Local Blogs Among Chicago’s Top Niche News Sites According to New Report

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This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Congratulations to local blogs Gapers Block, Chicagoist, CTA Tattler, District 299, Urbanophile, Chicago Carless, 600 Words, and Marathon Pundit, who feature among Chicago’s top-20 community-based news sites according to a report released today by grassroots media-relations training organization Community Media Workshop and commissioned by the Chicago Community Trust.

The report, The New News: Journalism We Want and Need (PDF link), examines the state of online community news in Chicago, in the face of declining local coverage by the city’s traditional daily newspapers.

Continuing to delve into themes originally explored at February’s Chicago Journalism Town Hall, the report identifies 60 local websites dealing wholly or in part with the dissemination of Chicago-centric news and ranks them based on five individual criteria including number of RSS subscribers, number of monthly visitors, average visit length, and Google and Alexa page ranks, as well as a subjective criterion that assesses elements such as transparency, uniqueness, and use of social-media tools.

Today, the Workshop highlighted the top 20 of those sites that “in addition to providing entertaining and informative content were influential, innovative, and had thought through their relationship to their audience as seen by their efforts at transparency.” These sites are:

1.    Chi-Town Daily News
2.    Windy City Media Group
3.    Gapers Block
4.    Progress Illinois
5.    Windy Citizen
6.    WBEZ Chicago Public Radio
7.    Chicago Parent
8.    Catalyst Chicago
9.    Chicagoist
10. Midwest Business
11. CTA Tattler (now on ChicagoNow)
12. The Beachwood Reporter
13. NewCity
14. Chicago Defender
15. District 299 (also now on ChicagoNow)
16. The Chicago Reporter
17. The Urbanophile
18. Chicago Carless
19. 600 Words by Esther J. Cepeda, and
20. Marathon Pundit

Regular readers will note #18 on that list. CHICAGO CARLESS (rendered in my preferred all-caps branding) is my personal blog, and I’m thrilled to find it included here–and as the only memoir blog to make the list, to boot. (Read my personal coverage about making the list on CARLESS.)

In order to focus exclusively on niche news providers, the Workshop excluded the main Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times websites from the rankings, although an online analysis of keywords performed by the authors suggests local news content to have declined to its lowest point since 1994 at both dailies.

But the real news is the strong presence of local bloggers in the top-20. As neighborhood coverage continues to dwindle in traditional media, hyperlocal news sites and niche interest blogs seem to be taking up some of the slack. Not all of it, and not in a comprehensive manner, but enough for modest, one-person websites and unpaid groups of bloggers with sharp, community-oriented focuses to develop strong followings and become opinion leaders in their areas of interest. They may or not be the journalists of tomorrow, but if anyone’s looking for tomorrow’s top columnists, bloggers like these are the ones to watch, folks.

In order to add context to the rankings, the Workshop held focus groups with community leaders and media professionals to learn their views regarding online local news. Given the grassroots nature of the report, I would have preferred the authors to have sought the views of rank-and-file Chicagoans. It comes as less of a surprise that this crowd had definite opinions about how community news-gathering should be done on the web–namely that local news should be vetted for accuracy, selected for importance, and set in a frame of community-wide interest.

The Workshop report also takes a look at potential models for the financial sustainability of online local news (controversial ground covered in this Chicagosphere post and comment thread from last week.) Among the ideas put forth: professional staffs paid with foundation monies and trained in journalism and new-media skills; and newly created Illinois L3C organizations funded with private monies but with socially based missions to attract grant monies.

As a first-of-its-kind effort, Workshop authors admit the website rankings are imperfect. Limitations of time, resources, and available data forced the exclusion of several local websites, and the subjective ranking criterion left a lot of room for debate. However, the report represents a good start at attempting to quantify an important element of our inexorably changing media landscape.
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mmcbadge.jpgThe report was released to coincide with the kick-off of Community Media Workshop’s popular, annual best-practices conference, Making Media Connections. I will be moderating the “Neighborhood News 2.0” panel at the conference this Thursday (June 11th) at 2:00 p.m., with panelists including Daniel X. O’Neil of Everyblock.com, Geoff Dougherty of the Chi-Town Daily News, Silvana Tabares of Extra Bilingual News, and Dan Weissmann of Vocalo.org (walk-in registrations accepted.)

Given the fact that I and half the panel are apparently now among Chicago’s top community bloggers, I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about.

But wait, there’s more. This Saturday (June 13th) also brings the Chicago Media Future Conference to town. Organized by Mike Fourcher, founder of Purely Political Consulting, Barbara Iverson, Columbia College journalism professor and publisher of ChicagoTalks.org, and Scott Smith, Senior Editor at Playboy.com, as a follow-up to February’s Town Hall, Saturday’s event will squarely address the question of monetizing online news.

With a topic like that, you just know a few people aren’t coming back from the woodshed before the weekend’s out…

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