DNA Info Was Never A Good Business

November 3, 2017

Photo: yooperann/Flickr

The core problem was that DNA Info was never a very good business. The Gothamist Network is another story, but DNA Info was the big dog that called the shots, and from what I can see, there was never a time when DNA Info was profitable.

It doesn’t take a detective to figure out why DNA Info was not profitable. It was an ad supported business in two crowded markets, New York and Chicago, where it was far from the first ad buy. The sites were never crowded with ads, and their email newsletters were often filled with house ads. Their neighborhood print papers, distributed when they had an ad to run, became less and less frequent, evidence of fewer and fewer ads.

As sudden as the publications closures were, the failure of DNA Info to be a viable business saturated every aspect of the endeavor. Without profits, it existed through the subsidy of its owner, Joe Ricketts. And without profits, the company’s employees had no real leverage when they sought to unionize. Why negotiate with a group of people who are already losing money for the owner?

Of course, this is a bloodless thinking. Ricketts could have offered to sell the publication, or turn it over to a non-profit, and allowed others to pay the subsidies. But months ago Ricketts telegraphed his thinking: Unionize and I’ll shut down.

Even if Ricketts had passed the company assets on to some other group, I still doubt it would have survived.

I once operated a group of Chicago hyperlocal publications, Center Square Journal, Roscoe View Journal and Edgeville Buzz. I’ve not only run the numbers on neighborhood advertising, but I’ve lived them. Sold ads door to door and struggled to figure out how to make a neighborhood publication work in Chicago. You can read my 2013 business analysis here.

There just isn’t enough advertising demand in Chicago to support neighborhood news. I’m betting New York City is the same. As the Chicago Sun-Times proprietors (past and present) know, being the second market newspaper doesn’t draw a lot of ads. And digital ad plays matter less and less as businesses learn they can better target customers through Facebook and Google as well as through their own in-house newsletters.

This is not to say ad supported neighborhood news can’t succeed, it just can’t in Chicago. Last weekend I stopped by the annual meetup of hyperlocal publishers, the Local Online Independent News Publishers (LION), which I helped start. There I found a vibrant collection of growing, successful businesses, over 200 conference attendees from around the country. But the most successful ones were in smaller, rural, or highly fractured markets where readers couldn’t otherwise find news about their hometown.

That’s certainly not the case in Chicago. We have one of the biggest newspapers in the country (Chicago Tribune), one of the most profitable news radio stations (WBBM), one of the biggest talk radio stations (WGN) and some of the finest local TV news in the country. Oh! And then there’s still a suite of independent news organizations like mine, The Daily Line, as well as City Bureau and South Side Weekly.

Ours is not a barren plain. Readers in Chicago have plenty of choices.

And there is the basic challenge: Readers have plenty of news choices that remain mostly free. Sure there are paywalls, but they are still very porous. Publications that do not require their readers to make the hard decision, “Is this information worth paying for up front?” will continue to struggle because they place too much emphasis on audience-building and not enough on producing a product that people will surely pay for.

Towards the end of my neighborhood hyperlocals’ lives, we had well over 100,000 readers a month. It was exciting and gratifying that we could publish something, and tens of thousands of people that lived in our community would read it.

But then, in 2012 the average value of a web ad declined rapidly and Facebook really began to take market share. I turned to our audience and asked, who would like to buy a membership to keep us afloat? Only a few dozen responded. Hundreds were needed to keep going. That’s when I decided to close.

It was around this time that DNA Info launched in Chicago to much fanfare. They offered extensive neighborhood reporting, paid reporters decent wages and would do it all by selling ads.

Today, as the publisher of The Daily Line, I frequently hear comments about our subscription fees: $39 a month, or $395 a year for the Chicago edition. “Why are you so expensive, when The Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune are so much less? I can get all kinds of news for free on the web!” The rants come less often than when we first launched in 2015, but I still hear it at least once a month.

And yet. The Daily Line continues to operate. Our subscribers appreciate what we do and why we’re better than other outlets. We have an agreement with them: We do great work, and they pay for it. Just like going to a restaurant, buying clothes or any other goods and services transaction.

Until news organizations and their readers transition to a fee for services model, I’m afraid we’re going to see a lot more publications close.

It’s All About The Subscribers, Medium

January 4, 2017

Ev Williams’ announcement, “Renewing Medium’s Focus”, has taken media-Twitter by storm. Most everyone agrees with the truth of Williams’ pronouncement, “it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people.” Anyone that works in media understands that ad-driven businesses have been forced into all kinds of impossible postures to seek more ad dollars, none of which are also connected to providing a higher quality product.

But the second conversation, What is Ev Williams proposing to do in response? is the real kicker. Williams doesn’t really reveal his plans, but to my eyes, it would seem the only path left to Medium would be to create a product that supports subscriptions.

This would be to be very difficult for Medium, or any other service that proposes to be an intermediary layer for a subscription-based business model. How come?

Subscription-based businesses require close connections to the people receiving the product. Customers expects service from and access to the people making the product. Whether it be to complain about a delivery problem, to suggest a change, or to just talk to some of the people making the product. While everything may go swimmingly for a long while – your newspaper plops on your doorstep reliably every day – as soon as you get a wet paper or you want to cancel delivery for a vacation, you expect direct access to the people who will fix the problem. If you don’t get satisfactory service, you’ll likely quit forever.

Newspaper circulation departments know this: keeping subscribers can be a very shaky business. As soon as they’re unhappy, if that unhappiness isn’t quenched immediately by an authoritative voice, resentment forms, and the subscription gets cancelled, never to return.

Even with a small subscription base of hundreds for The Daily Line, I spend a couple hours every week responding directly to subscribers – and non-subscribers – troubleshooting their delivery and payment issues. It’s a job I expect to never go away. No matter how big The Daily Line ever gets, it’s a job someone will always have to do.

On the positive side, when companies build good, close relationships with subscribers, the subscribers become open to purchasing other things from them, often more expensive with more value-add. The New York Times is doing this with Times Select, Politico does it with Politico Pro, and The Daily Line does it with Daily Line Research. From a business perspective this is an invaluable customer relationship, and from a subscriber perspective, it serves as a natural trust filter.

If Ev Williams intends to make Medium into an intermediary for subscription-based content, I’m looking forward to seeing what new services they can offer to improve things.

The New Divide: News For Decision-Making vs. News For Entertainment

December 9, 2016

Last November’s election revealed a growing divide among news consumers: Those who seek facts for decision-making, and those who seek ratification and entertainment. And then a second alarming truth revealed itself: the number of people who seek facts for decision-making seems to be a considerably smaller group than those who consume news as entertainment.

The divide played itself out through the explosion of fake news websites as well as the fight to combat fake news with real news rebuttals. But the vast majority of readers don’t care about real or fake, because they’re just seeking a news entertainment-dopamine rush.

There’s a truism known to every salesman and entertainer: Give the people what they want, and they’ll come. So, Macedonian teenagers built real-enough looking fake news websites and cashed in with Google Ads covering the sites. Who were these people? It doesn’t matter. Now that the jinni is out of the bottle, these are likely just the first of a series of fake news purveyors to prey on American audiences.

The news industry, long protected by the cost and barriers of production (“never fight a man who buys ink by the barrel”) has been vanquished by the internet. Practically anyone can create a website, put up some catchy content, promote it and reach an audience–sometimes of millions of people. It is a reality that has made thousands of great news businesses possible–including my own–but also changes the rules of credibility: In the market of mass information consumption, consumers no longer determine credibility by brand reputation, but by how much the information conforms to a reader’s preconceptions.

We’ve been building up to this point for some time, starting with think tanks that cooked up desired results; to advocacy news websites that promote celebrity news anchors that “destroy” someone or something they disagree with. Now, with a marketplace flooded with “news” of a million different flavors, consumers are simultaneously overwhelmed and enabled to choose the news that best suits them.

In the eyes of citizens enraged with whatever crisis has lately grabbed their attention, fake news is just a slightly modified version of the advocacy news they’ve already been consuming for the last decade. The fake stuff is just more gratifying. Forget “destroying” your political enemies with polemics, you can read reports that confirm they were liars and cheats all along!

But of course, not everyone is focused on self-gratification. There are readers of all stripes who want to discern the facts, to make critical decisions about the world around them. These people come from every walk of life: They can be flaming radical progressives, to upstanding conservatives, young, old, rich and poor. They can strongly disagree on solutions, but agree on facts.

Yet, it seems that the pool of fact-oriented readers is a much smaller group than those who seek entertainment and a brief dopamine rush. Anyone who has spent any time in the news industry or politics has felt this fact in their gut.

Whether you call them “critical thinkers”, “deliberate people” or just plain “smart”, these are the ones who seek multiple sources, and are wary of making decisions without more information. They know the value of good information and are usually willing to pay for it.

Although I lack hard proof, my intuition says the divide between those willing to pay for good news versus those just looking for a “news hit” follows a similar split between those who are willing to pay for expensive iPhones versus free or cheap Android phones. It’s probably an 80-20% split between consumers seeking a free/cheap product that just gets the job done versus a high-end solution that enables you to do more.

There’s good mass market news out there–many metro dailies are producing great reporting–but economics reality seems to be trimming their ranks. We should expect the number of free/cheap publications to continue to decline while the number of elite, subscription-based publications, purchased by people who carefully discern their information, will increase.

Pressure will increase on these free/cheap publications, and network television news is very susceptible to this pressure, to dumb down and lighten their content. Meanwhile, subscription-based publications will remain dour in comparison, hewing hard to the facts to serve decision-makers, or those want to be able to think clearly about the world they inhabit. Subscription-based publications will also become increasingly expensive, as they seek profits from those most able to pay.

Non-profit reporting will occupy a middle space, providing mass audiences a reliable information source, and their readership will grow accordingly–to a point. For ultimately, most news consumers simply consume news as way to fill time.

I Was Wrong

November 24, 2016

I’m just going to come out and admit it: I was wrong about Donald Trump. I had dismissed him as a non-serious bloviator who would never become president of the United States. I completely missed how his rhetoric appealed to voters. I underestimated how much voters were tired of Hillary Clinton. I misunderstood how much pain voters were still in from the economy.

I missed how much Trump’s message resonated with voters. But I’m still suspicious of him. My gut feeling, which rarely steers me wrong, tells me that he doesn’t believe in or understand the rule of law. That he doesn’t understand the value of or support the idea of organized dissent. That he doesn’t understand the role of the press in democracy. And I also believe he is incapable of separating the personal from the professional.

That last point is most troubling, since I think we can expect him to be goaded to action, to take rash action when pushed by someone who knows where his buttons are. It could be a senator, a major corporate leader, or most likely a foreign power. And when he responds, he’ll connect the insult to his personality to a national insult. The national will careen into action to defend President Trump against the slight, and the world stage will roil.

I was wrong about why people would vote for Donald Trump. Those people deserve to have their demands answered. But I don’t think I am wrong about Donald Trump.

I’m Not Worried About This Election, And You Shouldn’t Be Either

October 30, 2016


This last week I heard from a few friends and family about their genuine stress and fears about the upcoming presidential election. Their choices, they feel, are so bad that no matter which candidate gets elected, our country will go to hell in a handbasket within a few months.

While there is certainly reason to be concerned about the state of our nation, I don’t think we’ll wake up to a nation in crisis on November 9. Although we have big things to worry about, they are much more boring and insidious than the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump match up.

But first, why I’m not worried:

  1. Trump isn’t going to win. Maybe he’s your go-to candidate because Clinton is so bad, that’s fine. I won’t argue with you why a President Donald Trump would terrible for the nation (starting with Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani and Stephen Bannon) but we can be sure voters will both not turn out for Trump and also show up for Clinton. How come? We’re a centrist nation, and we’ve never once made a radical choice for president. No matter how many emails Clinton might have hidden, Trump’s misogyny is a bridge too far for America.
  2. Clinton is a centrist and more reasonable than you think. Her record contains barely a single radical act, and since she finished law school, she’s become increasingly conservative and consensus-seeking. If anything, Clinton might be faulted for not getting to the front of changing public opinion fast enough (e.g. voting for Iraq invasion, hesitating to support LGBT marriage). In my past political career I worked for and with some of her top leaders, and I know them to consensual centrists too. Like follows like.
  3. The anger fomented by this campaign season won’t last. Resistance/protest movements need focal points to last. Most of the angry people we see at Trump rallies are fueled by being at a rally and the conflicting stakes of an upcoming election. As soon as the campaign finishes, we’ll experience a gradual decline of political news, with a brief perk again around Inauguration Day, but a complete disappearance by next summer. Yes, the issues of economic stagnation will still be present (especially for poorer whites), but President Hillary Clinton will likely throw herself into addressing this problem immediately. She and her team are smart enough to know that unless they do some real work to solve the economic problem, Democrats will lose 2018 and she’ll likely lose reelection in 2020.
  4. We’ve been through much worse than this and managed to come out stronger.There is no question, our nation is under trial today. Our national and global economy has shifted, our ability to communicate and know more about each other has increased exponentially and the rights of previously suppressed peoples (women, minorities, immigrants) have risen enough that they are now taking their rightful places at the table. This is a lot to digest in such a short period of time and change always causes disruption and unease. But we’ve experienced similar, if not greater disruptions before, and came out OK. The labor and progressive movement at the turn of the last century saw huge riots and the national guard shooting down hundreds at a time. So did the civil rights/anti-war movements of the 1950’s and 60’s. The Depression saw massive migrations and shanty towns and the Civil War sent hundreds of thousands into a meat grinder of death. America got better and stronger each time. This election is paltry in comparison.

So, we’ll survive this election season just fine. Yet, we have much bigger, long-term problems with the potential to do serious harm to our nation.

  1. The culture of compromise in politics is dying.Unless you live in a hole, you know what I’m talking about. The genuine willingness to give-in and provide the other side enough rope to either hang themselves or climb the mountain is creating a death of a thousand cuts for our country. Yes, we’ll lose some sacred cows, but maybe we’ll gain some solutions.
  2. We increasingly see government as an impediment, rather than an opportunity to serve. Even if you’re a conservative believer in small government, you can still recognize that a government servant can better your world. Whether it’s as a public school teacher, an urban planner or a state’s attorney, government employees help build better communities and country every day. As a one-time federal employee, I found my work tremendously rewarding and was buoyed by working with so many other dedicated public servants (even as we all negotiated around deadwood bureaucrats). Until we return to believing government servants can be helpers, we’ll be holding ourselves back from greatness.
  3. There is a widening chasm between haves and have-nots. Much of Trump’s support comes from a growing number of white have-nots. But have-nots come in all colors with consistent themes: Lack of education opportunities, lack of access or transportation to good jobs and poor health care. 22% of all American children live in poverty while we have a record number of millionaires. Whether the solution is increased government handouts or more volunteer efforts, we’re far from doing or thinking enough about these problems.

So, regardless if you’ve voted already or you have yet to vote, take a deep breath and don’t worry about what will happen November 9. Instead, roll up your sleeves and commit yourself to fixing the deeper, cultural issues we struggle with.

Medium’s Memberships and Subscriptions Don’t Make The Grade

April 6, 2016

medium.com logo

Earlier this week Medium announced “New custom tools for publishers“, a list heavy on ways to more easily share your content for free with a global audience. As content is increasingly forced down the Long Tail, I have little confidence this will be useful for 98% of publishers. Mostly, Medium is fleecing inexperienced publishers with expensive tools that aren’t up to snuff.

Their most interesting new tool: A beta of members-only content. From their promo page:

we’re launching a membership program that allows readers to contribute a fixed amount every month toward their favorite publications on Medium. Publishers will be able to set a membership price and “lock” certain stories, creating exclusive premium content that only paying members receive. In time, we’ll continue to work with publishers to develop an even more diverse suite of reader-support products.

I’m not sure why they keep calling it “members” because it’s really about subscriptions, the red-headed step-child of content revenue for the last decade (gimme more clicks!). Today for the vast majority of publishers, producers of niche content, subscriptions are the best option to actually make money.

The pricing system Medium has in mind is egregious. For the first 500 members acquired publishers only pay processing fees (2.9% would be the usual, but Medium doesn’t say how much they charge) but after that first 500 members, publishers pay an additional fee ranging from 20 to 60-cents per member each month. That’s a big service fee, considering that racking up your first 500 subscribers is probably the hardest thing to do for most publishers, after that, you’ve probably got kind some of marketing plan in mind or you know how to find your subscribers. So, when you should be getting to a glide path to profitability, Medium’s system is making it harder.

Medium also doesn’t provide details on how the memberships are managed, if you can uncharge them, make changes to how much you charge, create multiple membership levels, trials or free months. As I’ve learned managing Aldertrack, these are all critical components to running a serious subscription-based publication.

There are dozens of membership-tools for web publications, ranging from very good to mind-boggling bad. Many of the good ones are inexpensive, and there are lots of great ones you can use in conjunction with WordPress templates. As I detailed here, we launched the earliest paid version of Aldertrack for less than $200. I have some HTML knowledge, but I’m no hacker. Anyone with a bit of time and commitment should be able to do what we did. Over time, we’ve gotten better and smarter – and if your product quality is high, customers will be patient with a low-rent website. Just talk to Matt Drudge and Craig Newmark.

Judging by the tools Medium released this week, I’d say they’re less serious about helping growing publishers than they are by drawing eyeballs to their platform.

Advice For Starting Out That You Never Asked For

April 1, 2016


I must have attained enough gray hair in order to seem like someone who knows something, because in the last few months I’ve been asked for advice by more than a few people preparing for or starting out their careers. There are specific things you might want to know about working in politics or journalism, but the most important things to internalize are the most general.

So, here goes:

  1. Where you start is not where you’ll finish up. When starting your career, the world can seem overwhelming: You can do practically anything! (Hard to imagine now, but I really thought hard about a military career during my late teens.) But it’s important to keep in mind that what you start out to do, is not what you will end up doing, and there will likely a few changes in the middle. Take a breath, and realize that whatever you choose to do with your life, you can change it later. Actor Ken Jeong? Used to be a practicing M.D.
  2. Pick something you care about, and do that as hard as you can. As you move forward, the most important thing you’ll find about everyone is how much they care about what they do. Regardless of how small it may be, if you care deeply about your work, and are able to find value and meaning in it, you will get better at it, your life will be more fulfilling and you’ll enjoy the world more. If that’s childcare, making shoes or psychiatry, then that’s what you need to do. Find a way to do it with all of your might.
  3. Try to work with the most talented people you can find. Don’t waste time with people who aren’t trying to do their best. Every experience you have in life is a trade off from another, different experience. When you choose experiences with talented, smart people, you gain their skills and gradually become one of them.
  4. Read everything. Question your assumptions and conclusions. Part of the path to becoming great at whatever you care about is by building your own understanding of how the world works. Often times, unrelated things you experience become foundations for bigger ideas later on. Steve Jobs’ experience with calligraphy in college helped him understand the power of design later at Apple. Hours after work sitting on the floor of my first job’s copy room, reading back issues of the very expensive policy magazine National Journal eventually led to my earliest ideas for Aldertrack. Seemed like wasted time then. Twenty years later, it seems critical.
  5. You will make mistakes. Some of them big. They will fade with time and become learning experiences. I am the king of big mistakes. Most involve others and should not be put into print. But fortunately life is long, and even in our digital age where the internet remembers everything, it is possible to move forward and become a better you. The key is to admit your error, think hard about why it happened, and then move on. Oh, and try not to do it again.
  6. Don’t buy expensive furniture. This sounds funny, but as soon as I bought furniture I cared about, I started thinking about moving costs, and became less and less interested in moving for a job or new opportunity. It’s true: A really nice couch can really keep you from doing great things. Delay decorating your apartment as long as you can.
  7. You may really love your significant other, but your relationship should not keep you from opportunity. I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but I really believe this: In college I had two friends who dated and were inseparable. It was clear they would get married. But then they did something really interesting: One of them got a three-month fellowship on the other end of the country. Then after that was done, another one moved across the country for a long-sought job while the other stayed in the job of their dreams. This went on for a few years. In the midst of it they got married, but still spent many months apart. Eventually, after about eight years of this, they managed to end up in the same city with great jobs and start a family. They are immensely well-rounded and have a very domestic life. And have the opportunity of being together for 40 more years. Isn’t that great? Whatever pull you feel from your significant other now, if it can’t handle a few months apart, your relationship has bigger problems than you know.
  8. Avoid debt by not spending rather than seeking bigger paychecks. Debt keeps you from taking chances. Seeking high paying jobs keeps you from taking chances. Live simply (see #6) and you’ll be ready to take advantage of opportunity.
  9. You will settle down eventually. But don’t be in a hurry. Much like #7, don’t press yourself to be a fully settled grown up. We all feel like that’s the end game, and that’s what we’re supposed to do. But really, being a grown up is more about being happy with your choices than getting to a certain milestone. Ask yourself these things: Are you doing interesting work? Do you like the area where you live? Are you spending time with good, interesting people? If the answer is yes to all three, then you are living a grown up life most would envy.
  10. You will never feel like you “made it”. As a corollary to #1 and #9, there is no real end game except death itself. If you manage to create a life around being inquisitive and interested in the world around you, you will constantly be finding new things to capture your attention. Give up on “settling” things, and instead focus on enjoying the moments of discovery. There is so much to love in our world, no matter where you look.

Our Responsibility

March 11, 2016


People close to me know that I recoil from the word Journalism. I prefer to talk about “news” or the “news business”. To me, journalism is overloaded with misty-eyed retroverts who want to imagine it’s still the 1990’s and people read your stories because they need to eat their vegetables.

News is a better word, in my opinion. It’s less biased and more broad. It conveys becoming informed, whether on Tom Hanks’ new hairstyle, Frank Ocean’s latest croon or Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s best gaffes; you are gaining something you didn’t have before.

And in my mind, there is plenty of room for just about every kind of news you can imagine. In today’s long-tail media environment, thousands of publications ply their wares so that we consumers get to pick. From TMZ to Breitbart to Modern Tire Dealer, we get to choose how we want to be informed.

My friends also know that I am relatively laissez faire when it comes to the actions of my contemporaries in the media world. Maybe it’s because I worked in politics for 15 years, but my expectations of others is relatively low, so I’m seldom surprised, even if I am sometimes disappointed.

But my laissez faire attitude has been challenged by the latest leadership moves at Tribune Publishing. While the changes don’t surprise me, the reality is hard to digest for those who care about the Fourth Estate.

As much as I want to slough off the possibility of a news organization in trouble, the fact remains: It matters to my community, my city. Sometimes, great news organizations have the potential to change the world with their reporting. But mostly, they keep us from sliding backwards. In the moments when civic evils are revealed, Journalism becomes the appropriate word. I want to see more news become Journalism.

I’m the publisher and owner of Aldertrack, a growing local news publication that aims to produce high quality, detailed reporting on our local government. So, to some extent, the Chicago Tribune and its sister publication, Chicago Magazine, are competitors. But the news world is small. Competition among political reporters is both sharp and collegial. When a rival reporter breaks a cutting story, I am simultaneously irked that someone else did it, yet appreciative of the work.

A competitor’s great reporting may pull them ahead of me for now, but ultimately it lifts us all, encouraging my team to strive to be better, to beat the other guys to the scoop next time.

The reports from Tribune Tower have riveted Chicago’s news community: Is great reporting in danger there?

The question makes my responsibility clear as Aldertrack’s publisher: Serve our community with success. Sponsor more great reporting. Build a thriving business.

Subscribe here.

The Other Legacy of Gapers Block

December 21, 2015
Gapers Block on the left (founders Naz Hamdid in black and Andrew Huff in purple) and Chicagoist on the right (the author in orange and Chicagoist Prime editor Rachelle Bowden in black).

Gapers Block on the left (founders Naz Hamdid in black and Andrew Huff in purple) and Chicagoist on the right (the author in orange and Chicagoist Prime editor Rachelle Bowden in black).

When I first met Andrew Huff, I half thought of him as “the enemy”. An incredibly stupid idea, I know, but it’s true.

In the summer of 2004 a small group of Chicagoist writers had gathered at Wicker Park’s Handlebar, for an evening of cheap beer and planning how we’d run our nascent blog. As we schemed in the back patio, at one point our editor Rachelle Bowden stopped the conversation, pointed and said, “Hey, I think that’s Andrew Huff. From Gapers Block!”

The rest of us tried to casually look over–maybe leer a bit–and check out “the competitor” team. There sat Andrew with his trademark pompadour and sideburns, accompanied by a small-sized group of Gapers writers, also drinking cheap beer and scheming, so it seemed.

Back in the pre-social media days, blog links were how you found out what was cool and trendy. And in Chicago, Chicagoist and Gapers Block were it. We knew it was true because ABC7 had done a profile on us.

Eventually someone from one or the other group sauntered over to the other and we began to talk. Cautiously, but in a friendly manner. We were “competitors” after all. We took goofy pictures to commemorate the momentous occasion.

A typically awesome GB party poster by Phones X. Jones.

A typically awesome GB party poster by Phineas X. Jones.

For professional reasons I stopped writing for Chicagoist after a couple years, but also got to know some of the other Gapers Block writers. At some point I was invited to a Gapers party–they were constantly having them it seemed, and usually with cool invites.

I met Andrew for real. He invited me to write. So I did. And then we talked some more and became friends.

The weaving of a friendship is always more complicated than can be explained in words, of course. And our connection had a number of waypoints along the way, including an experimental ad network I managed, his support of my hyperlocal news site, some foundation-funded training weekends and the Chicago Media Softball League he was commissioner for.

Through it all though, was the presence of Gapers Block. Andrew was Gapers, and Gapers was Andrew.

He knew this of course, he has said as much to me during our many conversations about GB, in a half-lament, half-pride kind of way. I could sympathize, because I felt the same way about Center Square Journal, my neighborhood news site. The weight of it all. Knowing that people counted on you to tell you something they didn’t know. That there probably wasn’t anyone else in the world who cared nearly as much as you. If you stopped caring, who else would?

While Gapers Block, founded in 2003, was one of the first local “news and culture blogs” in the country, there are actually many like it, although each one is somewhat different. I helped found an organization, The Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) in 2012, of which Gapers Block was a charter member.

The vast majority of these sites are either run by one person, or largely driven by a single personality. They are true mom & pop businesses that express the interests, care and integrity of the founder down to the last detail. Not surprisingly, in the last two years, a number of the earliest sites have winked out, as the founders grew tired of the grind, went broke or just lost the fire. New ones have sprung up too, but those too are mostly driven by one person.

I don’t think I’m speaking out of school to say that overcoming this “one-personality” problem is something Andrew struggled with. Indeed, it was something most of the LION members I knew struggled with. I did with Center Square Journal, and it was one of the reasons I shut it down in 2013.

The Struggle: On the one hand, local readers love your site and brand. On the other hand, they’re just not willing to pony up money to pay for it, and your local take on things doesn’t really extend beyond the region you’re in. You make enough money to keep the enterprise going, but not really enough to expand to a full staff. And how would you grow, anyway?

One group has been successful. Chicagoist, and later SFist, Shanghaist and more grew out of Gothamist in New York City, creating the Gothamist Network. Each city’s site has its own local take and flavor, but from what I saw from the inside as the network grew is that it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity, taking hold of an audience and gaining brand equity before social media became predominant.

To become sustainable–and that’s a tricky word since twelve years of operation for Gapers Block could be argued by some as sustainable–you need to either create a huge national audience that brings in lots of ad revenue, or a local audience that’s willing to pay a great deal for your work up front.

This may seem elementary, but it was hardly the case in 2003, when Gapers launched. In fact, the I don’t think Andrew and I discussed the idea together until a couple years ago–and boy we talked about a lot of stuff.

In the last twelve years, the business of media has changed radically multiple times. And through it all, Andrew and Gapers Block has adapted and been open about those adaptations.

While most talk about Gapers’ closing has focused on its immense cultural contribution, I’d like to thank Andrew for helping me and so many others puzzle out the very difficult business challenges. Thank you for that lasting contribution.

Into The Breech

November 30, 2015

Some personal news: Starting today I am a full-time employee of Aldertrack. I’ve tied off my various consulting gigs and committed myself completely to making this wonderful company grow.

Although it’s had previous incarnations, Aldertrack’s current form has existed for about six months now, and I’m more excited than ever about its potential and future. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a project like this–where customers are so uniformly positive what they’re buying. That spirit makes the job fun and every day fulfilling.

We produce high-quality political reporting for Chicago and Illinois with email newsletter-only reports that mostly focus on Chicago City Council and Cook County Board, but with a bit of Illinois stuff in there too. It’s an answer to the increased commoditization of political news, some of which Matt Taibbi talks about here:

We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.

The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.

We’ve been able to identify a growing market for our product, where I’ll be focusing my time in the coming months.

My partners Jimm Dispensa and Ramsin Canon are a big part of what makes Aldertrack so great. I never imagined I’d encounter one, let alone two people who are so different intellectually and personality-wise from me, yet we all seem to compliment each other so well. Every time we talk, I feel like something great is about to happen.

I should also tip my hat to the two other full-time employees at Aldertrack, Claudia Morell and A.D. Quig, two brilliant reporters who have been crazy enough to jump into this thing with us. It’s going to get better and funner.

If you want to see what we’re up to, sign up for our our free weekday email here, or get our weekly updated tip sheet on all 177 Illinois legislative races, the Illinois Racing Form, for just $15.

Then you can see where all my writing has been going for the last six months.