“The archives will remain online”: The Troubling History of Geoff Dougherty

UPDATE 2/1/11: Welcome to readers from Robert Feder’s TOC Blog. Six months ago in this post I suggested that Geoff Dougherty being hired by the Chicago Reader reflected a total lack of bothering to check his tumultuous backstory in local media. Now, a week after his sudden departure from the weekly, it’s hard to decide who has more egg on their face–Dougherty, who should be used to it by now–or the powers that be at the Reader

In a surprise move, the Chicago Reader has named media entrepreneur Geoff Dougherty as its new associate publisher. Considering his less-than-stellar history finishing the news ventures he starts in the Windy City, one has to wonder about the Reader‘s motives here.

Reader scribe Michael Miner announced the appointment on his blog yesterday, a hire decided by Marty Petty, CEO of the Tampa-based chain of urban weeklies, Creative Loafing, in a meeting that also saw interim publisher Alison Draper assume the publishing mantle officially. Draper, herself, created controversy last month by firing popular, longtime Reader editor Alison True, citing a “leadership issue.”

But if leadership is what Petty and Draper are after, one wonders where the evidence of it is in Dougherty’s spotty track record. Dougherty seems really good at launching big ideas–but pretty awful at following through on them as promised. As Miner points out today (and Poynter Online’s Jim Romenesko quotes), Dougherty, “famously asserted at the Chicago Journalism Town Hall early last year that for $2 million a year he could cover Chicago as well as the Sun-Times or Tribune.” So why did his only two major ventures, the online Chi-town Daily News and the print/online hybrid Chicago Current, both suddenly close up shop?

History suggests it’s because Dougherty is much better at getting initial investors to buy into lofty ideas about citizen journalism than he his at actually making those ideas work well enough to make additional investment seem worthwhile.

In December 2005, Dougherty launched the online Chi-Town Daily News as a nonprofit venture to mobilize citizen journalists to cover local stories in the wake of the dissolution of the Tribune-owned City News Service. That aim was invigorated in 2007 when Dougherty received a $340,000 Knight News Challenge grant to train 75 citizen journalists and forge a grassroots news network replicable in other cities.

Two years later, with a skeleton staff and no such citywide network ever created, Chi-town Daily shuts its doors after experiencing an approximately $700,000 shortfall for 2008–the year immediately following the Knight grant. In a Crain’s Chicago Business story that reported the shortfall, Dougherty blamed the money woes on the lagging economy, saying: “This year due to the economic downturn, it was unclear whether we would be able to maintain that level of revenue.” Later on the Chi-town Daily website, however, Dougherty recanted, instead blaming “Foundations and major donors in Chicago [who] have, for the most part, failed to support our work, as have local corporate sponsors.”

Dougherty also said he was giving the citizen-journalist training program over to Loyola University, but “until that process is complete, the website will remain online, updated with content from our volunteer reporters.” It’s unclear how much of a program Dougherty ever managed to create or what Loyola eventually did with it, and new posts on the website ceased shortly after Dougherty’s announcement.

At the time, I partly agreed with Dougherty, having just blogged about the danger of over-reliance on foundation funding. In a heated comment thread on Chicago headline discussion site Windy Citizen, others questioned whether Dougherty’s original idea could ever have attracted additional funding, much less reached sustainability. There was also consternation concerning the way Dougherty had treated paid staff, including lack of payment for staff journalists during Chi-town Daily’s final days. One former staffer in particular, Fernando Diaz (@thefuturewasnow), now the managing editor of Spanish-language daily, Hoy, posted a pointed criticism of Dougherty’s leadership and business practices on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow blog network, saying in part:

“Dougherty’s inability to accept help from these hungry reporters who believed and still believe in the importance of journalism, admit when he was wrong and delegate the basics of running a business simply caught up to him.”

But Chi-town Daily News was not the end of Dougherty’s forays into the local news space. Shortly after its failure, Dougherty announced the launch of Chicago Current, a news venture covering Chicago city politics aimed at paid subscribers, seemingly on the model of Rich Miller’s successful, state politics-oriented Capitol Fax. However, whereas Miller distributed his paid content in a low-cost manner via fax and password-protected website posts, Dougherty and unnamed “angel investors” (the most substantial of whom was rumored to be his uncle) sought to distribute their paid content as a much costlier glossy, printed newsletter to be mailed to subscribers, with free content available on the website.

Media watchers almost immediately criticized the idea (see Windy Citizen comment threads here and here), wondering among other things:

  • Why Dougherty would choose such a high-cost method of distribution instead of following Rich Miller’s low-cost lead;
  • How a mailed political newsletter could effectively cover real-time City Hall issues better than the major dailies;
  • For that matter, how the Chicago Current could successfully compete over the long-term with the growing Chicago News Cooperative; and
  • Whether Dougherty could rebuild sufficient trust among former Chi-town Daily journalists, local reporting experts in their own regard, to bring any of them aboard.

The back-channel answer to the last question was a resounding ‘No’ from a few noted former staffers. (No LMGTFY here, but it’s pretty easy to figure out who came and who didn’t on your own.) The answers to the other questions seem indirectly to have been provided by Dougherty, himself, who suddenly jumped ship from the Chicago Current yesterday to join the staff of the Reader–putting at least one local journalist out of work two consecutive times by Dougherty’s hand. (Again, LMGTFY.)

In Dougherty’s latest goodbye message, posted this time on the Chicago Current website, he announces his new job and laments:

“Though this is an exciting opportunity, it also means the end of the Chicago Current. I clearly can’t serve both organizations at the same time, so the Current will cease operations effective immediately. The Current’s archives will remain available online.”

Sound familiar?

From all of the above, if there’s evidence of Dougherty’s abilities to make a news venture financially viable, make friends with potential investors, follow through on promised strategy, understand the importance of electronic content delivery, or motivate staff, it’s hard to discern. What a track record like this seems more likely to suggest is that someone shouldn’t be in the news business in the first place.

It would take an enormous leap of faith to think that Petty and Draper don’t already know all of Dougherty’s backstory. If they don’t, they haven’t been paying attention–and that alone would speak volumes about the potential for the Reader‘s new keepers to ever adequately support investigative journalism at the weekly. It could be they want Dougherty for his ability to be a big thinker. Or for his connections, however self-damaged, in community news circles.

Or maybe Petty and Draper just need a young, warm warm body in place to flip the Reader in a quick sale to another investor from beyond Chicago who fails to do their homework.

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