Why the Chicago Tribune launched ChicagoNow

ChicagoNow logo

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
unfailingly transparent.

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
the answer.

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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  • Extremely well written. I have believed---rather, known---from before the start that ChicagoNow would be a success. This is still the genesis . . .

  • Loved this post! I was one of those students and for those who know me, it shouldn't be hard to figure out where I fell in the spectrum described.

    I'm so impressed by all ChicagoNow has accomplished in such a short time. It's a great, thriving community, and as Brent says still in the early stages. Lots of potential for it to continue to grow and nurture community!

  • Excellent breakdown Tracy, thanks.

  • Nice job with this post Tracy.

    For what it's worth, a few media previously approached me about taking my CTA Tattler blog to their site. I chose to go with ChicagoNow because of many of the reasons and points Tracy makes here.

    And because of the good people here.

  • In reply to KevinO’Neil:

    I will never forget my first 45 minutes with Kevin, sitting in the hot seat as he grilled me about the fine details of the ChicagoNow contract. Only after he decided we *might*be worth joining did he open the menu.

    I'm glad you did join us, Kevin.

  • In reply to KevinO’Neil:

    Thank you everyone for your kind and supportive comments. It's a blast being at BlogWorld and I'm getting quite jazzed about our presentation on Friday.

    I'll keep you all posted!

  • Loved the part about the debate, haha. G/l on speaking at the conference, Tracy!

  • And to further validate what you are doing, I have had other newspapers approach me asking, not realizing or knowing my role in the project, "have you seen ChicagoNow? I want that!"

    From the very beginning in working on this project I have been impressed by a number of things:

    • The Tribune's conscious effort to approach everything about ChicagoNow from a fresh perspective and to challenge every assumption about what makes content successful.
    • The Tribune's discipline around putting readers' interests first, even sometimes I dare say at the expense of making an easy buck.
    • The Tribune's creation of progressive content policies that give preference and priority to the blogger.
    • The Tribune's commitment to Open Source by making available to the Movable Type community at large virtually all of the software that makes a site like ChicagoNow possible.
  • What a fascinating vantage point at a historic moment! I'd love to observe the lecture hall as one of these battle royales unfold real-time. Webcast? ;).

  • Tracy this is a great blog post!
    I think I can speak for all your former students when I say that we were luckiest to even have someone asking us those questions in the classroom.
    Inviting students in on the conversation about new media is the best way to empower them to make their own opinions and figure out where they fit on the spectrum. You made our class better journalists by teaching us how to blog!

    I'm so excited to see what ChicagoNow will do for the Tribune, but also for Chicago. After all, it's the communities and news consumers who will benefit most from this awesome new relationship between the Tribune and its bloggers.

  • In reply to jennkloc:

    Jenn, I said it on Twitter and I'll say it here.

    Your comment made me cry. Since I met you in class in January, I've watched you transform from an aspiring journalist into an actual journalist--and one who is at the forefront of all things online. I couldn't be prouder of you and I am excited to see where you go next.

    You are the reason teaching is worth it.

  • In reply to TracySchmidt:

    Tracy, you're the best! Don't cry!

    I think students--especially those who have a major already in mind--come to college hoping to be totally transformed by all their classes. But a lot of my journalism classes were teaching me the same ol' things I learned in high school, and that made me feel a little jaded.

    I'm not sure why I decided to enroll in "Online Journalism"--it probably just sounded new and exciting. I didn't know what to expect from your class--I don't think anyone did! But you had us asking what a blog is, what the relationship between blogger and journalist is, what makes a good news website...you had us doing community-based journalism and blogging about it, you had us critiquing various news websites and blogs, you had us producing multimedia projects, and most importantly, you were bringing in real journalists who are doing different things with online journalism and letting us pick their brains.

    And you let us pick your brain!

    I think anyone who left your class still feeling like there was no hope for a career in journalism probably shouldn't be a journalist.

    Your class made me excited to have the chance to be a part of the change that is happening in the field of journalism. What could be more exciting than that??

  • Montie, your post about Jena 6 made me think about when I had to cover Virginia Tech. I was 22 and my editor sent me to the scene as soon as the story broke. The students I interviewed were my age and more than a few reporters stopped me on the scene to ask if I'd seen the shootings myself.

    It was the hardest three days, reporting on those shootings and tracking down actual eyewitnesses--all the while realizing these kids looked just like me.

    But I couldn't write about that. I was a reporter and I had to file a story by deadline, which is what I did. I never wrote about my own experiences at Virginia Tech, either for the magazine or for my own self. I now wish that I did because it would have given a much more realistic account and one that has emotion in it, rather than just hard, cold facts.

    You are right that we need both elements in any story. At the moment, it is the professional journalists who are providing the facts and the bloggers who are providing the reaction. But even those lines are starting to blur and it will be interesting to see what happens in the months and years ahead.

    Keep up the great work. We're so glad to have you on ChicagoNow.

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