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Who’s doing what online?

We found that change was the only constant as we compiled this list of the most innovative online news publications in the Chicago region. Even as we were tallying survey responses and creating the final list, new ventures were launching. Lake Effect News, with the aim to cover communities once dominated by Lerner Newspapers, debuted in May. So did the Mindful Metropolis, which rose from the dead pages of alternative monthly Conscious Choice. Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune was readying its ChicagoNow blog network for release in late May, with the aim to encompass 80 blogs by the end of the year.

That said, what snapshot did responses to our survey portray of emerging online news in Chicago?

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Highly ranking sites

The survey turned up key surprises, such as the blend of old and new voices even among Web sites that led our rankings. With histories from a decade to a century long behind their brands, the Chicago Defender, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, Windy City Media Group and Newcity lined up in our top 20 slots alongside upstarts like the Beachwood Reporter, Gapers Block, Chi-Town Daily News and Chicagoist. One-person blogs such as the CTA Tattler, Chicago Carless and The Urbanophile ranked highly. With the tagline, “Your Blagojevich scandals headquarters,” Marathon Pundit perhaps best approached the popular image of an individual blogger hammering out political opinions at the keyboard.

Internet publications from nonprofit groups ranked among the 20 dominating sites, too, such as Progress Illinois from the Service Employees International Union. Also represented were The Chicago Reporter and Catalyst Chicago’s District 299 schools blog. Other high-ranking sites came from niche newspapers with a longtime presence on city street corners, including the Chicago Journal, Chicago Parent and, again, the Chicago Defender. Thrown into the mix was Midwest Business with a dose of tech news, and Literago with a following of local bookworms.

Most of the online publications aren’t backed by an established organization, and function as a side project of an individual or group rather than a core mission.

Where are they?

The majority of survey takers described their target geographic coverage area as “General City-wide” or “Metropolitan Area.” Twenty-six people said they touched on broader national news and 20 said they covered goings-on in the Midwest. Some respondents opted to identify their turf among nearly 100 urban and suburban regions we described, but most declined to share such specifics.

We created a custom Google Map (See “Chicago’s new news,” bit.ly/newnewsmap) to pinpoint the locations of many top-ranking news sites. From this, Rogers Park and Hyde Park each appear to attract more than their fair share of bloggers who focus on block-club concerns such as crime reports and neighborhood meetings.

Niche topics

A number of publications touch on local real estate and development—such as YoChicago’s real estate news and Edward Lifson’s Hello Beautiful! blog.

Hyperlocal Web sites appear to be a natural means for people to share tips about “greening” their lifestyles. High in our rankings were emerging Chicago Web sites that focus on sustainability in transportation, food, and other aspects of urban living include Chicago Carless, Green Parent, and Mindful Metropolis, as well as the ModeShift blog from the bicycle advocates of the Active Transportation Alliance. Chicago Parent and Green Parent Chicago, packed with listings of family-friendly events, reported that readers spend an unusually high number of minutes per visit there: 5 to 10 minutes against the more typical 2 minutes or less.

Some sites fill or complement the events-and-entertainment gap provided traditionally by alternative weeklies. The popular Chicagoist and Gapers Block blogs embrace area events and entertainment alongside community news. Other Web sites largely serve communities of Chicago artists and art lovers, such as Art Letter.

Web sites emphasizing community planning and development include Broad Shoulders Update and blogs from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, such as Community Beat.

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Although most survey takers said they served a “General Audience” or “All Adults,” some identified specific ethnic, age, gender, and other groups as a target audience. Among those for African-Americans were the Chicago Defender, Chicago Reporter, and Bronzecomm. Publications with a Latino interest include 600 Words by Esther J. Cepeda, Contratiempo, and two blogs from Gregory Tejeda: Chicago Argus and the South Chicagoan.

Aggregators and social media

The majority of the Web sites we tracked offer some original reporting or writing. However, those whose sole or dominant function is to aggregate news from external sources also climbed the rankings and demonstrate innovative uses of Web 2.0 tools. EveryBlock, for one, grew out of ChicagoCrime maps, lauded in social media circles for early innovation with Google Maps. Chicago is among the 35,312 communities with a presence on the Outside.In network of local sites. The Windy Citizen aggregates content by getting users to vote stories up or down the page, but it also offers original blogs. ChicagoTalks, out of Columbia College Chicago, takes a similar “crowdsourcing” approach, inviting users to submit stories. Most Web sites, however, limit their aggregation to a “linkroll,” a column for related Web sites of interest. And none of the sites surveyed come close to the breadth of information offered by newspapers.

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Social media tools appear to be popular among Chicago online journalists and writers. More than half of people surveyed said they use Facebook or the Twitter micro-blogging service.

However, some online news sources weren’t exactly on the leading edge of Web 2.0 trends, which rely more on Web-bassed communication than the “old standby” e-mail. Take, for instance, the Bronzecomm e-mail list and the Chicago Tribune’s Daywatch e-mail briefing, which counts a whopping 60,000 subscribers.

Well-ranking sites that offer something to listen to include Chicago Public Radio online, Vocalo, and Outside the Loop Radio. The Chicagoist podcast complements its entertainment-focused blog namesake. Thirty-three survey respondents reported having a podcast or radio show.

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Audience engagement

Unlike letters to the editor, online news offers the potential for virtually any reader to chime in with a public comment on a story. While this interactivity may empower readers, it’s a mixed blessing for writers and editors who find their content a 24-hour target of praise or criticism on the Internet. When asked how many comments their stories had received in March, 44 respondents reported receiving 50 or fewer comments in March, and 20 said they received 50 or more comments. A significant number of survey respondents—16—said they offered no feedback mechanism for readers, raising questions in our minds about the transparency and vetting of what can pass as news online.

The Internet is arguably the cheapest, most democratic publishing medium in history. Its freedom of expression also means that diverse voices will express themselves in ways that might draw scorn from professional journalists. Any blogger, for instance, can reserve the right to express themselves without engaging visitors by turning off reader comments. We found more than a handful of bloggers hiding behind a pen name, such as the Woodlawn Wonder of I Hate My Developer blog. Anonymity can be an effective means of broadcasting a controversial message without attracting personal trouble.

More disturbing, perhaps, were more than a handful of blogs that failed to offer any way for readers to consider or contact the source—one of the most frustrating research challenges of this project. Some online writers with pen names provide a role long held by pamphleteers; they get a message out, but readers who want to consider the source may not be able to find it. By cloaking their identities, such writers use the Internet’s cheap mass distribution yet shun its interactivity. By contrast, the news Web sites of nonprofit organizations or publicly held corporations generally offer, at the least, online forms to which a reader can vent a frustration or hurtle a question.

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Size of the sites

Efforts to understand the size of each Web site’s readership proved difficult. In online publishing, the closest equivalent to the circulation count of a print newspaper is the measurement of unique, individual visitors. We asked people to describe their number of unique visitors for the month of March. Among the 65 respondents who shared such self-reported figures, 20 described a modest readership of less than 5,000. Sites with a modest audience by and large fit the profile of one-person, niche interest blogs. Others were so hyperlocal that their readership was naturally small, like the population of the neighborhoods they covered. Therefore, a headcount of readers shouldn’t be the best or only means for measuring the potential community relevance and influence of such grassroots Web sites.

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Even more respondents reported substantial readership; 26 counted 5,000 to 20,000 monthly visitors. Another 17 polled said that an impressive 50,000 or more people stopped at their site in March, 2009. Unfortunately, 23 respondents either didn’t know or declined to give a concrete answer, an option we allowed.

Among 80 respondents who answered our question about copyrights, nearly 60 percent considered the content on their sites covered under traditional copyright laws and some 28 percent said they had no special protection or licensing. Another 11 percent said they use the open-source Creative Commons license.

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In business

The majority of the Web sites in our list appear not to sustain significant profits or any at all. When asked about their publication’s funding, 29 people polled chose our “piggy bank” option. Nearly equal were the number of people considering their operations nonprofit (22) and for-profit (23). A tiny minority of two respondents described receiving venture capital, the traditional seed funding for would-be professional online ventures, at least in Silicon Valley.

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