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Winds of Change in Chicago News
City's Frisky Web Sites Gain Ground on the Bankrupt Newspapers

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.

When Chicago officials approved a 10 percent tuition increase at the city's colleges without public notice, Chitown exposed the maneuver -- and filed a complaint with the state attorney general. The chastened trustees approved the hike again in a vote held in February, after disclosing the agenda in advance.

Dougherty, who hired his initial staff through Craigslist, trains aspiring young journalists who have little or no experience, with an emphasis on avoiding conflicts of interest. One volunteer wanted to write a story about a South Side pastor until Dougherty learned he was a deacon at the church in question.

One benefit to his approach, says Dougherty, is diversity. "The crowd we have is way less white than any newsroom I've ever worked in," he says.

Emma Jackson, 23, did a story on a group fighting adult illiteracy -- and editors pushed her to find more accurate statistics than the organization was providing. "I'm learning it's a little harder to do objective reporting of an event," she says. "You want to leave your bias out."

Megan Cottrell, 26, a former dancer who started last year as a volunteer, is now a full-time staffer assigned to the Chicago Housing Authority. "They despise me," she says. But spokesman Matthew Aguilar says Cottrell has mostly been fair -- and that the Tribune and Sun-Times no longer cover the authority regularly.

WMAQ-TV's Carol Marin, a Sun-Times columnist, says sites such as Chitown do "a good job" but don't have the resources to "push back against the powerful." The Sun-Times is helping her fight a subpoena to testify at mob-related trial. "One of the things lost in the stripped-down blogosphere is the ability to fight for your stories," Marin says.

Chitown has some competition at the neighborhood level. A site called Every Block takes journalism to the level of pothole repair -- literally.

In Barack Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood, a reader could learn that a Starbucks permit was issued on East 53rd Street, that there was a burglary on South Ingleside Avenue, and that the Salonica restaurant on East 57th received a four-star review ("satisfying diner food") from a consumer on the ratings site Yelp.

"We are filling a niche that doesn't really exist, because local newspapers have limited resources and can only focus on stories that have bang for the buck," says Adrian Holovaty, founder of the 15-month-old operation. "Our philosophy is your local pizza place getting inspected is relevant to you."

Every Block, which has sites in 11 cities, including Washington, employs just six staff members. It is basically an automated feed from public documents, with readers setting their own search parameters. Still, says Holovaty, a former staffer at washingtonpost.com: "If all I had was Every Block, I wouldn't feel very informed. It's never going to cover national or international news."

The site is drawing 140,000 visitors per month in Chicago alone, but its future is up in the air: Every Block is funded by a two-year, $1.1 million grant from the Knight Foundation that runs out in June, and is looking for investors.

The Tribune, meanwhile, has 18 reporters assigned to focus microscopically on 41 suburban towns for a Web site and 10 regional print sections on Thursdays. While the paper is cutting back on its Washington and foreign bureaus, it plans to double the size of the TribLocal staff in the coming months.

"Writing is only one facet of our job," says Elizabeth Vassolo, who covers the suburbs of Glen Ellyn and Wheaton, posts photos of high school plays and edits submissions from 20 citizen contributors. "We hang out in the forums. The community is really jazzed about it. I think it's the future."

The Tribune's bankruptcy, of course, casts a cloud over these efforts, and now the fate of the Sun-Times will also be in a judge's hands. But its journalists aren't giving up just yet.

"We're sort of relieved about the bankruptcy, because it means we live to fight another day," the Sun-Times' Marin says. "If we can survive Conrad Black, we can survive anything."

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