Is RedEye the “New” CTA Tattler?

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

When ChicagoNow debuted in May 2009, Chicagoist called CTA Tattler one of the site’s most notable blogs. Predating ChicagoNow by several years, CTA Tattler came with a built-in reputation as the Windy City’s go-to online source for transit news. So why for the past several months has RedEye‘s Going Public column been beating the Tattler at its own game?

Transit news has never been a major beat in Chicago. Even with regular coverage from the Tribune‘s Jon Hilkevitch and Mary Wisniewski at the Sun-Times, it usually takes a funding doomsday, derailment, or passenger shooting for a CTA story to gain mainstream coverage. That makes the online news sphere critically important to the telling of transit stories.

So it’s a little hard to understand the role reversal that seems to have taken place this year between CTA Tattler and the Tribune‘s RedEye. Both are now part of the ChicagoNow blog network. Before coming on board, RedEye‘s transit coverage was mostly confined to soft-news pieces written by erstwhile transit reporter Kyra Kyles.

However, since mid-2009, RedEye has ramped up its transit reporting, adding an investigative edge to the coverage of controversial issues including potential cuts in CTA bus and ‘L’ service, the firing of CTA operators who used cell phones while working, an introduction to the new CTA board, an ongoing wave of iPhone thefts, and specific, service-based rider complaints (such as this safety issue raised by a recent bus reroute.)

By contrast, since joining ChicagoNow, CTA Tattler’s transit coverage seems to have gotten markedly softer. Over the past few months, Tattler readers have been served up posts about “leg spreaders”, the potential to ban smelly riders (which I originally reported as a civil rights issue on Chicago Carless in December 2008), and bizarre clothing options.

That’s not to say the Tattler hasn’t covered meatier issues like the CTA board, impending service cuts, the need for capital funding, or repeated Green Line derailments. But if you’re a regular Tattler reader, there’s something you’ll notice missing from coverage of major issues such as these…any apparent criticism of the CTA or any other type of critical analysis. Instead of questioning who’s responsible for the state of the CTA system or assessing the worth or usefulness of the agency’s practices, nowadays the Tattler generally just repeats facts, figures, and news releases provided by the agency with little commentary.

Given the dire state of Chicago transit funding and upcoming sweeping eliminations of bus and rail service, I can’t understand why this city’s best-known online transit news site has spent most of 2009 shying away from asking the hard questions that define investigative reporting. Did RedEye clue into this reporting vacuum provided by the Tattler when it decided to beef up its own transit reporting? More than likely, I’d suppose. And now their Going Public column regularly beats CTA Tattler in coverage of rider complaints, service changes and challenges, and various forms of agency tomfoolery.

I first blogged about CTA Tattler’s lack of critical reporting in July when I called out then-CTA president Richard Rodriguez for driving to work instead of using his agency’s own services. The Tattler, however, supported Rodriguez’s decision to avoid public transit. At the time, I pressed Tattler scribe Kevin O’Neil about his stance–and the Tattler’s relative lack of substantive criticism. O’Neil told me he avoids criticizing the CTA in order to maintain his sources at the agency. I told him that was a good way to give another blogger an opening to do the reporting job CTA Tattler should really be doing.

As 2009 comes to a close, that other blogger turns out to be Going Public’s Tracy Swartz.

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What do you think?