next and 1st Big Broadband App? Heck, Mark, it’s staring us in the face, hidden in plain view. It’s got to be what America needs most in this age of polarized, hyper-partisan politics: an intelligent, non-partisan, issue-centered large-audience decision making process that uses bandwidth to strengthen America’s ability to solve problems and maximize opportunities.

Is this asking too much? Why the hell don’t we already have one when everyone yaks on and on about the need for it?

How would it work? Easy, the tools for it are already available. Think of a structured competition, a competition of competitions, somewhat like American Idol, that integrates the Internet, telephony and network TV to connect competitors and the viewing/participating public. Think also of programming that helps Americans find and advance the information they need in order to make smart decisions on the political decisions that affect their lives, communities and country.

This decision-making process is big. Fully developed, it taps the MARKET OF THE WHOLE of all 300 million Americans. In fact it’s the transformative programming that network TV execs are looking for (but resist I suspect on account of their profitable ties to the political status quo.) Once in place, this broadband app becomes part of what it means to be an American. I call it civic media. Its greatest task at the moment would be help all Americans work their way out of the recession or depression we’re in now. But civic media handles any task, whether it’s finding solutions to the problems of student loans, gangs and drugs, immigration or health care. Or maximizing opportunities like developing the most fuel efficient auto or best low cost housing.