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NEW NEWS 2012: Tribune, Catalyst, Uptown Update ranked as Chicago’s top online news sites

The Chicago Tribune, Catalyst Chicago, Uptown Update, Time Out Chicago and Chicagoist landed the coveted #1 spots as Chicago’s best online news sites in their respective categories, according to The NEW News 2012 report released by the Community Media Workshop last week. The report ranked 51 online news sites in five categories: Citywide News (#1-Chicago Tribune); Specialty News (Catalyst); Neighborhood News (Uptown Update); Arts, Culture and Entertainment (TimeOut); and Aggregators (Chicagoist).

Key findings among the top-ranked sites include:

  • The greatest diversity in news sites, business models and news presentation is occurring within hyper-local neighborhood news.
  • The increase of online news sites does not mean an increase in the diversity of citywide news coverage. Daily newspapers are still leading for depth of news coverage.
  • Even though social media is used by all top-ranking sites, audience engagement with online news sites is “infrequent, and where it exists, it is not of high quality.”

With the decline of traditional daily newspapers and the emergence of more online news sites and blogs, The NEW News 2012 finds that Chicago’s online news ecosystem continues to grow and change since the release of the first NEW News report in 2009. Since then, at least three prominent Chicago-only news sites have come and gone, but more neighborhood news sites have emerged rapidly attracting audiences.

View the complete list of ranked sites online at chicagonewnews.org. The online report also includes “What I Read” profiles and videos of some Chicago’s leading journalists and communications professionals, an article on the state of suburban news, and a sidebar on ethnic media in the city. Wondering how the top sites received their winning scores? You’ll also find the report’s methodology online.

If you’d like to find contact information for all of these online news sites and more, check out our Chicago media guide. The 2013 version, available in print or online, will be out soon!

Help us consider an important question: What is good online news?

The NEW News studies give us an opportunity to consider the ingredients that make up the news we want and need. What news, information and journalism helps people better participate in civic discourse and become better citizens and decision-makers? And how do the tools of the Web serve to change the way news is researched, reported and shared?

This is one of the key conversations we’ll have with our advisory board, but we wanted to start out with a series of questions.

How much news does a site need to provide to serve as a news source? In this area, we are indebted to Michele McLellan’s research. Her team determined a minimum amount of news content to be considered as part of her group of hyperlocal news sites. For her project, the site had to publish a minimum number of times (3) a week. We will want to consider if we want to follow the same standard, set a higher bar, or perhaps a lower one.

What is the news we need? In the 2009 report, we analyzed areas of pressing civic concern, such as housing and corruption, to see how coverage fared in the face of disruption in the local news ecosystem. Since 2009, the local news ecosystem just keeps evolving, and while we will not examine the volume of coverage of specific issues this time around, our sense is that there always can be more journalism that holds people in power accountable for their actions and tells the stories, positive and negative, about diverse communities in the City of Chicago. (We are pleased that the Local Reporting Initiative has helped more than 30 journalists tell stories that we’re certain might not otherwise have been told.) So, in looking at the quality of journalism we see on sites, we likely will favor sites that focus on pressing neighborhood and social issues in a balanced, rather than sensational, way. What are your thoughts on the news we need?

What qualifies as news, and is it different from journalism? Websites that post the police blotter, upcoming announcements of civic meetings and the like are sharing information, we believe. Some would consider such information as news. But is it journalism without the context or analysis that helps us understand key questions: is crime rising or falling? Is this flooding problem an annual occurrence or something exacerbated by recent weather and climate conditions? What makes this upcoming block party special?

What makes good reporting? A J-Lab study of Philadelphia sites coined a term we like tremendously. In looking at sites, the J-Lab team determined that some had “journalistic DNA in that they report news, not just comment on it.” We like this phrase, and we plan to expand on it. Community Media Workshop has a storied history of helping journalists and local organizations connect with a goal of fair and balanced reporting: reporting that represents not just two sides but all sides of an issue. At the same time, sometimes good reporting means not just talking to disparate voices but digging into the data in a way no one else has before. How will we represent good data-based reporting?

What makes an aggregator of news a good one? Increasingly, website users value sites that curate available information into a meaningful experience. Whether it’s a consistent editorial eye (such as The Daily Beast) or the wisdom of crowds (such as Reddit), we value a go-to starting point. Aggregation is alive and well in Chicago. What are the signs that it is effective, or that it isn’t?

What is the role of opinion in an online news ecosystem? We plan to start with the premise that we are evaluating sites that publish some minimum amount of news pertaining to the City of Chicago. Where does aggregating the news stop and providing some type of opinion on the news begin?

How are online news sites taking advantage of the online medium to better report the news? The online medium ensures that stories can be endlessly updated, that visitors and readers can contribute their observations, and that people can work together to sort through information. What are the practices that allow transparent and effective reader participation in newsgathering?

In a related question, what is the role of the reader/website user in the news ecosystem? We will probably come back to this notion in a blog post later on, but technology gives online news sites something richer and more vibrant (but possibly noxious) in the way of community engagement.

What makes up good online news is a huge question. We may not be able to answer it in a blog post, or even in a report. But we hope to spark a good discussion, as well as give some transparency around the values we’ll rank highly when we look at Chicago local news sites.

What are the elements of online journalism we need as citizens? If you have thoughts on these or other questions, please post to the comments.

Measuring reach online

One of the metrics the Workshop looks at when studying local news sites is their reach. How many people read the news they create? We believe reach is important because we believe that news sites serve a critical public purpose, and that readership may, albeit imperfectly, reflect the value a site holds in the eyes of its communities.

Having said that, though, while we believe understanding the reach of sites is important, it’s an imperfect item to measure at best.

In the first NEW News report, we relied on self-reported data as one criteria in our rankings algorithm. The good thing about relying upon self-reported data is that it allowed us to have data on every operator in the study, including smaller sites whose traffic was not captured by Alexa or Google. The bad thing is that it was self-reported, which generated a lot of questions about whether we were all measuring the same metrics in the same way or, in some cases, whether the data was accurate.

In the subsequent NEW News study, we have instead relied upon measures that are available to everyone, which leads to a different set of challenges.

  • Public estimates of site traffic, from Quantcast, Alexa or Compete.com, often drastically undercount traffic to smaller sites. Because they are based on a small subset of overall website traffic, they tend to have accurate numbers for larger sites and less accurate numbers for smaller sites. In addition, some sites code their sites for better Quantcast data, while others do not allow their Quantcast data to be displayed to the public.
  • Public proxies of site traffic, such as the number of RSS subscribers in Google Reader, or the number of Facebook likes or Twitter followers, represent the actions of a subset of visitors. They may be more likely to be regular readers. But it’s still not everyone, and we don’t have a consistent way to say that a site with, perhaps, 1,000 Facebook likes actually has 10,000 monthly unique visitors.

At this point, we intend to pull analytics or traffic ranks from Quantcast, Alexa and Compete.com, as well as the number of RSS subscribers in Google Reader, Facebook likes, and followers of an organization or editor’s Twitter account, and use those numbers to create a scoring system for reach. (For consideration, the Facebook and Twitter accounts must be readily available from the organization’s home page.) For sites such as Compete.com that present data over time, we will likely create an average of the prior six months of traffic.

What do you think of our ranking options? What would you add or delete, and what would you be concerned about? Please share your comments in the comment field below.

Online sites we should include in our research? Comment here.

Interested in commenting on overall project? Comment here.

Be considered for NEW News 2012

Want to be included in NEW News, or want a news site within the City of Chicago to be considered? Then please add your site’s URL to the comments. And please: tell your friends and colleagues. While we’ll have criteria for our reviews, we want to start with as wide a net as possible. We’d love your help!

Read more about the project here.

Coming soon: NEW News 2012

Here at the Workshop we’re anticipating a busy but incredibly educational summer: we are starting work on NEW News 2012, thanks to the funding of The Chicago Community Trust. As you may recall, we published rankings of online news sites in 2009 and then a list of online news outlets in 2010. We intend to return to rankings in 2012, learning from our original criteria, the changes in the field, and from an advisory board we are assembling to help guide us as we think through our work.

Over the next few days, we will be sharing with you some of the key issues we’re wrestling with as we start this project. We will likely return with a follow-up blog post or two in June or July. Our hope is that you, our readers, will share any concerns or questions you have, and suggestions for how we might do this better.

Some key changes we’re already envisioning for 2012’s NEW News:

  • We’ll rank entire publications or news organizations, not breaking out the individual reporters or bloggers that are part of those organizations separately. In prior years, we’d list or rank several bloggers from a single organization (think Lynn Sweet or Roger Ebert of the Sun-Times). This year, we are switching our focus to organizations. We anticipate this may raise some additional challenges. If you are a small news startup or solo news blogger, this shouldn’t affect you too much.
  • We will not use self-reported data to measure site traffic. Truth is, getting accurate traffic numbers from external sources is challenging, but relying upon data we didn’t collect is even more problematic. In a future post, we’ll talk about our alternatives and get your input on how we measure traffic and how much importance we should place on it.
  • We will not rank sites or publishers whose audiences are primarily based outside of the City of Chicago. This reflects a time and resource issue on our part. While the Internet may be worldwide, most readers’ news interests are very local. The reduction of beat reporters and newspaper coverage of local issues was a primary motivation for The NEW News research. Seismic shifts are going on in online news in Chicago’s suburbs, and we hope to touch on those shifts in a sidebar to the main report.
  • Along with rating the quantity and quality of a site’s news production, we will assess the ways in which the site creates community that advances a better-informed and more engaged citizenry. Look for our ideas—and our eagerness to hear your thoughts on this front—in a blog post later this summer.

We anticipate releasing our research at the Block by Block Conference, taking place in September at Loyola University.

What are your thoughts and suggestions as we begin this project? Please comment below.

Know a site we should consider? Comment here.

Have thoughts about how we’ll measure online reach? Comment here.

 

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