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Web Sites Like Chitown Daily News Find Opportunities When Newspapers Go Bankrupt

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

By the big, brawny, tough-guy standards of Chicago journalism, Geoff Dougherty's modest Web site might seem little more than a blip.

With four reporters, four freelancers and 100 unpaid contributors, the Chitown Daily News is pioneering a new form of low-cost, street-level reporting, the need for which was dramatically driven home yesterday.

The Chicago Sun-Times, a scrappy tabloid with a checkered history, filed for bankruptcy protection, joining the city's other major daily, the Chicago Tribune, in Chapter 11 status. It was an extraordinary development for the city whose newspaper wars were immortalized in the 1920s play "The Front Page."

"It's positively devastating and inconceivable, something I never could have imagined," says Pam Zekman, who led a legendary investigation three decades ago in which the Sun-Times set up a bar with hidden cameras to trap corrupt city inspectors. With both papers in bankruptcy court, says Zekman, a reporter for WBBM-TV who also once worked for the Tribune, "who knows if they're going to survive?"

Dougherty, a former Tribune reporter whose site is drawing 50,000 visitors per month, says the Sun-Times' filing means that "we're going to have to step up our game" and "bring in enough dollars to expand to a full-service newsroom. . . . When you look at a situation where a number of metro papers are going out of business, the thing that really gets shut down is local coverage. We can fill the gap."

Whether Chitown and similar startup operations can match what newspapers have traditionally done remains an open question.

After the Rocky Mountain News was closed in late February, three dozen staffers launched In Denver Times -- but said the online operation would continue only if 50,000 readers pledged to pay a $4.99 monthly fee by April 23. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, shut down by Hearst last month, lingers on as a Web site, but with just 20 of its 165 journalists.

Some news sites, such as MinnPost and Voice of San Diego, have broken important stories while their larger rivals have struggled. The Minneapolis Star Tribune, bought by a private equity firm just more thantwo years ago, is in bankruptcy, and the San Diego Union-Tribune was sold to an equity firm last month.

The 313,000-circulation Sun-Times was badly damaged by former owner Conrad Black, a onetime member of the British House of Lords, now serving a 6 1/2 -year prison term for siphoning tens of millions of dollars from the paper's parent company. The Sun-Times listed $801 million in debt and $479 million in assets. The Tribune Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times and other papers, filed for bankruptcy in December, one year after businessman Sam Zell bought it in a debt-laden deal.

Dougherty, operating from an office near the Loop -- after abandoning an industrial building permeated with glue fumes from the cabinetmaker below -- pays reporters a starting salary of $25,000. His annual budget is $617,000, more than one-third provided by the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports journalism, and the rest from other foundations and donors and a smidgen of advertising.

Chitown Daily News, founded in 2005, doesn't cover sports or fashion or movies. For that matter, it doesn't cover the suburbs. Nor does the site carry many feature stories. It serves up a bare-bones menu of the meat and potatoes of municipal governance: "Health care disparities affect city women, minorities." "Public housing residents get help with utility bills." "South Side Census forum airs undercounting concerns."

Chitown doesn't even cover Mayor Richard Daley. "We don't see any value in duplicating the Tribune's city hall coverage," Dougherty says.


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