Past Year Brings Changes, Upheaval to Suburban Online News
By Curtis Black
Online news in Chicago’s suburbs is dominated by big media companies—all of them still searching for the formula to make “hyperlocal” a profitable enterprise—along with websites associated with local newspapers, a few independent news sites and a variety of blogs.
The big story this year was the meteoric rise and fall of the Tribune’s experiment with Chicago-based Journatic to provide content for TribLocal, a network of 90 hyperlocal news sites and 22 weekly papers.
In July the Tribune suspended its relationship with Journatic (while the Sun Times and GateHouse Publications terminated theirs) following revelations of plagiarized and fabricated quotes in one Journatic story and false bylines on hundreds of others.
An episode on This American Life also raised questions about local news being produced by low-wage, piece-rate writers and researchers based far from the action, including many in the Philippines. And some readers and media critics (and one local editor) complained about the quality of the content produced by Journatic for TribLocal.
GateHouse cited problems with the relevance, accuracy, timeliness, and even the grammar of Journatic’s offerings. The company, whose holdings include over 50 weekly Suburban Life newspapers with websites in the Chicago suburbs, is opening its own “centralized content hub” in Rockford.
Journatic Editorial Chief Mike Fourcher, founder of a network of hyperlocal community sites in Chicago, resigned, saying his recommendations for rewarding editorial quality along with production efficiency metrics had been ignored. He told the Chicago Reader, “The company’s model falters…when it attempts to treat community news reporting the same way as data reporting.”
The Tribune, which in April made an undisclosed “strategic investment” in Journatic (in May the new company filed notice that it had sold $3.2 million in stock), reported later in July that it had hired Randy Weissman, a former editor, to consult with Journatic in an effort to “preserve its relationship” with the company. “Profound” changes would be required in order to do so, said Tribune Editor and Vice President Gerould Kern.
Eighty-eight Tribune staffers wrote Kern requesting transparency about dealings with Journatic and warning of dangers to the organization’s credibility. The Free Press, a media reform group, delivered petitions with 20,000 signers to the Tribune calling on the company to “stop outsourcing local news and put out-of-work local journalists back on local beats.” The group called Journatic a “jobs-killing operation.”
Journatic has its defenders. “It would be unfortunate if this incident clouds the otherwise fine work Journatic is doing to further local community news coverage,” Chicago Tribune Media Group Vice President Brad Moore said. “Journatic still deserves a chance to make up for this mistake and do better,” commented former Patch Editor-In-Chief Brad Farnham.
Media technology enthusiasts like Matthew Ingram argued that Journatic’s ethical lapses resulted from forcing “new content” into an old content form, the traditional news story, and that economic realities may make it impossible for companies like Tribune to produce local content using local journalists.
On the other side, Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman argued that community journalism depends on listening to and building relationships with readers, local sites need to be tailored to local communities, and that community journalism “does not scale.”
In contrast to Journatic’s focus on cutting the cost of journalism, another big local (and national) player, AOL’s Patch, hired locally based journalists to edit hundreds of community sites. Both companies are struggling financially, with Tribune coming out of bankruptcy, AOL still striving for profitability as it refashions itself as a content-provider. (GateHouse is also facing a financial squeeze after several large acquisitions.)
At last count Patch had over 50 sites in Chicago area communities, featuring local news reports along with calendars, guides, and a new push to sign up neighborhood bloggers. Local editors say their autonomy has decreased with a shifting series of corporate directives, and their budgets for freelancers have been slashed. AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong—who came to the corporation after founding Patch—seems committed to investing in the operation. Some investors are pressuring AOL to drop Patch, concerned particularly that all those journalists just cost too much money.
Armstrong has promised to make Patch profitable by the end of 2013, and along with cutting freelancers, some local sites are now being merged, including some in Illinois. He’s also promised a shift from local news into “community networking” and an approach that could resemble small-town versions of Craig’s List. This is a work in progress with an uncertain future.
The suburbs are dotted with news sites operated by local newspapers including the Daily Herald, the Southwest News-Herald, the Hinsdalean and the Evanston Roundtable, along with the Sun-Times-owned Southtown Star and Pioneer Papers, and other local chains including the Journal and Topics, 22nd Century Media, and Voyager Media. Many of these mix local news with regional coverage, and many are essentially adjuncts to their associated newspapers. New leadership at the Sun Times has indicated a continued commitment to the 23 weekly Pioneer Papers (seven others were shut down in 2010), with a new design for hyperlocal news being rolled out and plans for improved online and mobile products.
The Wednesday Journal may stand out as a community newspaper group which is increasingly focusing on its online presence, located at OakPark.com and RiverForest.com as well as in several Chicago communities.
If community journalism “does not scale”—if it’s simply too labor-intensive to do it well and meet the profitability requirements of major corporations—is the future in independently owned and operated news sites? In the Chicago suburbs, such offerings are rare, though they show promise.
To the south, eNews Park Forest features some local reporting along with press releases and city and national news, providing a breadth of coverage not available elsewhere in the area. On the North Shore, Gazebo News includes notices submitted by local groups, readers’ forums, and business announcements. In Kane County, Hawk View offers short but solid original news reports (its slogan is “Just News”) focused on Elburn and Campton Hills.
Evanston Now may be the meatiest independent local news site, with extensive staff-written news reports along with crime blotters and events listings. The site belongs to Authentically Local, a national network of 45 independently owned hyperlocal sites that emphasizes the importance of homegrown media and the danger of homogenization posed by corporate efforts to dominate local news.
One fascinating effort that could be a model for other communities is Skokie Net, sponsored by the Skokie Public Library. It grew out of GoSkokie, a 2004 project of new media students at Medill. It features news, opinion, features and information “for the people, by the people.”
Residents blog there, art teachers post student work, poets post poems, a Holocaust survivor has posted a memoir. Students who volunteer for the summer are invited to become reporters or review a concert or book. Under development now are new immigrant pages, with a goal of offering something for speakers of each of the 90 languages used in Skokie.
“It’s a lot of work,” said librarian Frances Roehm, who coordinates a group of volunteers and tries to post everything residents send her. “But it’s so rewarding. I’m learning so much about the community, I’m meeting so many wonderful people. And everybody loves it.”
As elsewhere, Chicago’s suburbs are seeing both top-down and bottom-up efforts to meet the need for local news coverage. At this point, there seems to be room for all these efforts, and more.
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