More than eight million visitors engaged with 146 Chicagoland online news and blog sites during May 2010, according to The NEW News 2010: The Second Annual Survey of the Chicago Area’s Online News Ecosystem, produced by Community Media Workshop for The Chicago Community Trust.
The online news ecosystem continues to grow while traditional media outlets retool and embrace the web. Use of video is growing, experiments with hyper-local news sites continue and the line between bloggers and niche news continues to blur.
But despite the apparently large number of consumers of online information, it doesn’t appear there has been any explosion in the number of people actually earning a living producing this information. As was the case in last year’s NEW news  report, most of the online sites surveyed by the Workshop rely heavily on unpaid bloggers and reporters and piggy bank financing. Indeed, more than 60 percent of sites surveyed by the Workshop had no more than one person working full time on the site. A similar percentage reported that no one receives health insurance from their online news outlet.The Workshop has published a comprehensive annual directory of media outlets and journalist contacts for 20 years. Starting in 2009, The Chicago Community Trust’s Community News Matters program commissioned the Workshop to examine the shifting media landscape in the nation’s third largest media market and map the emerging new online news ecosystem.
In 2009, The NEW News report identified almost 200 local news and information sites and attempted to rank 60 of them. This year, the Workshop reached out to some 500 contacts, identified over 300 potential news-related URLs, and honed in on 146 online blog and news sites for this 2010 list that details operations on 121 sites that responded to an online survey conducted March to May 2010.
While the Chicago area has a proliferation of online news and information sites, when it comes to traffic, the sites of mainstream media clearly dominate. Six of the eight million unique cumulative visitors reported by all media outlets participating in the survey were to Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, RedEye and ChicagoNow (the Trib’s blog site).
The next tier (e.g. Crains, Post Tribune, Fox, Reader, Chicagoist) attracted between 100,000 to 260,000 unique visitors each. The next tier, attracting between 20,000 and 100,000 unique visitors each covered most of the remaining measurable visitor traffic (e.g., WGN Radio, Centerstage Chicago, Vocalo, WTTW, Chicago Magazine, WBEZ, EveryBlock, Gapers Block, Progress Illinois, Windy Citizen, Time Out, Chicago Defender and the Illinois Review).
Seventy-five sites listed were too small to show measurable visitor traffic by commercial tracking sources.
Put another way, even while traditional legacy media outlets continue to see print circulation and ad revenue declines, Chicago’s dailies are experiencing 20 to 40 percent gains in online traffic, dwarfing their own paid print circulation. (It should be noted that online visitors reading of web content is different than that with a newspaper in hand. But time spent may be longer than thought and online readers to clearly have more news sites choices of outlets to visit .) The print pubs that remain have smaller reporting staffs, fewer column inches of news, on fewer pages. But just looking at the Chicago Tribune— when one adds Tribune’s ChicagoNow blogs, TribLocal and broadcast site web content into the mix—it’s clear a lot of resources are being invested to see what attracts eyes online. Most of this “new” content is either repurposed from legacy media sources or created by virtual volunteers who may gain a byline, some exposure or $5 per thousand visitors generated by a blog post. Thus, even in mainstream media, the cookie jar financing model exists.
While the nation’s third largest media marketplace still has at least five daily papers serving the region, and other studies suggest print still frames much of what aggregators and bloggers react to , the Workshop’s The NEW News 2010 listings shows many more sites supplementing, if not supplanting traditional news operations.
Forty percent of the sites responding to the survey are blogs; 36 percent are self-described niche news sites; traditional news sites (which were not included in last year’s listings) made up seven percent of sites surveyed but attracted the bulk of measurable visitor traffic.
Much has happened since our 2009 report. At the closing roundtable of the Workshop’s annual Making Media Connections conference , we took a closer look at the online media ecosystem, highlighting most of the 12 projects funded by the Chicago Community Trust’s Community News Matters program supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation . We examined the latest in news platforms and technology, emerging online business models, hyper-local news sites and prominent bloggers.
We heard about ChicagoNow editor Tracy Schmidt’s effort to build a local network of 300+ bloggers. The Chicago Tribune’s answer to Huffington Post is attracting more than a million unique visitors a month and reportedly is breaking even. But most contributors earn little for their labors beyond a byline. And the site’s eclectic editorial mix—from pet grooming and food trends to entertainment chatter and CTA etiquette—barely achieves the “journalism we want and need” criteria of helping people make good decisions as citizens, that we first tried to measure in 2009. Yet ChicagoNow is also home to prominent niche bloggers like Columbia College’s own Teresa Puente  or the hyper-local citizen journalism efforts of AustinTalks , the Chicago Reporter , Catalyst  and District 299 .
Our top-ranked site last year, Chi-Town Daily News, folded weeks after our report was published, its Knight Foundation-supported editor Geoff Dougherty declared the online nonprofit citizen journalism model dead and started a new for-pay site, chicagocurrent.com (itself now closed as Doherty has moved onto the Chicago Reader ). One of his former senior editors, Fernando Diaz, is now editor of the Tribune’s Spanish-language daily Hoy .
Weeks later a new nonprofit site, in the fall of 2009, the much-watched Chicago News Cooperative , arrived on the scene, started by former Chicago Tribune editors and reporters in collaboration with WTTW public television, fresh with new funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation  and a contract to produce Chicago news for the New York Times.
The popular social media oriented aggregator of local news Windy Citizen attracted new funding from the Knight News Challenge  for development of “real time ads” to support the site. The Better Government Association has tripled its budget to bring watchdog journalism and aggregated government accountability news back to prominence. South Suburban News is training local residents to use mobile phones to cover local news. And the McCormick Foundation has launched a new effort around news literacy aimed at youth who primarily consume their news online .
And now the re-positioned AOL has launched Patch.com . Based in New York, with New England, D.C. and California media markets, Patch has started hiring multimedia journalists in Chicago suburban communities to begin 24/7 hyper-local news coverage.
The news ecosystem is changing rapidly, and traditional and online outlets are racing to keep up, evolve, adapt and find the right mix to attract revenue and readers. Two years ago we wondered about the future of news as many traditional newsroom staffs were being radically reduced. Last year we worried about where we’d get our news if newspapers disappeared. Today we see a news ecosystem revived by the breadth and freedom of the web, where remaining legacy media operations co-mingle with labor-of-love bloggers, hyper-local newsies, citizen journalist volunteers and multimedia reporters (NPR’s always informative On The Media had a great overview of all these trends recently ).
News is becoming conversational: what’s important is no longer determined solely by gatekeeper editors or official sources. The challenge of bringing under-represented voices into downtown newsrooms to achieve better coverage of under-covered communities is shifting, as those voices and communities gain access to digital reporting tools .
At the moment, there is more competition for news consumer eyes and ears than ever before. And many more opportunities for journalists than we thought the free, open and wild Internet would allow.
We don’t yet know how this nascent online news ecosystem will be sustained. As the technology of information platforms evolves, we’re not sure who will be paying for what. It’s not clear what business model(s) may emerge or how many journalists will be supporting careers and families in the online world.
The roadmap for vetted, authoritative information that frames the public square of civic debate in a democratic society is still being charted.