Back in late 2009, shortly after this blog was born, I posted an article called "A News Day Dawns," about a journalistic experiment in Chicago that held the potential for a brighter future for all journalism in the Midwest.
This post is an obituary. That experiment just died, and anyone who cares about the role of journalism in our democracy has to be among the mourners.
The experiment was called the Chicago News Cooperative. It was founded by a group of former editors and star reporters from the Chicago Tribune, who had been fired or forced out or who quit in disgust after that paper, once the mightiest in the Midwest, was taken over by Chicago real estate magnate Sam Zell and plunged into bankruptcy (where it remains).
The idea was to create a news website full of vibrant and in-depth reporting, especially on politics, education and other local issues. If its staff was tiny by Tribune standards, it didn't have the expenses -- real estate, paper, delivery -- of a newspaper and so could devote all its resources to journalism. It got some early backing from local philanthropists and steady support from the MacArthur Foundation. It also signed a contract with the New York Times to provide four pages of Chicago news every week to that paper -- the first time the Times ever entrusted whole pages to non-Times staffers.
After many delays, the website was launched and is up now -- but not for long. The Cooperative's editor, James O'Shea (himself a former Tribune managing editor), announced last weekend that the Cooperative is "suspending" its activities. O'Shea said they will "reassess our operations and determine if there is a more sustainable path to the future." One hopes they'll find it, but it's a faint hope at best.
A variety of problems, all financial, seemed to have doomed the CNC. Uncertain tax treatment of future donations may have played a part. According to some newspaper stories, MacArthur couldn't guarantee its previous level of funding and the Times refused to pay more. The result, O'Shea, was too little money to keep going.
"CNC," O'Shea said in a statement, "always has been an experiment in trying to figure out a way to finance accountability journalism, the kind of reporting that many news organizations are abandoning as they struggle with a deteriorating business model and financial problems."
Some similar projects in Austin, San Francisco and New York benefitted from "seven-figure donations" from wealthy residents worried about the decline of traditional journalism, but the Cooperative never had that kind of financing, he said.
A couple of other Midwestern sites, especially MinnPost in Minneapolis and the Beacon in St. Louis, are still up and running. Both are run mostly by veteran journalists who used to work for their cities' shrunken papers. But this model hasn't taken off across the Midwest, despite the fact that all major papers in the area have taken the same kind of financial hit, especially in advertising, and are operating with fewer pages, smaller staffs and skimpier coverage.
A few, especially the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, labor mightily to serve readers but others have virtually thrown in the towel, relying on relentless local coverage and news-you-can-use stories to draw readers and advertisers.
My hope two years ago that a network of CNC-type sites could spring up across the region and, through cross-linking, could provide the kind of regional coverage that is rarely found in papers these days. These, in turn, could link to other experiments, like GlobalPost which draws on free-lance correspondents around the world, to replace the foreign correspondents that have vanished from the region's papers.
The death of CNC indicates this isn't going to happen. But the transformation of journalism -- the move from traditional papers and television to social media and new forms of digital coverage -- has just begun. Students still in college are the ones who, sooner probably rather than later, will discover ways to cover the region and the world -- and make it pay.
At least, that's the hope. It's a fervent hope. Journalism remains the key to an informed electorate, which is vital to democracy. The decline of newspapers leads directly to the decline of political discourse. In a globalizing age, Americans and especially Midwesterners are less informed on global events than ever before, which is to say they have no knowledge of the forces that are changing and shaping their lives.
If our democracy is to survive, this trend must be reversed. The Chicago News Cooperative promised to be part of this reversal. It hasn't happened, and that's why it's a time for mourning.