Have No Fear For The Future of Public Interest Journalism

November 6, 2009

There has been a growing fear that Capital-J Journalism,
A.K.A. “Public Interest Journalism”, is endangered by declining mainstream
media budgets and ignorant media executives chasing higher stock prices.
“Unless we find enlightened corporate ownership/government subsidy/foundation
support,” the fearful ones say, “our local news will plunge into darkness and
soon be all AP stories and soulless breaking news updates.”

This is empty thinking unworthy of a trade supposedly
grounded in clear-eyed analysis. 

In response to the hue and cry, Chicago has become the
crèche of multiple Capital-J Journalism rescue operations, each heralding
Public Interest Journalism as their raison d’etre. They include the money-hemorrhaging purchase and operation of the Sun
Times Media Group by Jim Tyree and associates, the MacArthur
Chicago News Cooperative and the
enlightened capitalist
for-profit venture
of Geoff Dougherty, ChicagoCurrent.com.

While Capital-J Journalism  projects have been attracting bon mots, outside the
limelight Chicago has seen some true news innovation. The renaissance has been
led by projects like Everyblock, Gapersblock, The WindyCitizen, Chicagoist, The
Beachwood Reporter
, District 299, 600 Words, The Expired Meter, CTA Tattler and
Lake Effect News. All of these efforts have ignored journalism’s “tradition” baggage
and has instead provided new meanings to “news”. 

Maybe you’ve heard of Everyblock because of its recent sale
. But each of these projects have three things in common: They are
online-based, they target a specific demographic or psychographic and they
serve a specific need or interest that is otherwise unserved by traditional
news media.

When Chicagoist was founded six years ago I stumbled into
its then-editor, Rachelle Bowden, and became the site’s politics writer. During
the two years I wrote for Chicagoist, our writing lacked content consistency
and freewheeled like mad, despite Rachelle’s attempts to focus us. But we had a
snarky, ironic voice and managed to write about events and report news the
Chicago Tribune and Sun Times missed. Our daily readership grew from dozens to
thousands in two years and now the site averages about ten thousand daily
– and is profitable.

Is Chicagoist journalism? For the most part it certainly is
not. But on occasion it has breaking news and Tribune’s Red Eye often swipes
stories for its next edition. Other sites, like District 299 and Everyblock are
more earnest than Chicagoist and actually attempt to distribute real news,
minus the snark.

Together these sites make up the category killers of news.
They don’t want to serve everyone, just their specific, isolated niche. They do
not pretend to replace the Tribune or Sun Times, but together they are dealing
our daily newspapers a thousand tiny paper cuts in readership and ad revenue.
Enough to kill them? Probably not. But in our post-modernist world, consumers
want more choices, not less, and these category killers are here to stay.

This is the future home of Public Interest Journalism. A
significant portion of Chicago learned about and rallied against the parking
meter privatization at The Expired Meter. District 299 is the only place
providing consistent news about Chicago’s School Board. Service changes and CTA
budget cuts are written about at CTA Tattler first and in more depth than our
daily newspapers. You can learn more about zoning changes and neighborhood
crime at Everyblock than in the dailies.

Talk to any reporter and they’ll tell you that more than
half of good reporting is getting information into daylight. Judging by the
amount of information coming out into the open, it would seem to me that we are
entering a new age of Public Interest Journalism that relies on many smaller,
category killing publications, rather than mass market daily newspapers.