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Blogging Beyond the Bread Line

Another year, another Chicago new-media conference. On September 23-24, Chicago hosted the multiply sponsored, two-day Block By Block: Community News Summit 2010. Or was it two conferences? The first day, monickered Advancing Chicago’s News Ecosystem (yet also referred to as Community News Matters 2010) was also promoted as a stand-alone event. Actual good came out of the conference(s) and I want to talk about that, so let me get some constructive criticism out of the way first.

If you find the above conference branding/naming confusing, so do I. This was, in fact (according to sponsor Reynolds Journalism Institute, anyway), one conference, dealing with issues of import to the same media community. However, lack of clarity about the conference’s two-day nature in marketing materials promulgated by some of the conferences six sponsors and the fact that not all invitees were invited to both days of the conference had an unfortunate balkanizing effect both on discussion and on the dissemination of information relevant to Chicago’s online news community as a whole.

Next time (and since media conferences pop up like weeds in this town, you know there will be a next time), it behooves conference sponsors and organizers to stay on the same page, speak with one voice, promulgate crystal-clear marketing messages, and invite everyone to the table together. Community members have a right to decide what tables they want to sit at without others, no matter how well-meaning, deciding for them. For the record, the sponsors–and I do believe they were well-meaning–were the Reynolds Journalism Institute (who I think was the lead sponsor), the Patterson Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Knight Media Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, and Loyola University. (I’d provide links here, but the conference’s own website didn’t bother to link sponsor names to all-important corporate homepages, so why should I knock myself out if they didn’t bother to?)

That said, the conference/summit/event (really, clear branding matters!) was among the strongest efforts I’ve seen in the past couple of years to try and foster dialogue on ways to help keep the telling of local stories alive on the Internet, and to explore ways for community bloggers to establish revenue streams. Work done or sponsored by both the Chicago Community Trust and Chicago’s Community Media Workshop really shined on day one. (Previous, somewhat unfair criticism aside, I like them both; they get links.)

Trust-sponsored work led by Medill’s Rich Gordon (Linking Audiences to News–PDF) explored how and how well Chicago’s online community is interlinked, with local community-news sites Gapers Block and Windy Citizen emerging as clearly important anchors. Other key anchors turned out to be governmental sites like CTA and Metra, as well as what’s-on listings sites. That prompted me to ask whether actual viewership would be taken into account in a later round of analysis, since obviously people visit sites like Gapers Block and Windy Citizen because they want to, but only check CTA or listings info because they have a one-time need to. The answer was a sheepish, “We know, we know,” from Gordon et al, but this work was a good first step. Hopefully they’ll go deeper.

The Trust, itself, released the results on an analysis of Chicago’s online news “ecosystem” (News That Matters–a Powerpoint file, but really guys, this should be a universally accessible PDF.) Their most surprising findings? At most, only 11% of people consider online sources as their “most important” news sources, about 40% of people consider TV their prime news source, and another 40% consider radio their prime news source. So while the printed word continues to decline, it isn’t as if the slack is being directly taken up by the online word. (Hence the point of “How do we save community news”–as in readable news–conferences in the first place.)

The Trust also noted that those whose voices need to be included in community news debates the most–low-income and  non-English-speaking Chicagoans–tend to be those with the least access to the Internet. Some see that as the reason why this city doesn’t yet have a “Latino Gapers Block.” Personally, I think that time has come (someone is going to make a big name for themselves by creating one, just wait.) I’m tired of attending conferences that demonstrate how popular multi-category websites are for middle-class folks, but then proceed to dote on trying to shove naked news at low-income folks. I assure everyone reading this, low-income folks like restaurant reviews, fashion columns, and gossip just like everyone else. The lack of such “soft” content in pilot online community news projects offered to Chicago’s challenged neighborhoods could be a reason why such pilots have such a hard time getting off the ground and finding readership. People are people. I’m just sayin’.

However, the real stars of day one were the reports discussed by Community Media Workshop. First up were the findings of their second annual New News report (released in mid-summer), which polled and analyzed local bloggers and online community news providers to get a sense of the needs of the community. It came as no surprise that most online newsies make little or no money from the effort, nor that some politically connected neighborhoods on the far northwest and southwest sides have few outspoken online news sites. (See multimedia report goodness on The New News 2010 website.)

Really helpful, though, were the recommendations stemming from the report, released at Block by Block as a separate report, Realizing Potential (PDF). In it, the Workshop set out concrete suggestions for foundations to help make the online dissemination of community news a practically and financially worthwhile endeavor. They include:

  • Helping online communities create ad networks;
  • Helping online editors learn how to communicate metrics and market their sites to advertisers;
  • Supporting community networking opportunities and opportunities for websites to network with foundations and other funders; and
  • Creating “one-stop-shop” technical assistance and guidance resources.

Together, Chicago foundations and the online community are getting really good at the networking bit. But where’s the ad network we’ve been talking about for more than a year now? (In August 2009, I did my part to help move that debate along by convening–with material support from the Chicago TribuneC-BOM, a community blogging and online media discussion day attended by our community’s usual suspects in the basement of Trib Tower, so I’m glad we’re all still talking about that mythical ad network.)

That question came to a head on day two, the “national day” of the Block by Block conference. The star of the day was supposed to be hyper-popular national media critic Jay Rosen. But the important words actually came from GrowthSpur ad-sales network CEO Mark Potts, who, in the words of Welles Park Bulldog editor Patrick Boylan, essentially said to those present, “You’re all nuts.”

Amidst much anointing of and Groupon as the greatest Internet threats since rickrolling (why did we refuse to see print-media failure for years but are willing to bandwagon behind mere months of online success?), Potts said the only way to start an ad network…is to stop talking about it and just start one already. He underscored that data show few local businesses buy ads from individual local sites, and few regular readers are willing to pay for firewalled subscriber content. Most importantly, though, he noted that examples already exist for successful local ad networks–namely GrowthSpur–and that there’s no reason to try and-reinvent the wheel.

So let’s stop trying to. Would Chicago’s rank-and-file community bloggers be willing to organize around an “off-the-shelf” ad network scheme? Maybe it’s time we found out.

Categories: Chicago Blog News

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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5 replies

  1. Gordon, thank you for your comment. Here’s what I think you’re missing:

    1. Hard news doesn’t sell ads and never has. Soft news, lifestyle items, sports, and classifieds sell ads–they have always been the bread-and-butter draw of printed newspapers for advertisers. As I noted in this post, they are also key elements of the most successful online community news sites.

    2. As I also noted in this post, data show the individual ads you suggest will come for community news sites and community blogs simply don’t. They aren’t coming for newspapers, either, in print or online, hence the death of so many hard-copy papers and misguided calls to put online papers behind pay walls (which, again, few people will pay for.) Ads are attracted by eyeballs, not killer content. Which, of course, is the whole point of creating ad networks–to aggregate viewership across communities in order to attract ads.

    3. The idea that blogs and online community news sites don’t break stories is uninformed. I won’t Google that for you, that’s your job. But newspapers regularly use blogs to find story ideas and, frankly, news–and often steal those ideas or reprint findings originally appearing online with no credit. The Chicago Tribune has done this numerous times–but if, as I suspect, you don’t tend to follow online news sites, you wouldn’t know of the regular controversy this causes.

    4. When was the last time Chicago Carless broke news? The highlights of the past five years:

    • I broke news of a CTA initiative to force homeless people out of the rail system at terminals during cold-weather months, prompting the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to enact a monitoring plan and the CTA, itself, to back down from the plan in a Sun-Times article exploring the issue which credited my blog for raising and following it. (See my Homless category.)
    • Cooperating with another local blogger, I broke news of Homeland Security cameras that were injudiciously installed atop Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain in Millennium Park, leading to a Chicago Tribune inquiry that credited our blogs, a citywide debate about respect for public art, and the cameras being removed–with a public apology from the park management. This became a national story a few weeks later when it was covered by the New York TImes. (See my coverage here.)
    • I broke news of erroneous wayfinding signage installed throughout Macy’s State Street shortly after Federated assumed ownership that invented the names of the Loop streets that border the store–a major faux pas given that Federated made hay about being sensitive to the Chicago market. This became a national story immediately, was covered by all print and broadcast media in Chicago (including my blog being quoted at length in the Business section of the Chicago Tribune), and led to an apology from Federated and the immediate replacement of the signage. It also led to me and my blog being named a “Newsmaker of the Week” by the Tribune. (See my Macy’s State Street category.)

    None of this is out of the ordinary. Blogs in Chicago and around the country break news like this all the time. The only way you could possibly be missing these stories might be that you simply aren’t looking? I invite you to explore Chicago’s community blogosphere. I think you’ll be surprised at the depth and breadth of content that you’re missing.

  2. Hello, Mike.

    I have been appreciating your blogs for their interesting cultural commentary and in admiration of your courage in sharing stories of your life which are sometimes very personal. If I may be so bold, though, you are writing now of the bloggers news summit, and, kind of bragging about how you are the new news media, and I have this question: what news have you guys broken lately?

    I mean, one frequently hears newsradio or TV newscasters say, “According to the Sun-Times” or “according to the Chicago Tribune…” but when was the last time they would have been saying “According to Chicago Carless…”?

    I think the ads will come when you guys start breaking the news rather than just reacting to it. The ads will come when the news comes, but probably not before.

    In the meantime, I do enjoy your blogs for what they are — but news they’re not. i think the bragging is way on the premature side. For the news, we need hard copy newspapers.


  3. I agree, Michael. I should put a finer point on my attendance, too. I was invited to day one, not day two. Patrick Boylan shared his detailed notes on day two with me. He also is spearheading an effort to get an ad network off the ground which I will participate in. More on that soon, but I’ll emailing you details. I give you a lot of credit, too, for running a vocal site in one of those otherwise “silent” southwest side connected neighborhoods.

  4. You’re absolutely right, Mike. I was there, and all the talk centered on Groupon-like programs, but we’ve been tossing around the idea of an ad network since we launched the Observer 3 years ago (I know… stop talking and start doing). It really is the most viable option for any sort of sustainable ad revenue for sites like ours.

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