What exactly is the Chicago News Cooperative supposed to be?


October 25, 2009
There are not a lot of clear answers for this question. What we know comes from two sources: the CNC’s announcement press release and organizer James O’Shea’s interview on Chicago Tonight. From my reading, here’s what we’re told CNC will do (in no particular order):

  • Provide “public interest journalism” coverage of Chicago City Hall, Cook County Board and Illinois government;
  • Provide commentary and opinion on these issues;
  • Manage a website, “Chicago Scoop” that will provide this content to subscribers at about $2 per week;
  • Provide two pages of content a week to the upcoming New York Times Chicago edition
  • Provide content to WTTW;
  • Operate as a cooperative non-profit, where subscribers can “band together” to request certain types of content and reporting;
  • Assemble a news room of “about a dozen reporters” within a year and get to “about twenty or so” in the future;
  • Provide coverage of sports, culture and foreign policy; and
  • Manage discussion groups on it’s website that will have direct future reporting.
Whew! That’s a lot.
As I read the CNC press release and watched Mr. O’Shea’s interview, at times I thought maybe this was meant to be a resurrection of the City News Service, meant to be competitor to the Tribune and Sun-Times, or one of a half-dozen entirely new creations. It is exciting to hear that experienced, high quality reporters will soon be creating new reporting in Chicago.
But I am still not clear who the market or target readers are supposed to be.
Michael Miner reports that although Phil Rosenthal had reported the creation of the CNC, O’Shea didn’t have anything to announce until he had signed a contract with The New York Times on Wednesday. This seems backward to me. Shouldn’t you know what you’re going to be selling before you sell it?
We’ve also been told where the news will be available – a web site, WTTW and maybe WBEZ radio. We’ve also been told that there is a bang-up team of reporters and editors (we’re provided many well-accomplished names) as a part of this venture.
But the product details sound hazy. What exactly are they planning to report on? For instance, for the City Hall reporting, will there be a new CNC beat writer filing stories every day? Or will there be more investigative journalism?
And what exactly entails as “public interest journalism”? My first thought is investigative reporting like the Hired Truck stories from the Sun Times or the Chicago Tribune’s death penalty reporting. Is that it? Or maybe we should be expecting a new Chicago Public Schools beat writer?
Each of these alternatives will target different groups of readers – and advertisers. I’m not sure WTTW cares which Chicago resident watches their show (volume rather than targeting, right?), but I’m pretty sure The New York Times has a specific target demographic. So did NYT just buy a bunch of big names or is there more to it?
More than anything I would like to see something like CNC to be a success. But looking at the list of things above, I see a lot of big think concepts and not a whole lot of brass tacks.  All of this is unsettling to me and makes me wonder if the folks at CNC haven’t got a clear picture of what they want to do yet.
There are a lot of very talented and accomplished people attached to this project. It would be a shame if they didn’t have a clearly thought out business plan put together. Let’s hope the net time we hear from CNC, they can clearly and succinctly explain their product and mission.