This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.
When the Chicago blogosphere’s star local news site, Chitown Daily News, suddenly folded in early September due to dwindling finances, editor Geoff Dougherty promised to return “within eight weeks” with a new, more sustainable local news site. True to his word, this week in Crain’s Chicago Business, Dougherty announced the upcoming debut of Chicago Current…a monthly print publication with a companion website. Huh?
Why a print publication in an era of unprecedented declining print ad sales? On Tuesday, Dougherty told Crain’s that, “the money is print, so that’s where we have to be.” Double Scooy-Doo ear hrmmph?
According to Crain’s, Dougherty is banking on the idea that a print publication can command higher ad rates than can an online publication like the former Chitown Daily News. He’s in the process of securing $500,000 in startup monies and expects to have the same editorial and paid reporter team as at the Daily News.
Crain’s also reports the publication will cover the Chicago political scene on the model of Politico and Roll Call, and will be distributed to about 2,000 Chicago public officials including aldermen, City Hall department heads, and judges. Crain’s says Dougherty expects that a narrowcasted readership of such officials will give advertisers “including contractors and advocacy groups” a reason to buy ads.
The Chicago Current’s teaser page says of its advertising model:
“The Chicago Current’s mail circulation includes controlled distribution to virtually every elected official in Chicago. So whether you’re an advocacy group, labor organization, campaign consultant or government contractor, the Current is the best way to put your message in front of the people that matter. Our website and free single-copy distribution in Chicago’s downtown area provide opportunities to reach a professional, well-educated audience of city residents who are highly engaged with public affairs and politics.”
And for readers who don’t feel like getting it for free, you can also receive the print edition by mail for a $75 annual subscription fee.
Oy, my head hurts just from parsing this, but I’ll keep an open mind until the publication debuts on November 9th. But it all sounds very familiar. Like a cross between Rich Miller’s hyper-popular Capitol Fax and the crashed-and-burned newsprint hybrid, The Printed Blog.
Miller made a cottage industry out of selling a daily fax and password-protected blog of insider political news to downstate lawmakers, while keeping his site top-of-mind by also providing significant amounts of news content on the blog for free. So why not avoid the print overhead and follow Miller’s lead by creating a daily paid political news feed for politicians north of I-80? Why bank on advertisers when Illinois politicos and policy wonks have already proven they’ll pay to read insider political content?
And while I agree that it’s difficult to attract the right mix and might of online advertisers, where’s the evidence that a strong niche still supports ad revenue on the print side? Perhaps The Printed Blog wasn’t narrowly niched enough to attract specific types of advertisers, but some once and former Condé Nast publications sure were, and that tight focus still wasn’t enough to save Gourmet, Portfolio, Domino, or Modern Bride. Or any of the 279 other magazines that shuttered in the first half of 2009 alone.
I also know not all core staffers of the Daily News have been tapped to return. And I’m not just talking about previous reporters who jumped ship before the closure, like ChicagoNow One Story Up scribe Megan Cottrell, or Chicago Now news & opinion community manager Fernando Diaz (who went public about his displeasure with Dougherty’s Daily News management style after the closure.)
Time will tell if Dougherty’s Chicago Current fares better than its predecessor publication. Its lack of a broad focus means that no matter how successful it turns out to be, it’s not a replacement for the Daily News. As the former publication’s former editor turns his sights to the for-profit print world, when the the Windy City will be graced again with a top-flight citizen journalism news blog is an open question.
But the biggest question of all is whether Chicago Current can laser into its topics of choice deeply and consistently enough for people to pay for similar news they already pay to read in other places or get for free. Regarding those topics, the Chicago Current splash page says:
“Every month, our print edition brings you unique, must-read reporting on the personalities and issues that drive public policy in our city. From incisive coverage of City Hall, the CTA and other agencies, to the nitty gritty on insider topics like lobbying and campaign finance, the Current brings you vitally important information you won’t find anywhere else.”
Except maybe in the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago Business, the Chicago Reader, CTA Tattler…or Captiol Fax, for that matter, which certainly does not ignore northern Illinois politics.
I can’t seem to fight the feeling that if this were a dinner party, at some point I’d overhear someone saying, “Smoke, nice of you to join us–meet Mirrors…”