Time to End Chicago’s Transit News Blackout

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It’s a graphic that speaks for itself. You could fill 25 Soldier Fields with the number of people who use Chicago Transit Authority buses and trains on an average weekday. It would take 1.5 million people–half of Chicago’s population–to do it. That still wouldn’t take into account almost 300,000 additional daily riders of Metra and Pace suburban trains and buses. And most of these 2 million plus people are potential voters.

So why doesn’t Chicago’s mainstream media take Chicagoland’s transit beat seriously?

The much-heralded “CTA Doomsday” (one of two transit “doomsdays” in Chicago’s near future) is three days away. Next Monday, hundreds of thousands of local residents will be cut off from transit service because Mayor Daley, Governor Blagojevich, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, and State Senate President Emil Jones refuse to stop log-rolling the issue of transit funding among themselves.

While each one of them keeps attempting to get someone else to pay to keep Chicago transit off of its quickly approaching deathbed–abdicating their public responsibility in the process–Chicago inches one more step closer to becoming the laughingstock of the nation. (How many Olympic cities have you heard of in th past 20 years that didn’t have a massively invested transit system?)

So when half your city rides public transit and the stakes are as perilously high as they are in the Second City right now, why, exactly, is there no daily, dedicated transit reporter at the Chicago Tribune? At the Sun-Times? On CLTV News? On any of the city’s broadcast daily news programs?

John Hilkevitch does a yeoman’s job at the Trib, but his Getting Around beat covers a lot more than public transit. And though Red Eye’s Kyra Kyles does her best to cover transit, she does it for a freebie paper that most Chicagoans don’t read (and most of Red Eye’s other transit coverage is little more than fluff). Worse, aside from Hilkevitch and, to a lesser extent, Kyles, pretty much the only mainstream coverage Chicago transit ever gets is when another of the now yearly “doomsday” announcements is made–i.e., when it’s a little to late for mainstream coverage to do much good.

In fact, the only media outlet regularly covering Chicagoland’s looming transit crisis is the single-purpose CTA Tattler–a committed, local blog site. You might have seen them this week on WTTW’s nightly news juggernaut, Chicago Tonight. Do you know why they were there? Because that humble, local blog site has more credibility in its analysis and commentary about Chicago transit issues than any of the city’s mainsream print and broadcast media.

Can you say: “Big, fat example of the declining relevance of print news to the average Chicagoan?”

I’m thrilled that the CTA Tattler has remained focused on our region’s transit crisis every day since…well, since I’ve lived in Chicago, for the most part. But it’s an utter embarrassment that mainstream Chicago media has decided that transit–and transit riders (who, it bears repeating, represent millions of voters) aren’t important enough to have their needs regularly reported on.

The experience in New York City, my hometown and the only city in America with a transit system larger than Chicago’s, is instructive. Every single daily newspaper has a transit reporter, from the New York Times on down. So does the city’s 24-hour TV news station, NY1 News (in fact, NY1 has a weekly televised transit issues program). These reporters regularly check in with transit agencies, transit riders, and watchdog groups. I should know, when I was the Associate Director of the New York City Transit Riders Council I used to speak with them every day (God knows, just Google my name for NYC transit media quotes from the late 1990s).

In NYC, transit is just as important as it is in Chicago. The local media recognizes that importance–political importance–covers the transit beat in detail, and sells newspapers and advertising space because of it.

So I ask, yet again, why has Chicago’s local media checked out, hopelessly completely out, on Chicago’s transit beat? A burgeoning, untapped beat awaiting to be mobilized, organized, and to be quite frank, milked for media profit. I keep asking that question because, for the life of me, I just can’t come up with a reasonable answer.

Can you?

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What do you think?