BY THOM CLARK
After studying Chicago’s online news ecosystem for four years, the Community Media Workshop can say with certainty—nothing is certain in the realm of online news.
With release of The NEW News 2012, the Workshop returns to ranking online news and blog sites covering the city and its neighborhoods, and we have found a bit of a stalemate between legacy and new media sites. Daily newspaper, weekly business and public radio websites dominate the news scene in both audience and news coverage. Two Knight Foundation-supported online sites — Chi-Town Daily News and Windy Citizen (Chi-Town topped our rankings in 2009) — have come and gone. Another ambitious and well-connected site, Chicago News Cooperative, launched with great fanfare but shuttered its doors earlier this year.
It continues to be a turbulent time for the news business. Ethnic media still struggles in its transition to the web. Avid news consumers are getting almost all of their news online, on their phones or on iPads, spotlighting the slow death march of the printed daily. Local news is the name the game, but TribLocal found itself in a giant mess when it came to light that local suburban news was being out- sourced overseas by contractor Journatic.
But how did we get here?
Three years ago, the Community Media Workshop published The NEW News to help Chicagoans discover where to find the journalism they want and need to make good decisions. In a rapidly evolving information economy — wherein legacy media (daily newspapers, network television) were losing readers, viewers and ad dollars to the free-flowing Internet — could citizens find the news and informa- tion that frame daily life in our city and region?
We discovered, as many feared, that local news coverage had been declining, for almost 20 years. We discovered some 200 local news sites of all shapes and size and ranked 60 of them for audience reach and local news coverage. And we talked with community leaders to discover where they were getting their news: enthralled by the rich choices the Internet now provided them on a daily basis, our focus groups expressed a yearning for more authoritative vetted news than the plethora of sites provided.
Two years ago in The NEW News 2010, we examined the operations of some 120 online news and blog sites to discover how Chicago’s online innova- tors sustained their enterprises. We found many cookie-jar financed kitchen table labors of love,
including some sites that were amply supplementing daily news coverage by providing hyperlocal online news. But we also discovered a growing online audience of readers who were getting most of their information online from legacy media sites, particularly sites run by the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.
Today, alongside the prominent legacy sites on the web — testing the blend between hard news cover- age, eye-attracting videos and photos, and celeb- rity-driven infotainment — are a feisty set of online- only sites attracting niche audiences at a growing pace. The communities served by these sites are getting more local coverage than ever before. There are still many coverage gaps, beyond the police blotter, among traditional under-covered neighborhoods beyond the police blotter, but the growth of smartphones and use of social media may be transforming even the way these neighbors now learn about what’s going on in their communi- ties. Indeed one shortcoming in our research design is the difficulty in measuring the impact of e-newsletters and listservs in collecting and spreading news and information among opt-in audiences in various communities. But what NEW News 2012 tells us is that innovation is happening at the neighborhood level, and funders such as
The Chicago Community Trust have tried to encourage that innovation and fill those gaps with programs such as the Local Reporting Project.
Research about the online news ecosystem is still in its infancy; after all, it’s been around for less than a generation. As detailed in our methodology section, we’ve built on our past work and the research efforts of others in the field. Our goal is not to be offering awards to winners, but — like our popular Getting On Air, Online & Into Print media guide — to provide the news consumer with indicators about which sites are doing better. We have blended imperfect quantitative measures (traffic to large metro news sites tracks better than small sites covering one or two communities) with subjective qualitative measures (quality of cover- age and community engagement). Our goal is to improve the quality of journalism by encouraging those who deliver our news today to use context, multiple sourcing and reader feedback in their reporting on our city and communities. We hope news consumers will discover ways to find the rest of the story, which no longer arrives as a single thump of rubber banded pulp on the front porch.
NEXT: Key Findings