Back on page 29A and 29B of the Midwestern edition of last Friday's New York Times, where you'd least expect to find it, was a signpost to what may be the future of Midwestern journalism.
Usually, these two pages are devoted to New York City news. Not that many Midwestern readers care about New York life. It's just the way it's always been.
But on Friday, the two pages were headed "Chicago," with a subhead: "Produced by the Chicago News Cooperative for the New York Times."
Again, Midwesterners outside Chicago may or may not care about the latest news from Chicago. But the two pages presage an experiment that may lead to a redefinition of news for Midwesterners who both care about their region and about the world, and where they fit together.
A caution: it's early days yet, too soon to break out the champagne. It's a long way from here to there. But it's a start, and that's what we're talking about today.
All Midwestern newspaper readers know that their major local papers are fallen on hard times. Once these papers were mighty tribunes, with national and foreign correspondents, setting the agenda for their states. All felt an obligation to present news in the round -- local, national, international. In other words, they lived up to the mandate decreed by the First Amendment, which was to create an informed electorate.
Today, most of these papers live on as slimmed-down shadows, most owned by Gannett or other chains, with thinning news staffs and shrinking circulations.
The Chicago Tribune has fallen the farthest: until recently the only Midwestern paper with a foreign staff, it has shuttered all its foreign and national bureaus and closed down its Midwestern beat. Its front page is as gaudy as a ferris wheel and its stories lean heavily to celebrities, crime and feel-good features. Both the Tribune and its main competitor, the Chicago Sun-Times, are in bankruptcy.
No other Midwestern paper is quite so bad. Most are run by serious editors who try to put out a good product. But all are plagued by diminishing funds and by publishers who demand a relenting emphasis on local news, no matter how trivial. Even the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, now the best paper in the Midwest, has suffered its layoffs and cutbacks.
Some of these papers may survive. Others may not. Either way, there is no Midwestern news organ that even pretends to cover the Midwest. Nor, in an era when the Midwest is struggling against a tsunami of global trends, do any of them take global news and, on a regular basis, relate it to Midwestern lives.
Here's where that Chicago News Cooperative comes in. Billed as a "public service news cooperative," it is a small group of editors and writers trying to create a place in Chicago where good journalism can be practiced. It's first client is the Times which, for the first time in that paper's history, has entrusted whole pages to non-Times staffers: the two "Chicago" pages will now appear twice a week, on Fridays and Sundays.
But this is just a prelim to the main event. In due time, probably this winter, the Cooperative will have its website, Chicago Scoop, where it will run news daily. This will be the real core of the Cooperative's work.
You won't find anything on this site about Britney Spears, unless she becomes a Chicago alderman. The Cooperative plans to shun celebrity news and focus hard on three areas -- state and local government, public education and the arts. It has 13 staffers now and hopes to have 25 when the website debuts. It plans to use free-lancers and local "citizen journalists," writing about their neighborhoods or their areas of interest.
The Cooperative dawns with a lot of credibility. It is run by two foreign Tribune managing editors, Jim O'Shea and Jim Warren, and has hired on some top Tribune talent, including business columnist David Greising, star City Hall reporter Dan Mihalopoulos, and cultural writer Jessica Reaves -- a lineup that mocks its protests that it is not in direct competition with the Trib. Its backers include Chicago civic heavyweights like Newton Minow and Martin Koldyke, plus the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust.
(A big disclosure is in order here. I worked many years for the Tribune and am friends with all the Cooperative staffers. Newt Minow and Mike Koldyke have been active in the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and their wives are both honorary life directors. The two foundations have been valued Council funders. I don't pretend to be a disinterested observer. But what I'm really interested in is the revival and survival of good journalism, and I wouldn't be enthused about the Cooperative unless I thought it would provide it.)
Readers in Minnesota will know that the Cooperative is not the first player on this scene. The St. Louis Beacon website is up and running. So is Minnpost.com which, like the Chicago project, is mostly run by former staffers of the much-diminished Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Both Minnpost and the Chicago Newss Cooperative are supported by foundations and donations. Both hope, in time, to become self-supporting through advertising and by persuading readers to join and pay regular dues -- to be, in effect, a cooperative.
Both are still resolutely local. Neither is close to running foreign news -- or even Midwestern news outside Chicago or the Twin Cities. So why the enthusiasm?
Because seeds can sprout. There can be links to any number of international newspapers or to sites like globalpost.com, a new (and equally experimental) site, based in Boston, that buys stories from free-lancers around the world, in an attempt to make up for the disappearance of the traditional foreign correspondent. As globalpost clients, these Midwestern sites could order up stories of direct interest to Midwesterners.
If this works, Minnpost and Chicago Scoop may be the first of many Midwestern websites -- perhaps a network of such sites, sharing news and resources and providing, for the first time, a true Midwestern "newspaper." Unburdened by real estate, printing presses and distribution costs, these sites can spend their money doing what journalists are supposed to do, which is to find the most important stories and present them in depth.
But can it work? Some skepticism is warranted. It depends on readers willing to pay for quality journalism. Oh sure, people say they will. But will they really, when they can get an inferior product for free, with Britney and lots of sports thrown in?
All I can say is that it better work, or we're all in trouble. The Times and the Wall Street Journal are fine papers, but they are national publications and, with the best will in the world, cannot tell Midwesterners what the news means to them. Our democracy depends on that informed electorate -- on voters knowing what's really going on, at home and around the world, when they go into the ballot box.