Playing catch-up on Chicago media

Disclosure: I’ve had past business or personal interactions with most of the people or entities named above and plan to have them in the future. To the best of my ability, I try not to let the above color my opinions. Where such interactions might cloud my judgment on an issue, I tend to avoid writing about the topic altogether or confess to a specific bias or association so the reader can judge for him or herself.

Between work-related matters and our impending move to the South Side, I haven’t had much brainpower or free time to spare here. But there have been some significant events in Chicago’s media landscape recently so I figured it made sense to do a quick roundup. Here’s a month’s worth of posts:

Chi-Town Daily News folds and becomes Chicago Current: The first issue hit the streets this week. Creating a niche publication is smart (are you listening….um, everybody?), and an integrated web-print model is too. The full-page Mercedes-Benz ad that ran on the back page suggests support from the ad market. But here’s what I don’t get about CC’s plans: From a Crain’s story about the new publication:

Chicago Current will be distributed to about 2,000 aldermen, City Hall department heads, judges and other public officials; it will also be available free at downtown Chicago Transit Authority train stations. The targeted readership of elected officials and bureaucrats will give advertisers — including contractors and advocacy groups — reason to pay for ads, he says.”

[Emphasis mine]

From the Chicago Current‘s “About Us” page:

From incisive coverage of City Hall, the CTA and other agencies, to the nitty gritty on topics like lobbying and campaign finance, the Current brings you vitally important information you won’t find anywhere else.

[Emphasis mine]

Based on the new website and the first edition of the paper, Chicago Current is trodding much the same ground as the Chi-Town Daily News did. Nothing wrong with that, but add it to the above text about “the nitty gritty” of dealings that most pols would rather see hidden from view and it looks like the Current wants to reveal the insider deals of politicians – the same people it wants as its audience. To quote Chasing Amy: “Can I explain the audience principle to you? If you insult and accost them, then we have no audience!” Those same pols would probably take a dim view of any advertisers – who depend on those same folks for their business – supporting such a publication.

Maybe I’m off-base about Chicago Current‘s plans but there’s not a lot of evidence to the contrary. While Geoff Dougherty deserves a lot of credit for quickly launching another new business venture, my friend and Chicago Media Future Conference co-organizer Mike Fourcher rightly points out that new media ventures need to work harder on their brands than anything else and perhaps more time spent defining audience and content would have worked to the Current‘s advantage. Still, the marketplace is getting crowded, which leads to…

Chicago News Co-operative launches, Chicago Community Trust puts its money where the names are: If I’m fuzzy on the plans for Chicago Current, I’m even more vague on the Chicago News Co-operative. And I’m not alone. As the former Mayor Daley used to say “Where’s their program?”

What I do know is they’ve got a lot of big names, many of whom used to work at the Chicago Tribune. But if we’re all agreed that the Web will play a vital role in the future of news, then this isn’t the team you want leading that charge. The Tribune‘s leadership in the online space came after those folks left. Plus, the media spaces the CNC said they’ll work in are organizations like WTTW and WBEZ. I’m a frequent viewer/listener or both, but where’s the innovation there? (The CNC says it will launch a site called Chicago Scoop in January.)

On a side note, the CNC was the recipient of $50,000 in grant money from the Chicago Community Trust. Later, Chicago Tonight contributor Rich Samuels tweeted that the Community Trust would no longer fund the Chicago Matters series, a joint venture between WTTW and WBEZ. As the CNC is currently using office space at WTTW, I bet there were a few awkward moments around the coffee maker that morning.

As for the Chicago Community Trust’s other funding decisions, I question why the CNC, so flush with connections and resources, had a greater need for cash than smaller, more innovative shops like Gapers Block, Windy Citizen and Beachwood Reporter, which only received $35,000. Perhaps it’s because the CNC’s plans are more ambitious. But according to the Community Trust’s press release, the money will be used “to support development of a new L3C cooperative business model providing enterprising journalistic coverage of the Chicago area using various Web, print and broadcast platforms, including a new Web site called “The Chicago Scoop.” From that description, the ambition is hard to intuit.

The takeaway for the Current and CNC is this: In the absence of actual evidence, people tend to fill in the blanks – or create your brand’s identity – themselves. Why would you want to give away control of such a valuable resource?

James Warren becomes publisher of the Chicago Reader: I don’t have much to say here, but from where I sit it would seem to be good news that the Chicago Reader‘s survived the questionable direction of Tampa’s Ben Eason and that a person steeped in Chicago journalism is at the helm. But to hear Reader editor Alison True tell it, this could be a potential minefield:

“It’s good to hear the board and Warren acknowledging how important journalism is to the success of the company,” says Reader editor Alison True. “Because we’re looking forward to getting the resources to support it. But if that wall disappears, so does our credibility.”

In the past year, the Reader‘s done some vital work, in spite of the perceived threat from Team Eason. Perhaps True knows her team does its best work when it’s got something to fight against, whether that enemy is real or imagined.

The rise of Chicago Now: It’s been interesting to watch the direction of Chicago Now. They’ve adopted a startup mentality, despite the appearance of the full force of TribCo resources behind them. (I cracked up at this tweet from RedEye’s web editor, which suggested there was something serendipitous, not synergistic, about a Tribune marketing project getting prominent placement on a Tribune blogging platform.) As Marcus Gilmer points out on Chicagoist:

There’s no denying there are quality reads on the site: the Parking Ticket Geek has become particularly notable in the wake of the parking meter privatization, the CTA Tattler is still a go-to for us, our pals at Gapers Block have a page, and there’s some good sports coverage. But at 126 blogs and counting, the site still feels unwieldy, making it more difficult to find other potential quality reads.”

I’ve joked that by 2010, one out of three people you meet in Chicago will have a blog at Chicago Now. The site wants to be all things to all people, to provide blogs that run the gamut of Chicagoans’ interests. It’s a clear goal, designed to take advantage of local advertising dollars. It’s important to note they’re not trying to be a publication, just an agnostic platform (like HuffPo), so this broad effort may pay off, especially with other TribCo entities like WGN Radio offering them broadcast space on its airwaves. To truly succeed, they’ll need to embrace these opportunities, not pretend like they lucked into them and ensure that audiences can easily find what they have to offer.

Robert Feder joins Vocalo, Vocalo comes in from the cold: Before the launch of Vocalo, a joint radio-and-web venture from Chicago Public Radio, some of WBEZ’s best talent worked behind-the-scenes to help make the project a reality. They brought the same passion to this project that they brought to WBEZ. Then Chicago Public Radio decided it wanted to divorce itself from Vocalo, making it completely user-generated, except when it came to funding. CPR quietly funded the program, hiding its true intention from its subscribers and siphoning off resources to keep it afloat. The product didn’t improve – the passion just wasn’t there – and WBEZ subscribers were upset. Finally realizing that a little professionalism wouldn’t hurt the product, Chicago Public Radio brought WBEZ and Vocalo together online. (Clicking the Blog button on ‘BEZ’s website takes you to Vocalo.org.)

In a further indictment of the anything-goes style of the early days of the site, CPR also brought in former Sun-Times media columnist Robert Feder as a blogger for Vocalo (or is it WBEZ? It’s hard to tell…). Feder’s work at the Sun-Times was indispensible, but his recent comments about Chicago Now – despite having a ring of truth – suggest he’s blinding himself to the reality of the problems in his new neighborhood. It would also help his cause if the material of his columns (Sneed, Bill Kurtis’s wacky commercials, retreads of his previous work) wasn’t so weak. Vocalo’s become more transparent lately, but whether more professionalism is the key to its success remains to be seen.

Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson return to CBS2: On Friday night, Kurtis and Jacobson anchored the CBS2 10 p.m. newscast together for the first time in the last 20 years. It’s clear CBS2 wants viewers to associate its current newscast with the groundbreaking reporting efforts of its heyday. The first half of the broadcast delivered on that score, offering up stories like a Pam Zekman investigation of the inability of Chicago police offers to properly meet the demand of 911 calls. But the constant references to days gone by, not to mention a Friday night appearance, made the whole affair feel like Old Timers’ Day at the ballpark. Moreover, the news of this supposedly monumental event didn’t break until the day before, robbing CBS2 of a potential ratings boost.

If CBS2 wants to convince people that they’re still doing hard-hitting news at 10 p.m., it could dump the lame “Cold Case” moments it’s been doing with Kurtis, sign him and Jacobson to short-term contracts, pair them with up-and-coming reporters and build on the future promise of their past gravitas.

Moreover, CBS2 ought to pick a neighborhood in Chicago, open up a local bureau there, and do some Web-only reporting. This venture could be accomplished with a skeleton crew investment, but the returns would be significant. They’d be the only local television station doing this, and it would show they were committed to not being pretty, but being realinnovators.

2 comments for “Playing catch-up on Chicago media

  1. November 17, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    I already said my piece here, but I'll say it again: Brand, brand and brand. I'm not sure any of the folks you mentioned above have a clear one any more.

    That being said, it is exciting to see investment and entrepreneurship in news media. This is a very different landscape than the doom-saying one Chicago news was in at this time last year.

  2. Boris
    December 2, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    (Clicking the Blog button on 'BEZ's website takes you to Vocalo.org.)

    This is an overstatement. It's merely a DNS game that causes apps.wbez.org to redirect to blogs.vocalo.org, but aside from a clumsily redone style sheet, it's the exact same content that was originally at the former (note also that http://www.vocalo.org does not link to blogs.vocalo.org, and only once–in the right side bar–does blogs.vocalo.org link to http://www.vocalo.org).

    It strikes me as a fairly pathetic attempt at marketing the Vocalo “brand name”; the Vocalo product, on the other hand, is carefully minimized.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *