[Editor’s note: This is day four of OJR’s a week-long look at the state of independent local online news start-ups. Each day’s report will include a feature article, as well as a Q&A with one or more of the day’s sources. If you missed the first three installments, here they are:
Part 1: Sites on the rise; business models remain elusive
Part 2: Experience makes MinnPost a top online new startup
Part 3: No paper? No problem! News companies use the Web to enter new markets]
If the future of news is ultra-local, then ChiTown Daily News is gambling in the right direction.
The operators of the three-year-old news operation are counting on interest in Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods to bring readers to their nonprofit site, staffed almost entirely with citizen journalists.
The results so far are inconclusive. Traffic is building, but only recently passed the 25,000 mark on monthly unique visitors. (The Chicago Tribune’s monthly audience is about 150 times larger.) And the work of the citizen journalists, while often surprisingly good, is uneven.
“Performance and longevity have varied widely, and wildly,” editor and CEO Geoff Dougherty told me in an e-mail. “Some of the original crew is still with us; others drop out before writing an article.” But Dougherty added: “I have been enormously surprised by the quality of work that some of our people do – we get great stories this way.”
The site’s work has been bankrolled mainly by a two-year, $340,000 Knight Foundation grant that saluted its pioneering attempt. “Nobody has attempted to create an organized, cohesive system that enables coverage of a large city,” Knight said in announcing the grant.
Managing, directing and editing a citizen staff of 77 with a full-time staff of just four seems a Sisyphean task. Many of the neighborhood sections’ most recent stories are several months old.
“It’s been a lot more work than I envisioned, and fundraising and advertising sales have been harder than I’d thought,” said Dougherty. But reaction from many parts of the city has also been more favorable than expected. And even as ChiTown Daily News gets stronger, he said, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times get weaker because of reporting staff cuts.
Dougherty points to another bellwether.
“It’s also nice to come to work every day at an organization that is very clear about its mission, and one that is growing and (more or less) prospering. It’s a rare experience in journalism right now. We’re all a lot happier than everyone else I know in the business.”
Q & A
E-mailed responses to questions from Geoff Dougherty, editor of the ChiTown Daily News:
Q. I believe you were aiming at rounding up and training 75 or so citizen journalists. Have you gotten there yet, and what’s been their record of performance and longevity?
A. We’ve got 77, though we have not reached our goal of one in each of the city’s 77 neighborhoods. Our coverage is well-distributed in terms of the geographic and ethic breakdown of the neighborhoods, but we do have more than one person in a few places. We’ve still got eight months of funding left on the Knight grant that funded the program, so there’s little chance we won’t reach the goal.
Performance and longevity have varied widely, and wildly. Some of the original crew is still with us; others drop out before writing an article. Some of the articles take quite a bit of effort on our end before publication, while others require minor copyediting. We’ve only spiked two or three articles over the course of the last 18 months, though. Almost everything our people submit is eventually published. I have been enormously surprised by the quality of work that some of our people do — we get great stories this way.
Q. I saw on your site you were talking about 19,000 monthly visitors. What are the trend lines there and what are your most popular sections? Is the traffic what you’d projected?
A. The trend is definitely upward. We were able to double traffic over the six months that ended with the report you saw. We’re currently at 26,000 (monthly visitors). We’re looking to hit 35,000 at the end of the grant period, and 75,000 or so within the following year.
Q. What’s your news coverage strategy? It appears you’re hoping to provide something for everyone in your general news coverage, but then probably really focusing mainly on the neighborhoods. Is that accurate? Are neighborhoods your heart and soul?
A. Our goal is to provide people with nitty-gritty neighborhood coverage as well as distinctive citywide coverage. We focus on trying to cover stories and issues that are unique. For example, we’re the only news organization covering the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which spends a ton of money and is engaged in the largest public works project in American history. Ditto with the Chicago Housing Authority. At the same time, we try to really dig into what’s going on in the neighborhoods.
Q. Have you been tempted to scale back to a smaller niche that doesn’t attempt to be such a one-stop shop? Perhaps speak from a certain point of view?
A. So far this is working really well for us. People seem excited that we’re giving them info they can’t find anywhere else. We’ve identified funding to bring a couple of our beat reporters on staff, so I imagine that’ll lead to more, and more consistent, coverage.
Q. I believe you had begun a fund-raising campaign last spring. How did that go?
A. Fundraising is hard work. We brought a general manager on about six months ago to concentrate on the revenue side of things, and it’s paying off. We’ve got a number of additional grants in the pipeline, have brought in $25,000 or so in individual contributions, and are pushing that number higher every week. That said, our fundraising apparatus is very much in its infancy.
Q. What’s your staff look like?
A. There are four full-time employees — me, another editor, the GM, and our community organizer. Our freelance beat reporters all have serious experience at daily newspapers. Our transit reporter most recently covered city hall for one of the Detroit papers, and our board of education reporter is a former deputy sports editor from Jacksonville.
Q. Tell me what you can about revenue and expenses. What percent of revenue comes from advertising?
A. Advertising makes up a miniscule portion of our revenue — less than 5%. But it’s been growing rapidly since our GM started. During the fiscal year that closed at the end of June, we brought in $206,000 and spent slightly more than that.
Q. What happens when the Knight grant runs out?
A. That’ll be an interesting time. We’ve already started fundraising for the second phase of the neighborhood reporting program, and in fact have secured a $25,000 grant from the Herb Block Foundation. We’re talking with about a dozen other funders, including Knight, and expect some of those conversations will lead to grants. We expect the advertising and individual contributions will help greatly.
Q. When you think about your hopes and dreams on launching the site, how does that match up with your actual experience?
A. When I started this, it seemed like an idea that might work. It’s become clear that the idea does work, generally much better than I ever thought it could, which is amazing. The need for the kind of coverage has increased vastly over the past three years as the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times have shed reporters. So it’s intensely rewarding to be able to fill that need.
It’s been a lot more work than I envisioned, and fundraising and advertising sales have been harder than I’d thought. But we’ve got the machinery in place to make some big strides there, so I’m not particularly worried.
It’s also nice to come to work every day at an organization that is very clear about its mission, and one that is growing and (more or less) prospering. It’s a rare experience in journalism right now. We’re all a lot happier than everyone else I know in the business.
Q. Do you think replicas of the Daily News will blossom all over the country, or are you expecting more of the activity in smaller niche areas online?
A. I’m sure you’ve heard this from folks in San Diego and the Twin Cities, but we’re banding together to help the model spread to other places. I think it’s important that we succeed. While there are certainly some great sites that focus on niches like transit and urban planning, I don’t see niche sites willing to take on the kinds of longer-term projects we’ve done on topics like transit funding and police brutality.
I think there’s a big need for people to have a local news organization that’s working to hold government accountable, sue for access to records, and serve as a central gathering place for news and information.
Q. Any other thoughts about the Daily News experience?
A. I don’t think the philanthropic community has realized how rapidly local coverage has fallen apart in many urban areas, and how important that local coverage is to the health of democracy. We hope things won’t get too much worse before foundations and individual funders realize they have a critical role to play.
David Westphal is executive in residence at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He is affiliated with Annenberg’s Center for Communication Leadership and the Knight Digital Media Center.
Tomorrow: PasadenaNow covers its community by outsourcing its reporting.