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.