This week I am headed to Blog World Expo, the national conference about all things blogging and new media, where I’ll be speaking about ChicagoNow. My colleagues, Social Media Director Muhammad Saleem and Advertising Manager Bob McDonald, will join me.
Mu will explain how we’re using social media sites like Facebook, Digg and Twitter to build community on ChicagoNow. Bob will talk about how we’re making the site profitable.
As the Editorial Director of ChicagoNow, I will focus on the bigger picture. Specifically, why did a bankrupt newspaper–i.e. the Chicago Tribune–launch a network of local blogs in the middle of a recession, how did we do it and what does this mean for the news industry as a whole?
I’ve been asking myself these very questions since the Tribune hired me in January to help launch ChicagoNow. I’ve learned a lot since then, much of it on the job at ChicagoNow.
But I’ve also learned a lot from speaking with my students at DePaul University, with my former colleagues at Time Magazine, and with my friends and family here in Chicago.
The question that everyone is asking?
“So what is the difference between a journalist and a blogger anyway?”
Rather than respond myself, I ask them to answer the question. My students’ reaction is most telling.
The traditionalists respond first. “Journalists report the news,” they declare. “Bloggers tell us what they had for breakfast.”
fires up the new media types. “Journalists write yesterday’s news,”
they shoot back. “Bloggers respond to news as it’s happening.”
Finally, a newbie bravely raises her hand. “What is a blog?” she asks.
The debate begins. Whether we’re together for an hour or a semester, it always gets heated.
terms like “objectivity” and “verification” and “plagiarism” fly about
the room. The Huffington Post is compared to The New York Times.
Journalism as the Fourth Estate is passionately defended. Without fail,
one student–usually in tears–asks if she should switch her major.
To focus the students–and quell their worst fears–I center the debate on three questions.
1. Do we still need professional journalists who report objectively?
2. What makes for a good blogger?
3. How can journalists and bloggers co-exist?
students unanimously agree that we still need professional journalists.
They decide that a good blogger does not steal content and is
As to how journalists and bloggers
can co-exist? Well, that’s the million dollar question faced by the
entire media industry. At ChicagoNow, I believe we’re getting closer to
ChicagoNow is a network of local blogs owned by the Chicago Tribune. We
came up with the idea for it in December 2008. Our goal was to quickly
create an authentic, online community for all Chicagoans to find each
other and to share their interests.
To build the site, we hired Moveable Type developer Byrne Reese and web
designer Jason Santa Maria. Meanwhile, the ChicagoNow editorial staff
recruited the best bloggers in Chicago to join our site. We also
brought on Chicago celebrities like former White Sox pitcher Jack
McDowell and Miss Illinois 2009, both of whom we taught how to blog
The bloggers signed on to ChicagoNow for several reasons. They retain
full rights to all of their content. We pay them each month for their
pageviews. Each blogger is assigned a ChicagoNow community manager, a
full-time employee who acts as their personal coach. We do not tell the
bloggers what to write or edit them in any way. And, perhaps most
importantly, they receive credibility for blogging on a site owned by
the Chicago Tribune.
ChicagoNow officially launched in August 2009. By September, ChicagoNow
received 3.2 million pageviews, registered its 10,000th user and
launched its 100th blog. Every single blog on the site is about
Chicago. Topics include politics, fashion, fitness, crime, pets,
books, wine, travel and sports. RedEye, the Tribune’s commuter tabloid
paper, also moved its website over to ChicagoNow.
As with any start-up, ChicagoNow has faced its share of challenges.
One unique challenge is how a blog network and a large newspaper can
co-exist. The Tribune’s top editors fully support ChicagoNow and, to
our newsroom’s credit, we have been given a healthy amount of leeway as
we try to find this balance.
It’s certainly understandable why journalists feel under siege in a year when 20,000 of their peers were laid off nationwide.
But there is–and always will be–a fundamental need for professional
journalists to objectively report the news and investigate deeper
Can the Chicago Tribune journalists’ work be supplemented by and interpreted by that of ChicagoNow bloggers? Yes.
ChicagoNow bloggers–while most are not professionally trained
journalists–are experts in their own right. They are academics,
entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, designers, writers, chefs,
entertainers, athletes. On their blogs, they write about their
fields–often with opinion and anecdote–sometimes reacting to what
Chicago Tribune reporters have written.
And that’s OK. In fact, they might be introducing Chicago Tribune
stories to a new audience that otherwise might not have seen them.
In a step toward co-existence with the newsroom, several of our sports
bloggers have been “reverse-published” in the Tribune. RedEye, the
commuter tabloid, has reversed-published ChicagoNow bloggers as well.
Several ChicagoNow bloggers have already appeared on WGN TV and radio, both owned by Tribune Co.
To be sure, we hold our bloggers to the highest standards. In addition
to signing a ChicagoNow contract, each of them have signed our blogger
Transparency is key to ChicagoNow’s success. Therefore, all of our bloggers explain their backgrounds on their
personal about pages. If they receive a “gift” from a business and
choose to write about the gift, we insist that they disclose where it
came from. If our bloggers make a error, we ask them to amend–not
delete–their original post, as outlined in our corrections policy.
Should we find out that a blogger knowingly fabricated a post, defamed
a real person or plagiarized content, we will immediately suspend the
blog and then decide whether to remove it entirely from the network.
Our vision for ChicagoNow is ambitious and some might say risky. To the
best of our knowledge, no other newspaper has created its own network
of blogs. We are charting our own course and making adjustments daily.
But alongside those daily adjustments come new users, new blog pitches
and new emails from other newspapers asking how to create their own
blog networks. We think it’s a sign we’re headed in the right
direction. And right now, that’s exactly what newspapers need.
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