April 26. Last Sunday Jon Marshall, a Lecturer at Northwestern University‘s Medill School of Journalism, spoke to the Ethical Humanist 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 accountable 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.
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.
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.