All good journalists learn that—alongside the basic questions who, what, when, where, why, and how—to craft a good story, they must answer the all-important sixth W: So What? We hope that after reviewing The New News: Journalism We Want and Need readers will agree that, in addition to discussing the price tag and financing plan for local news coverage, this is a good time to look at the so what—in other words, to look critically at and set goals for the kind of local news coverage we want for the region.
While we’ve heard much about the struggle of existing news outlets with micropayments, subscription models, and other aspects of news economics, there’s been little or no conversation about how the emergence of local online news publications can best ensure our need for quality local news coverage. What’s more, it is not a foregone conclusion that journalists at online publications will do a better job than their print and broadcast metro news colleagues.
The space available to produce local news at our traditional print and broadcast news outlets is shrinking. That shrinkage is producing exciting opportunities for the growth of local online news. The good news is: everyone from experts to everyday people identify local news as a crucial need of democracy. At the request of The Chicago Community Trust, Community Media Workshop framed this report on present conditions and trends for Chicago news media and future prospects for local news as a provisional response to the questions: “In an online world, what does local news look like—and what do we want it to look like?”
Community Media Workshop has always viewed its mission as in part an attempt to insure that the story of Chicago not be told as a “tale of two cities…the glorious downtown, the skyline, the glitz, and glamour…and the other Chicago, where most residents live, where schools and little else work as well as they should.” We’ve worked to promote more nuanced, better contexted and sourced local news in Chicago communities. We train nonprofit communicators to tell their stories through the news as well as through other channels (newsletters, public access cable, and in recent years, social media) since our inception in 1989. In the past we have prepared reports on topics such as an evaluation of the success of Local School Councils and the impact of community policing on Chicago, so this report joins a series of occasional studies on topics of overriding interest to the city and region.
The Workshop prepared The New News not as an outside observer but as a participant. This report draws on another initiative we’ve been undertaking at the same time, to produce a concept of our own for a new local online news site. Mark Miller and Bob Yovovich, consultants to the Workshop, led that effort. Material they developed for that concept paper has been used in this report, as well. We also benefited from the services of an Advisory Committee convened by The Chicago Community Trust, which met twice—once as we got underway to discuss our approach, and once at the end, to hear a preliminary presentation of our findings. We’d like to thank the members of the committee for their input both at and in between these meetings (a full list of committee members is located in the Acknowledgements).
This report comes at a moment of change and opportunity, one we should take advantage of to chart a new course for better local news. It’s organized as responses to three key questions:
Chapter 1: How did we get here? We begin with a brief overview of some of the facts, figures and indicators that underlie the economic changes in the news business. While this section highlights recent declines in the news business’ economics, it also finds continuity rather than disruption in the state of how news has been covering community issues. Based on word counts of basic issues, coverage of local news in our two prominent daily newspapers has dropped by two-thirds over the past decade.
Key finding: Overall, local news coverage has been declining for some time and online local news publications, albeit in their nascent stages, have not yet filled the gap.
Chapter 2: Who’s doing what online? Using our experience garnered over more than a decade of compiling lists of Chicago-area news outlets and personnel for the annual Getting On Air, Online, & Into Print news media directory, we have compiled and ranked a set of 60 online news publications that are providing local news coverage. (Overall, we discovered almost 200 online news sites, blogs or e-newsletters serving the Chicago region. Some 90 of these responded to our survey and their rankings can be found in the Web version of this report: www.communitymediaworkshop.org/newnews.) Because most of these sites remain small relative to national sites with audiences in the hundreds of thousands or more, and because the Internet works best at scales far larger than those at which many of these sites operate, the task has been challenging and, of course, is open to many interpretations. We’ve attempted to provide a list of Chicago online news publications that are diverse in their audience, staffing, business, and editorial models but share a commitment to informing us and entertaining us with stories about our city and region.
Key finding: The Workshop assembled a list of local online news publications that are leading the way in covering Chicago, and developed a process for identifying them.
Chapter 3: What kind of information do we “want and need?” Influenced by the approach of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, we sought to arrive at a user-oriented critique of local online news coverage. We held focus groups with 33 leaders of nonprofits from across the region including performing arts organizations, social-service agencies and advocacy groups, to gauge their perceptions about the state and of local news coverage and vision for a better future.
Key finding: Leaders of groups that serve the community identified three characteristics of news they value: it should be vetted (edited for accuracy and reflective of prevailing community values; biases are expected but transparency about those biases is important); selected (reducing information search costs), and should portray the “big picture” of the most relevant and timely issues and events affecting the region, framing one conversation to inform a common agenda and vision of the most urgent local issues and opportunities.
Interspersed within and between these sections are six articles by members of the advisory committee, focusing on three key areas: policy, innovation, and business practice. Rather than providing additional key findings, these articles seek to shed light on trends relevant to local news coverage, especially online news publications.
In his introduction to Hello Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite (a well-known memoir about the heart of Chicago’s storied journalism, the now-defunct City News Bureau), Mike Royko recalls the Bureau’s prime directive: “If your mother says she loves you—check it out!”1 This report is an effort to check out what’s really going on with local news coverage, and more importantly, to envision the kind of journalism 21st century Chicagoans actually want and need in order to build strong communities and a strong region.
1 Dornfeld, A.A., Hello Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite: The Story of the City News Bureau of Chicago (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1983)