This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.
[UPDATED: 3:44PM] As initially reported on Gapers Block, the Windy City’s leading independent local news website, Chitown Daily News, has laid off its reporting staff and is shutting down, to re-tool as a for-profit venture. The surprise news comes in the wake of the C-BOM bloggers meetup called last month to discuss ways to make financial ends meet on the local blogosphere.
At 1:15 PM this afternoon, editor Geoff Dougherty posted a message on the Daily News site announcing the paper’s closure. According to Dougherty:
“We’ve concluded that, as a nonprofit, we cannot raise the money we need to build a truly robust local news organization that provides comprehensive local coverage.
The Daily News needs $1 million to $2 million per year to do a great job of covering a city as sprawling and complex as Chicago. And despite hundreds of phone calls and letters to foundations, corporations and individual donors over the past four years, we’ve never come close to that.”
According to two three former Daily News staffers I contacted today, last Friday (September 4) at approximtely 4:45 PM on Wednesday, September 9th, the virtual paper informed its reporting staff that money to pay them had run out and told them that they won’t be returning to their jobs officially laid them off the next day. Meanwhile, content has continued to appear on the Daily News website. Dougherty’s statement notes updates to the Daily News site will continue to come from “existing volunteers…with content from (a) partnership with Loyola University’s City News reporting class.”
Dougherty goes on to say that the Daily News editorial staff are at work on a new, for-profit news initiative supported by private angel funders, and that he hopes to “quickly place” the existing Daily News citizen journalism program with an interested local organization.
Contacted by email today, Dougherty told me the new venture will be up and running in about eight weeks and that he doesn’t consider the changes at the Daily News to denote a “shut down”, since the citizen journalism program will be adopted by a third-party organization.
However, one former staffer emailed me to note that only the volunteer journalists will remain, while the paid journalists have permanently lost their jobs. Given the loss of professional staff and cessation of a funding stream, the debate over whether Chitown has “shut down” or not seems semantic. I’m happy Dougherty found an investor for a new local news idea and wish him the best of luck. But that new idea is not going to be the continuation of the Chitown Daily News citizen journalism project. Without a central staff, funding, or–for the moment–a home, that project as we long knew it is no more and it remains to be seen whether it will be successfully resuscitated in a new form.
Chitown Daily News was initially funded with a two-year, $340,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to establish a network of citizen journalists to research, write, and disseminate local news in Chicago over the Internet.
Dougherty developed the Daily News site into a scrappy counterpoint to traditional print dailies the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. From time to time (as recently as 10 days ago), Daily News reporters would call out the print dailies for running stories originally broken or explored in its own virtual pages.
Though incisive in its reporting, Chitown Daily News has been the subject of much blogosphere debate over the past several months. Many in the community have wondered whether and how Dougherty would be able to keep the project afloat as the Knight funds expired over summer 2009. Over Independence Day weekend, the Daily News replaced its front page with a funding-drive pitch, and began to report the cost of every article published.
In June 2009, Dougherty sat on a neighorhood-news panel that I moderated at Community Media Workshop‘s June 2009 Making Media Connections conference. At the time, he opined that bloggers should see nonprofit grant funding as one piece of a larger funding mix, and shouldn’t assume the end of a large grant means the “end of the world”.
Dougherty gave good advice–but it’s only applicable if you’re able to diversify your funding stream during the time-limited life of your grant. Today’s turn of events shows that simply wasn’t the case at the Daily News (view their 2007-2008 financials in PDF format.)
Last month, when local news and data aggregator Everyblock was bought by MSNBC.com, I warned in these pages that the outcome could have been different. Everyblock’s two-year Knight Foundation grant had run out and the site was in danger of shutting down. I accused traditional grant-funding procedures to be at fault, and asked Miami-based Knight and the Chicago Community Trust to consider extending grant funding beyond agreed-upon end dates for sites that showed promise. After all, the two foundations teamed up this summer to create a grant program seeking to support long-term sustainability of local news on the Internet.
My opinions then were met with intense push-back from some local journalists and bloggers. One blogger for whom I have the utmost respect suggested I did not adequately understand how grant funding works and that if a site dies, it’s probably the fault of a poor manager who didn’t understand or care to diversify their funding base.
The latter may very well be true. Not the former. I’ve worked in and around the nonprofit world for my entire adult career. In this case especially, whether or not anyone thinks Dougherty mismanaged the funding pot, the fact remains that Chicago may be about to lose the best attempt at online local news reporting that’s every come down the virtual highway. And this time, there probably won’t be a national website riding in on a white horse loaded down with money bags to save the day.
All of this underscores why I and two dozen other local bloggers met up last month for C-BOM: Community Blogging & Online Media meetup in the first place. Our community cannot sustain itself if we continue to individually grope for singular financial strategies based around content ideas that can’t miss (hopefully) or grant agreements that won’t expire just when your project is deeply entrenched in the public mind. If you’re counting–and you should be–that’s happened twice now in Chicago in as many months.
At C-BOM, we discussed ways to diversify our funding streams and work together as a community to achieve long-term sustainability (find detailed notes from the event here.) One of those ideas was to create a local blog ad network, pooling our page views to attract larger advertisers and sharing revenue. I sincerely hope Chicago’s blogging community–my community–follows up on the ideas we explored that day.
Before the alarm bell sounds on another nonprofit grant, and one more necessary and useful local website finds its future in doubt.
Read comprehensive coverage from Gapers Block Editor & Publisher Andrew Huff here.
Read a first-person account of ChicagoNow News & Opinion Editor Fernando Diaz’s former life at the Daily News and thoughts on its closure here.