Friday, December 11, 2009

Foundations the new news trend -- for now

On the surface, Chicago-area news junkies ought to be celebrating these days.

At a time when some people are getting all worked up over the expected demise of newspapers and wondering where the information will come from (since most other mediums for distributing information rely heavily on newspapers to do the actual work of reporting information), there are two new organizations getting involved in the local news business.

ONE IS THE Chicago News Cooperative, which has gained a visible position for itself by producing two pages worth of stories twice a week for the New York Times. It gives the "Grey Lady" a way of claiming it is offering more local news in the editions of the Times that are sold in the Chicago area -- without having to produce it themselves.

Just a couple of weeks later, we got our introduction to Illinois Statehouse News, which is offering up coverage of activity at the Statehouse in Springpatch, along with state government activity in Chicago.

Both of these outfits have websites that they plan to use eventually to disseminate the stories they are reporting. For the time being, they're using the old medium of the printed page -- the news coop turning up in the Times and the statehouse news offering its stories to any newspaper that wants to publish them.

Their website literally tells publishers to "steal our stuff," so long as credit is given to the Illinois Statehouse News. Thus far, I have seen their stories published in Chicago's Southwest News-Herald and in the Times of Northwest Indiana (a Munster, Ind.-based publication whose circulation area spills over into Illinois -- including Chicago's 10th Ward).

BOTH OF THESE outfits are receiving financial support from foundations to help them cover the cost of paying a few reporter-types to actually dig up stories that don't rely on rewriting what is already in the newspapers (which is what most weblogs that claim to be news oriented actually amount to).

The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity is funding the statehouse news project, and some critics already are accusing the outfit of being created to put some sort of conservative spin on the information coming out of the Statehouse - although the group itself claims to be non-partisan and the people whom they have hired to work for them thus far have been experienced Statehouse reporters who aren't going to be inclined to go along with writing political propaganda passing for news.

The news cooperative is working, for now, as a partnership with WTTW-TV, Chicago's PBS affiliate, and is one of the many worthwhile causes receiving funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

They even have received some pro bono legal assistance from the prominent law firm of Winston & Strawn (which also provided downtown Chicago office space for the news coop in its early days of existence). These aren't exactly outfits being run off of a laptop computer set up on someone's kitchen table).

THE TWO OUTFITS thus far have done competent work. The statehouse news project has produced daily stories that adequately fill the space in newspapers around the ads, while the news coop drew some attention to itself by getting an interview with Cook County Board President Todd Stroger that helps illustrate how weak a grasp the man has these days on political reality.

Now as someone who has worked in the newsgathering business for the past couple of decades and who hopes to remain as a reporter-type in some fashion for the remainder of my working life, I find it encouraging that someone is willing to get involved in the funding of a news organization or two.

The reality is that the whole appeal of advertising on the Internet is that the ads are dirt cheap. It is highly unlikely that a website devoted to offering up serious news reporting would ever be able to survive on the income from ads (particularly if they are of the pop-up variety that most readers go out of their way to ignore).

I just wish the funding sources were a little bit more long-term than these charitable or ideological foundations.

FOR THE REALITY is that these are the kind of groups that are likely to offer up money for a year or two before deciding to move on to other projects.

Which means that the people who gave up jobs elsewhere (in particularm, the news coop is staffed with many people who gave up Chicago Tribune gigs to work there) had better hope that someone is developing a plan for financing in future years, or else they run the risk of seeing their "revolutionary" news organizations go down the toilet -- and unemployment in their future a couple of years from now.

Then again, sticking with their respective newspapers might also have been a risk if the printed publications continue to lose advertising revenue due to the struggling economy and the papers' websites remain incapable of replacing the revenue with its own advertising.

Either way, it's a crap shoot -- although I found it interesting in recent days that the Chicago Sun-Times stole a sports columnist from the Chicago Tribune, only to have the Trib sports section snatch away a beat writer who was covering the Chicago Bears.,

SOME PEOPLE HAVEN'T given up on the print product, which in some ways is a superior medium for the presentation of news. Seriously, reading a long story on a single printed page is much easier than scrolling through copy on a computer screen and having to jump from file to file to get to the end.

I don't know wht the future will hold, particularly after learning that the long-time trade journal of the newspaper industry (Editor & Publisher) is going out of business. I only find it encouraging that some people are trying to figure out the solution, rather than just assuming that something will naturally replace the printed word.

Otherwise, there will be a lot of empty websites in the future for those people who are determined to read their news off a screen rather than paper. That would mean a lot of seriously uninformed people.


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