Chi-Town Daily News: Confessions of an ex-staffer

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The news that Chi-Town Daily News has folded really isn't news at all, sadly. You see, it was never a matter of if the project could survive, but a matter of for how long. Once the darling of the Knight Foundation's efforts to foster citizen journalism, Geoff Dougherty's project was compromised from within, by the very man who said he had an answer.

I worked for the Chi-Town Daily News as a labor reporter for almost three months, just before joining ( I would now safely say, rescued by the kinds folks at) ChicagoNow. I left a great job as a bilingual investigative reporter at The Chicago Reporter for a chance to dig deeper into community journalism and develop my skills as an online journalist.

My first day there, hints of what was to come should have become immediately apparent. One of my favorite coworkers (all of them except the boss really) told me the phones had a habit of cutting off mid-interview. Apparently it was because the system had been set up by Dougherty and all of the kinks hadn't been ironed out.

I decided to leave the project not only because a better opportunity presented itself, but because I realized the Chi-Town Daily News that had been glorified in a series of poorly sourced and unchecked stories was not the one I where was working. We were grinding away when we should have been, could have been fulfilling our mission on a more regular basis by covering the stories that were falling through the cracks.

The money simply wasn't there, and it wasn't going to come either. One after another of the people I worked with were fired, including an editor and ad sales manager. Ad sales, people. And for reasons they couldn't mention, because Dougherty made them sign confidentiality agreements. But I quit, so I don't have to go through that.

In the end, too many of the responsibilities for running the operation were controlled by Dougherty, who spent too much time fielding interviews and attending conferences when he wasn't tinkering with his custom CMS. I should know. I sat in front of him in the newsroom at Huron and Chicago and Halsted.

While Dougherty may continue to "run" the Daily News in some capacity, its important to note that it's failure was not based on its model. Reading this Harvard study within that context is important for those of you who might consider starting your own non-profit, community journalism site and pitfalls to avoid. Revenue is important, just fyi.

As with the majority of news organizations today, Chi-Town was undone by the management. The Daily News sank because of Dougherty. But it rose because of the scoops and dogged reporting of the talented journalists who briefly called it home and the citizens, a diverse group of people who cared about their communities, who would drop by the newsroom after a hard day's work to cover their corner of the world for the rest of us.

Dougherty's inability to accept help from these hungry reporters who believed and still believe in the importance of journalism, admit when he was wrong and delegate the basics of running a business simply caught up to him.

I couldn't talk about it then because I didn't want to compromise my colleagues' work. I bit the bullet because I knew this moment would come. If you're expecting a straight answer from Dougherty, good luck.

Comments

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  • Here's a link to Gapers Block's story.

  • You might have a point, but it's not much in evidence. Having worked in many places, all of which had phones and some of which have CMSs, they have problems.

    If you're going to diss someone - and in the abstract, I don't have a problem with doing so - show, don't tell.

  • In reply to whetstone:

    I'm not trying to diss Geoff. This post was an attempt to provide perspective from within for a lot of people who thought he had the answer. I'm hoping that coverage going forward from here will not focus on the "failure" of a non-profit citizen journalism project but include some recognition that his management compromised its success.

    I can't show you "evidence" because I'm not a cop. But I can tell you what I saw and some of the failings of its infrastructure, which compromised our ability to do our work, whether it was phone calls or publishing content.

    But what I can tell you and what I mentioned in the post was the culture he fostered that ultimately got us to where we are. Also, read the Harvard study. I'd ask him if there is any truth to what I've published.

    The reporters who covered Chi-Town never called other sources to verify his traffic claims, which were questioned after they were included in CMW's recent report. They also didn't check the 990's. I don't think the burden is on me to prove what I'm saying, it's on Geoff to explain, not decide that some nebulous "we" is going to go "for-profit."

    I believed and still believe in the model, just not in your boy.

  • In reply to whetstone:

    Local media beef.

  • In reply to whetstone:

    Fernando,

    Care to comment on the fact that you're a board member who has fiduciary responsibility for the finances of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists? The organization just announced that it has a $300,000 deficit (roughly 300x Chi-Town's deficit) and will go out of business shortly.

    I'm wondering what you think those developments say about your leadership abilities.

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