ChicagoNow: Open for discussion--and debate

February may have only been 28 days long, but it was our strongest month yet.

ChicagoNow received a record 13 million pageviews and 1.3 million
unique visitors in February. That continues our track record of
month-over-month growth since our site launched last summer.

We also set a new record for revenue in February. While ChicagoNow is not yet profitable, we get closer to it every month.

Our continued success is possible because of the hard work of our
bloggers and our staff.  However, such success does not come without
growing pains.

Mike Doyle, whose contract with ChicagoNow expired yesterday, has many
complaints about our site. So he did what any good blogger does--he
blogged about them on his own site.
Mike also got a heated discussion
going on Windy Citizen, a social network for Chicagoans, and on
Twitter. By the day's end, Mike got the attention of media watchers
from the Chicago Reader, Poynter Online's Romenesko and NYU.

To his credit, Mike raises strong points.

Overall site navigation. We understand that ChicagoNow's
navigation needs to be fixed. The question is how? How do we create a
site design that showcases the breadth and depth of our content in
real-time? This is the question that we're putting before several
vendors and one that we plan to solve asap.

Navbars and sidebars, i.e. the navigational bars on the top and
right side of each individual blog. We've already been working on a
redesign of our bloggers' right rail and, after discussing it with our
bloggers, plan to roll the new design out this month.

Pay scale. Would we like to pay our bloggers more? Of
course we would. But right now our focus is on making ChicagoNow
profitable so that there will continue to be a ChicagoNow. That means
building a local audience.

Yet I strongly disagree with several of Mike's other points, specifically:

  • At ChicagoNow, our staff literally works around the clock to
    respond to our bloggers' problems and requests. We also make it a point
    to hold monthly ChicagoNow tweetups so that our bloggers and followers
    can tell us what needs fixing.




  • Our development is slow and steady. It takes a lot of time and a
    lot of people to build, tweak and grow a network as big as ChicagoNow.



  • The Chicago Tribune newsroom as a whole is very supportive of
    ChicagoNow. Yes, we did have a few teaching moments in the past year as
    we learned to co-exist. Today we couldn't ask for better colleagues.



To the best of our knowledge, there is no site that even comes close to
ours. One year ago, ChicagoNow did not even exist. Today we are a
network that is home to more than 225 blogs and thousands of users--all
of them passionate about Chicago.

Until today, we've let our numbers speak for themselves. But we knew
the day would come when the topic of ChicagoNow itself became "open for
discussion."

If we have learned anything from our bloggers, we should welcome that discussion. And we do.

Filed under: Site Development

Comments

Leave a comment
  • "That means building a local audience."

    I understand it's CHICAGO Now, but if your financial success depends on the local audience alone, there's a reason you're not profitable. As I recall, the baseball team the Trib used to own ballooned in value because of the national exposure it received on WGN. If you sell ads to Chicago markets only (instead of using ad placement based on the location of your visitors) this site will never be profitable.

    And I have to assume that your traffic estimates are overlooking loads of local users who have either artificially changed their IP locations or have otherwise made such data unavailable.

    This whole post is fail. (now let me just copy my comment in case a ChicagoNow posting error causes it to delete)

  • In reply to AndCounting:

    Sorry, I should tone that down. I don't mean that as a personal attack. I just think you're glossing over the drawbacks of a clearly flawed site with deceiving measures of success.

  • In reply to AndCounting:

    The real issue...especially for those who signed up with CN from the beginning...was the promises that were made to the bloggers about future functionality and support for the network. From what I can tell, with the exception of only a couple of updates that provided minimal improvement, those promises weren't really upheld.

  • In reply to AndCounting:

    This is interesting. I started blogging Image of Humanity in early February. I do feel that there is so much web traffic data out there that we could receive but aren't receiving that could potentially improve our blogs and help us reach our target audiences more successfully. I can see that there is some frustration, but all we can really do is wait.

  • In reply to AndCounting:

    We understand that ChicagoNow's navigation needs to be fixed. The question is how? How do we create a site design that showcases the breadth and depth of our content in real-time? This is the question that we're putting before several vendors and one that we plan to solve asap.

    Give up the homepage to the bloggers. Let the homepage be about the latests post by all the blogs on the network and the comments. Or make it so if someone clicks on the top tabs the displayed posts (with pictures) on the homepage are the latest from that category.

    We've already been working on a redesign of our bloggers' right rail and, after discussing it with our bloggers, plan to roll the new design out this month.

    I'm curious to see this because I didn't know there was input being taken about the sidebar.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    I'm curious to see this because I didn't know there was input being taken about the sidebar.

    Ouch.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    Tracy, what percentage of those uniques/page views are local?

    Here's my hypothesis, for what it's worth. I speculate the most of the blogs here (as with sites in general), have far fewer regular readers than generally believed. Large page views are generated through gimmickry such as slide shows and multi-page articles, and a relative small number of users account for the vast bulk of page views.

    This kills your ability to monetize the site through advertising, and here's why. When running an ad campaign you want to think about variables like reach and frequency. Reach is the percentage of my target demographic I am reaching. Frequency is how many times they see my ad.

    Television ads work well generally because you can get pretty good reach with shows that a lot of your target watches. And you have pretty good control over how many times your target audience sees your ad. The same is true with radio advertisements like WBBM-AM drive time.

    But what percentage of any reasonable demographic is reached by Chicago Now? Other than rabid team specific sports fans, what type of audience and what percentage of that audience is being delivered by say the CTA Tattler? What type of audience reach is Chicago Now delivering?

    And, I would again hypothesize that because you have SEO led strategy, a lot of users stumble on the site by accident and never come back. That is, a lot of your users have only one or two monthly page views. So you get to serve up one or only a handful of ads. Again, unlike a TV show where each user will watch a number of ads throughout.

    Also, because of the core user base driving many page views, you can't just use static sponsorships or you are wasting most of your impressions. You have to constantly rotate ads, which means you need lots of ads to rotate to, which leads to lower quality ad network type ads like weight loss sites or classmates.com, not high quality local advertisers with products that users are likely to see as relevant.

    This is the problem with any site that is built to be a "page view machine", which CN clearly is. I'm not sure there will ever be a viable economic model for this. Even sites like Huffington Post which pull very large page views have remained unprofitable. Particularly with any sort of reasonable overhead allocation, CN is going to struggle to show a significant profit. (I'm curious to know what load the Trib makes you carry in that regard, if it isn't a trade secret).

    I'm also surprised that CN was launched as a Chicago-specific site, unlike what appears to be the successful Metromix model so that you could eventually franchise to other Trib properties and drive really mega-pageviews, or better position it for an exit via acquisition.

    The logical method of turning this into a winner for the Trib would have been to cultivate it as an alternative content source for the print edition. You had top writers like Megan Cottrell whose material could easily, with some editing, be printworthy. If you just paid a modest syndication fee you could probably have replaced some full time staff with much cheaper freelancers and helped the bottom line a lot. Or used this to simply complement at a low cost what the Trib already does.

    In short, I'm not sure I understand the business strategy that underlies Chicago Now as platform. I always thought the idea of the Tribune getting into the blog network business was a great idea, but I'm struggling to understand the end game on this given the current approach.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    Thanks everyone for the feedback both here and over on Windy Citizen.

    We realize that the biggest issue across the board is communication with our bloggers. As I said in my post above, our site's early success does not come without growing pains.

    We appreciate your ongoing patience as we quickly address this and other issues. If any of our bloggers or users would like to speak with me directly, please email me at tsschmidt@chicagonow.com.

    Keep the feedback coming and thanks.

  • In reply to TracySchmidt:

    BTW, this open "we're listening" approach is precisely the right way to handle this. Kudos to you and your team, Tracy, for taking this tack... which is almost entirely unheard of in the rest of the media world.

  • In reply to TracySchmidt:

    I also want to give mad props to Tracy for creating and supporting this community.

  • In reply to MareSwallow:

    Thanks Mare.

    That's super kind of you to say, but it's the result of a LOT of people working very hard at Tribune and around Chicago that the community has grown so quickly.

  • In reply to MareSwallow:

    Yes to an easier commenting system and YES to better communication.

    That being said, I think that CN has been a good opportunity for many Chicago bloggers. At least, that has been my experience.

    It is hard for me to imagine that many bloggers who joined on to this experiment are somehow worse off for it.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    Re: the comment system: I'd love to see a way where people can comment easily and anonymously and quickly. Commenters on my blog have stated that they don't like the registration process.

  • In reply to AndCounting:

    I'm curious if Chicago Now plans to share specifics as to those stats that keep being thrown out. They're impressive numbers, but how does it break down amongst the 220+ individual blogs? How much of those views do the RedEye blogs account for? How much of that comes from referrers like Digg and posting links on the Trib's front page? I'm genuinely curious as to how those numbers break down and I know I'm far from the only one (as evidenced on the Windy Citizen thread). Those seem to be the kind of numbers that can really teach us something about what works and what doesn't online.

  • In reply to mdgilmer:

    Marcus, as a blogger here for about a month, I still don't have that data for my own blog.

Leave a comment