It’s Time For Illinois To Subsidize Local News Gathering

The Danville Commercial-News building in Danville, Illinois. Once a 30,000 circulation daily paper, it now claims about 15,000. Credit: Randy von Liski/Flickr

The business of reporting local political news is dying because we consumers just don’t care. It was never that big to begin with, anyway, since while local politics got front page treatment, the real reason we watched, read and listened was to learn about the new movie, restaurant or big game. But the Great Internet Disaggregation has given us Fandango, Yelp and ESPN, and myriad other information sources that do a much better and thorough job. As a result, we’re no longer drawn to news organizations like we once were and miss out on local political news.

Stripped of features, listings and everything fun, newspapers and local television and radio news have doubled down on the hard stuff: City and regional government reporting. It’s all critical information that can directly affect our lives, but for the vast majority of consumers, local politics is boring dreck that pales in comparison to just about everything else on God’s green earth. We’re ditching our news subscriptions for hundreds of other more fun things, like Candy Crush, TMZ, fantasy football sites and whatever else captures our fancy.

While Chicago’s “big” publications, The Chicago Tribune, Sun Times and Chicago Reader still exist, they are all shadows of what they were just ten years ago. Across the Illinois, McClatchy, Lee and Gannett-owned newspapers in smaller cities are often barely beyond pamphlet size on some days. Without help, there’s only one direction for this trend: down.

It’s a tough business competing for eyeballs against all the digital attractions of today’s media age. If news organizations want to survive, they have to focus their reporting resources on things more alluring than city council meetings.

As a result, it’s time for Illinois’ local daily newspapers to do away with paying for city and county reporters and for the state to directly fund a local reporting wire service for every big and medium-sized city and county around the state. Subsidized local reporting could be put into print, but would also be more economically published on local news organizations’ websites, going right to the people often missing quality, local reporting.

A far from radical idea, government subsidies for local news are becoming old hat these days. The Canadian government has debated increasing their local news subsidy to C$350 million (Vice News has already been a beneficiary in Toronto) and the New Jersey legislature just implemented a $5 million local news subsidy.

The Illinois Local News Wire would be inexpensive, as government programs go, and would fight local corruption more efficiently than any other government program. It would free up local news organizations resources so they could be focused on more interesting stories, such as human interest or deep investigative work, that would draw more local readers, strengthening the overall news ecosystem.

We should implement this plan sooner, rather than later, before news audiences completely lose faith in their local publications and there’s nothing left to prop up.

Most consumers are totally uninterested in local government and politics until something important happens. We tune out, concentrating on our personal lives––and then a scandal, tragedy, big sports win or terrible crime occurs. Big or salacious, these events grab our attention and focuses us on our broader community. As a result, news publications experience unpredictable waves, big ups and big downs of audience attention. We all want a copy of the local paper’s front page after the World Series win, but could care less about the county board budget vote the next day.

This kind of wave can be exhilarating, but undulating audiences are hard to monetize. Publishers need consistency to keep advertisers.

Smart editors know this, and employ a litany of stratagems to hold our attention. In Chicago, The Chicago Tribune runs lots of deep investigative stories, thinking that readers want to feel like they’re being educated about government run amok. The Sun Times also has its own splashy investigative stories, with a smattering of crime stories. In the Big Apple, the newly shrunken New York Daily News looks like it will focus on crime stories as well. There’s always a tranche of paranoid citizens that want to know the worst.

Lost in this is boring local government reporting for average citizens. Yes, metro daily newspapers still keep City Hall beat reporters on the job, but it’s viewed as a sunk cost, rather than than a venue for differentiation and to attract daily readers. And in towns like Chicago where there are multiple news outlets covering local government every day, basic city hall reporting is pretty much the same, barring stylistic differences noticeable only by the most dedicated readers. (Insider political publications like The Daily Line and Capitol Fax are a different breed, since they contain a level of detail no average reader would ever care to ingest.)

But smaller cities, like Peoria and Carbondale, are almost entirely lacking regular local government coverage because newsrooms just can’t afford it like in years past. As a result, when something big happens, and news organizations are caught flat-footed, by missing major details or even the entire story, local audiences lose faith in the publication, dropping the daily news habit.

Creating and maintaining The Illinois Local News Wire would be relatively cheap and easy. Contracted on five-year basis and operated by a non-profit news organization, such as Illinois Public Radio or the Illinois Press Association, operating a strong team of text-only reporters and editors for every city and county over 30,000 people in Illinois would cost less than $3 million a year. Like the old City News Bureau in Chicago, reporters would stick to the basics of government meetings, announcements and elections. Investigative work could come from the local paper of record, while The Illinois Local News Wire would provide baseline reporting.

Like other wire services, reporting content would be made available to qualifying news organizations, with a low hurdle, such as membership with The Illinois Press Association, or demonstrating that your organization includes more than one full-time editorial staffer. Like most Associated Press reports, only publications could have access to the reporting. The point is to drive local news publication readership, and for local editors to make local editorial decisions.

Creating an Illinois Local News Wire would free up local news organizations to fill their pages with stories readers really want, give local politicians and leaders a platform to communicate citizens, and ensure local governments across the state get the watchdog reporting they need to stay honest and effective. It’s time for us to recognize that the free market has failed, and local government and politics reporting is too important to let lapse.

Chance Has Just One To Make Chicagoist Work

This morning Chance Bennett, a.k.a., Chance The Rapper, announced his acquisition of Chicagoist from the shambling remains of Joe Ricketts’ DNAInfo-Gothamist company. It’s a great title with a significant audience, and one that I have deep affection for, since I was one of the four founding writers, when “Chicagoist Prime”, Rachelle Bowden, kicked it off in 2004.

Among media-types, there’s been a hue and cry about the publication’s editorial future, especially since in Mr. Bennett’s announcement, via his new song “I Might Need Security”, he says, “I bought the Chicagoist just to run you racist bitches outta business.” Yes, there’s conjecture: but who exactly is he talking about here?

But let’s assume Mr. Bennett can work out a strong, independent editorial policy. The real question is: How is he going to make sure the publication thrives without regular cash injections? What’s the business plan?

Anyone who’s paid attention to news media knows, local publications have been shrinking and closing at a furious rate for the last ten years. The reason: the economics of local news is bad and getting worse.

Chicagoist, despite its local content, did not have a locally operated business. Part of the Gothamist Network, it benefited from being part of a national and somewhat-global chain of -ist publications that sold ad space to national brands. Severed from that chain, Chicagoist is no longer a compelling ad buy for ad agencies who are looking for large quantities of targeted consumers. While Chicagoist may have a few hundred thousands unique visitors a month, that pales in comparison to Tronc’s network or the vast, targetable audience available through an ad exchange.

Many other local publications are generally not doing well. The Chicago Reader was recently sold to owners of The Chicago Crusader, and their new business plan remain unclear. The Sun-Times, sold to a union-led group last year, kept most of the same business team that was hemorrhaging money in the past, and Crain’s Chicago Business has slashed its staff while the paper edition has gotten thinner almost every week.

Crain’s, as well as the once-robust Time Out: Chicago, have put a great deal of energy into hosting paid events. The local media rumor mill says these events have helped prop up earnings, but the efforts required building new infrastructure which doesn’t necessarily translate into more editorial spending. The thinning paper editions and shrinking editorial staffs bear that out.

Launching a new, local, widely-targeted publication is extremely difficult. Chicago is a big enough city that word of mouth doesn’t reach every corner quickly. At the same time, your real competition for local eyeballs isn’t other local publications, but everything global and national. A new publication is trying to steal eyeballs from The Source, The New York Times, High Times, Vox, Le Figaro, Facebook and a million other publications down the long tail.

But Chicagoist has only been closed since November 2017! Plenty of people remember and love it, right? They’ll come right back!

Maybe. Readers are fickle, and once a daily habit gets broken, they have to be given a good reason to come back. And more importantly, they need to hear about it in the first place, and decide they want to see what the fuss is about.

As a result, Mr. Bennett will really only get one opportunity to make his new Chicagoist work. Prospective readers will take one look, and then quickly decide if the new site is worth their time, then either bookmark it, or surf away forever.

This is a hard reality. Many readers have moved on and satiated their content needs with other websites or activities. Contrary to what many journalists believe, news is not part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and most news consumers are not very discerning. It doesn’t matter whether they get it from Yahoo! News, the Chicago Tribune or Chicagoist. What matters is whether or not they read something interesting to talk about with their friends and family.

So, what’s the business plan? Digital advertising is collapsing for local publications and to run events, you need a big, regular audience (A Chicagoist-Chance concert would be cool, but is Mr. Bennett willing to do that every quarter, or month?). Subscription-based publications are thriving, like The Daily Line, a political news site I founded (and sold), or neighborhood-news site Block Club Chicago.

These publications have fierce, dedicated followings that crave a specific kind of reporting. Their audiences are much smaller than ad-supported news sites. I wonder if Chance The Rapper is interested in owning a niche news site with a few thousand, dedicated but paying readers.

I’m sincerely hoping he’s not planning to turn Chicagoist into an expensive platform for his personal political views. We’ve already got that with Progress Illinois, the Illinois News Network, and One Illinois.

And then, there’s an entirely different possibility. Maybe Mr. Bennett wants to turn Chicagoist into a kind of “Players Tribune” for entertainers. Maybe he’d like to use the title as platform for something other than news. Perhaps he is thinking of creating a site about the experience of Black Chicago, a sorely under-reported topic. “Chicagoist” could mean so many things. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to what it’s meant in the past.

In any case, I wish Mr. Bennett’s new publication success. Chicago news media needs more to smile about.

Note: The original post erroneously stated the Chicago Reader had been sold to owners of the Chicago Defender. It is the owners of the Chicago and Gary Crusader newspapers.

In Praise of Federal Bureaucrats

When I was twenty-eight I owned four dark suits and one light. I kept an extra pair of white shirts in my office because Washington summers were muggy, and you wanted to look crisp if you were called to an important meeting. In the morning, after I was woken up by the thud of cannon fire at nearby Fort Meyers, I’d walk a few blocks to the always crowded Metro, and ride seven stops to my job in a big federal building with brutalist architecture.

An enterprising Cambodian woman with a coffee cart outside the main entrance to the Department of Energy, rapidly poured steaming lattes and all-blacks to the hundreds streaming to their jobs. Once in the lobby, we’d wave our badges at the phalanx of federal police guarding the entrance.

We jammed into the elevators, then the crowd thinned out riding to the top floor. Exhilaration of a new day would thrill, as our leather shoes clicked down the long, white linoleum hallways to our desks.

By the time I got to work at eight in the morning, the building was buzzing with colonels and commanders, usually there since four. The military side was always busy, and seemed frustrated that civilians worked four hours later than them.

Click-clacking down the linoleum, I’d pass ones and twos of jacket-less men, clad in short-sleeved, white button-down shirts with pocket protectors carrying three-ring binders filled with tabs. Just as many women moved through the halls, carrying binders of their own and color-coded manila folders, with long skirts and far-from-couture blouses in muted colors.

The action began as soon as I turned on my computer. Hours of email from always the awake military side, and strings of conversation from the West Coast civilians. Debates about rules, policies and science. A young man appointed to my job by politicians, I was outclassed by the permanent workers surrounding me. Dozens of best-in their field engineers, Ph.D. economists and a smattering of scientists who’d only a few months ago been smashing protons together.

Every day was a struggle to read more, learn more and keep up with the dialogue. Women and men would rattle off esoteric and obscenely detailed knowledge of science, economic models written in Excel and the health impacts on projected tens of thousands of people. Careful! Because just a change in one phrase of a rule could impact a hundred thousand Americans. It was often repeated: You had to get things right, because in federal policy-making, you didn’t get a second chance any time soon.

Riding down the elevator, stopping in program offices, you’d encounter phalanxes of balding men and widening women, who signed up for their jobs decades ago, planning to become experts in their fields. Now, they were The Person who knew all the things. It might be about radioactive waste glassification, solar panels, carbon valuation, diesel particulates, climate change negotiation strategies or Saudi oil wells.

Working to solve a problem in government, or markets, you’d go looking for The Person, and when you found them, they’d be ensconced in a beige cubicle, walls covered by printed charts, kid art and maybe a certificate of Excellent Federal Service.

The Person would swivel in their chair, you’d ask your question, and then a geyser of knowledge would come out. Moments later, they’d produce three-ring binders of studies with charts, graphs and detailed narrative. It was too much. Your question was answered, but you had to find a way to cap the geyser, so much was the desire to pour out understanding. This was the Federal Government, and they had to make sure the policy was Done Right The First Time.

Everyone knew, after fifteen years or so, you could jump to the private sector and double your salary. But they stayed. Many until mandatory retirement, even a few who petitioned for and got exceptions to stay longer because they were The Person Who Knew Things, and didn’t want to leave until someone was trained up to replace them.

It stiffened my spine, being amongst so many earnest men and women. They talked about Serving The President with stone faces, and the word America was invoked often and never in jest. They were civil servants, many serving what they thought of as a call to work for our nation, even if most citizens would never understand what they do every day.

These are the people I think of when I hear about federal bureaucrats. We don’t laud them like soldiers or sailors, and they don’t face bullets or shells, yet today, their dedication and commitment to rules, policies and science maintains the line between rule of law and authoritarianism in our country.

I am grateful for their service.