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Sustainability Optional in Chicago Community Trust Online News Grants?

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Mike Doyle

Since 2005 scribe of the local blog, Chicago Carless. I invite you to visit.

[UPDATE: This post has a follow-up, Vivian Vahlberg Vs. The Usual Suspects: Why the "Community News Matters" Grantee List Is No Surprise.]

Today, the Chicago Community Trust announced the recipients of its Community News Matters grant awards, aimed at spurring innovation in Chicago's online local news sector. The recipients list reads like a who's who of the Chicago community news scene. But it takes a lot of reading between the lines to find any evidence of long-term sustainability for the winning projects.
The Trust's Community News Matters awards were made in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Knight Community Information Challenge and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Back in August, I voiced my suspicion that conservative nonprofits such as these were passing the buck on sustainability when it comes to the online news space. As I wrote then, the successful sale of Adrian Holovaty's Chicago-based EveryBlock.com to MSNBC.com could just as easily have been scuttled by the Knight Foundation's decision to walk away from Holovaty's site at the end of its two-year grant cycle. EveryBlock could instead have closed down--just like former Windy City community journalism darling Chitown Daily News closed down after Knight walked away when the funding agreement expired for that site.

Grant support of the above two community-based news sites was made in an effort to find sustainability for online local news, too, so forgive me if I'm not overly trusting of the grant community's latest dip into the "let's save community news" waters. And, boy, is it ever just a dip. In comparison with EveryBlock's $1 million Knight funding and Chitown Daily's $340,000, today's award announcements seem rather paltry. The headline awards announced in the Chicago Community Trust's press release are all at or under $60,000--and most are for projects that beg the question, what happens when the grant money runs out?

I'll get to them in a second. First, I have a suggestion for the Trust. When you are attempting to demonstrate leadership in the online space by announcing grant awards for blog-based news solutions, it's generally a good idea to, at the very least, announce those awards on a web page--not via a clunky, are-you-kidding-me 1990s-era Word .doc download. (Seriously, do you have a blogger on staff? At the very least, have you ever heard of a PDF file?)

The .doc-based press release actually quotes Trust President and CEO Terry Mazany as saying, "The response to this program demonstrates without a doubt that the Chicago region is loaded with talented people and smart organizations determined to find new ways to serve the public's information needs in these times of enormous change in the media landscape." Maybe you should hire one of those people to write your website, Terry.

That said, here are the recipients announced today and their respective grant categories:

Projects designed to "improve the flow of information in high-need communities":
  • Columbia College Chicago ($45,000)
  • Gapers Block Media, LLC ($35,000)
  • Loyola University Chicago (School of Communication) ($45,000)
  • South Suburban Publishing LLC ($30,000)
Projects designed to "strengthen information sharing, learning and unique perspectives by and for specific groups":
  • Chicago Association of Hispanic Journalists ($30,000)
  • Chicago Youth Voices Network ($60,000)
  • Community Media Workshop ($45,000)
Projects designed to "create and build new business models":
  • Chicago News Cooperative ($50,000)
  • Northwestern University (Medill School) ($30,000)
Project designed to "support investigative journalism and civic engagement":
  • Better Government Association ($60,000)
Projects designed to" improve technology platforms and aggregation of news and information":
  • Beachwood Media Company ($35,000)
  • Brad Flora ($35,000)
The institutions on this list are no surprise. Community Media Workshop and Columbia College have long been leaders in the community news space, and the Workshop has made no secret of its desire to be a player in online local news. Neither is the Medill School of Journalism's appearance on this list a shock (and judging from personal experience in the past few years with less-than-thorough Medill students asking for my input on stories and classroom projects, the place can use all the help it can get.)

As for the actual projects...anyone for a nice game of, "Where's the Sustainability?"

The Workshop is getting money to "build and develop a strong, healthy online news ecosystem in the Chicago area through continued tracking, convening, reporting, collaboration with and education of the sector." That sounds like program money to me, but maybe there's a project in there somewhere. The Workshop is also receiving funds to "launch...a reporting, story sharing, and translation service for ethnic media and their audiences." That's something this multi-lingual town has needed for a long time. But after the project is launched with Trust money, who's paying for its actual operation into the future?

Medill is getting a grant "for graduate students to help two local community news ventures develop sustainable business models, with in-depth analysis, prototype development and recommendations for business strategy, audience, content design, delivery, marketing and revenue." Huh? And those specific ideas and prototypes would be? Oh that's right, they're not developed yet. Usually idea-based grant awards are made based on the actual submission of, well, ideas, not promises made by journalism schools to come up with ideas later, as certainly sounds to be the case here. 

Equally interesting are the grants to leading Chicago bloggers. Gapers Block is, of course, Andrew Huff's longstanding headline and features site. He's getting money to "increase the amount of neighborhood-based, original local coverage...with priority given to stories about underserved communities and issues that affect them." Now that is good news. But increasing coverage in this manner is usually done by increasing staff. Who's paying for that staff after the Trust money runs out?

Beachwood Media Group translates as Steve Rhodes' Beachwood Reporter, an irreverent niche blog, headline, and sports news site heretofore not a huge player in the community news market. His grant is to "help the Beachwood Reporter...create a sustainable business model through strategic enhancements in technology and content." Why the Trust didn't categorize this grant under "new business models" I have no idea. 

Finally, Brad Flora is the entrepreneur behind Chicago's local Digg-flavored headline-voting site, the Windy Citizen. Flora's grant is to "upgrade software...to enable the site to expand and better integrate with other social media platforms." That likely means the Trust is buying Flora a new content management system.

Of the projects I've highlighted here, only Rhodes' and Flora's seem to have the potential to be self-sustaining out of the gate. If Rhodes nails his business model and Flora successfully leverages leading social-media platforms, they could manage to take the popularity and reach of their respective sites to the next level.

Remembering the experience of EveryBlock and Chitown Daily News, though, for everyone else I have one question: How do you intend to sustain your projects when the Trust money runs out?

And I swear that's not a rhetorical question.

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2 Comments

Rich Gordon said:

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Hey Mike. It's certainly fair to be skeptical at this point, since no one has yet demonstrated publicly what they will/can do with the money. But I will argue that Medill's grant concept speaks directly to your concern about sustainability. What we plan to do is devote the attention of Medill's Community Media Innovation Project class -- which for years has been helping local media companies, especially newspapers, launch new products serving new audiences -- to two community news startups in the Chicago area.

The classes will help these startups conduct original audience research, identify revenue potential and prototype designs and/or content. And we'll be explicitly looking for lessons that can be applied to other sites as well.

More information about the Community Media Innovation Project can be found here: http://www.medill.northwestern.edu/innovation/community_archive.aspx

Rich Gordon
Associate professor
Medill School, Northwestern University

frankalready said:

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why do columbia, medill, and loyola deserve to receive money that would be far more effective and appreciated by folks that don't have access to a ton of capital? this is disappointing...

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