The Lessons of The Chicago News Cooperative


March 9, 2012

I come not to bury the Chicago News Cooperative, but to praise it. And if you take the big picture view, you should too.

There’s a lot of schadenfreude going around the news business about CNC. The mostly former Chicago Tribune gang led by Jim O’Shea broke a lot of china by quitting their old jobs and by striking out to create a competitor. News people – that goes for both journalists and businesspeople – tend to be a pretty conservative bunch. This sort of behavior would draw a yawn in the technology world, but the CNC folks did a lot of verboten things in their brief time on the scene.

From any perspective, CNC’s work should be viewed as a great thing. I don’t think I’m biased because I ran a brief joint venture with CNC, Early & Often, because the people at CNC took so many risks that most in the news industry would never even consider, let alone actually do. They got some big things wrong, as others have pointed out, but I’d wager they learned more about the realities of the news business in their two years than most people in news do in ten.

First, the praise:

1. A small newsroom can write compelling content in a big city.

Say what you will, and I know there will be lots of nay-sayers on this point, but I’m leading with it for a reason: From the very start people in Chicago government knew who these guys were and responded to them as if they were a credible news publication. As someone who’s been building my own publications, I can tell you that trick isn’t easy. (“Um, so who are you with? Where’s that?” is a common sentiment.)

On the government watchdog side they did great things. I’ll say it again: The stuff they wrote for Early & Often was awesome. Total wall-to-wall coverage of the Chicago 2011 election. That sort of thing didn’t exist before. Ever. Outside of E&O, I’m convinced their coverage of Police Superintendent Jody Weis and the department’s troubles helped push Rahm Emanuel to make Garry McCarthy’s big changes. And while it wasn’t comprehensive, CNC made a real effort to cover Chicago Public Schools, a beast that requires a squadron of reporters to cover completely.

All of this was done with less than two dozen reporters and editors, not all of whom were full-time. All original content. Not aggregation. Original.

2. There’s room for risk-takers in news.

I hope, hope, hope that people in news take this to heart. There are a lot of people in news that are going to look at CNC and say, “See? It can’t be done.” This is idiotic and similar to saying the same about tablet computers and the Apple Newton circa 1993. The folks at CNC did great work, they just didn’t get all the pieces right. CNC should not be judged as a failure, but as a trial that didn’t work out.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that CNC would never had happened if Jim O’Shea had not put his personal reputation, relationships and gravitas on the line. It was only because of him that people like Jim Kirk, Jim Warren and David Greising would have been attracted to this kind of project.

Risk taking in the news industry, as I see it, has been stifled because it has become overly professionalized, leading reporters and editors to believe they all require the comfy trappings of a big, stable, profitable company, not a rag-tag entrepreneurial effort. Where most reporters forty years ago came from second-rate colleges (if at all), graduate J-schools abound today, teaching every student they should be at the New York Times (and really, the NYT of 1995, not the one of today).

If the news industry is going to get out of the crapper, it needs to start with scrappy reporters and editors willing to take big risks with their salaries and livelihood. O’Shea’s connections provided a lot of cover for the folks at CNC, mitigating their risk, but future innovative news efforts are going to have to be accomplished without people like O’Shea.

 

And now, the bad stuff.

1. CNC showed that news is a business, not a vocation.

Except for some isolated cases, there is a core, basic problem with the non-profit news model: Your master is not who uses your services, it is the people that give you your money.

This is made worse by the fact that news consumers are finicky. They require a great deal of care and attention. In the non-profit scenario, they only way a publication can pay adequate attention to the needs of news consumers are if the needs of donors are so satisfied that they give you more than enough money. Don’t believe me? Ever wonder why WTTW rolls out those ghastly classical music-lite shows during pledge drives? Donor pressure.

Jim O’Shea says he stopped fundraising months before the closure, when he saw the Sun Times purchase as his CNC’s potential exit. But what if CNC were a for-profit organization? Would he have stopped collecting subscriptions once he saw a possible sale? Jim O’Shea is not at fault in this case: it was the non-profit model, which took focus away from paying readers and onto big pots of donor money.

It should also be noted that CNC started off as a collection of journalists, not a single businessperson among them. Some of them had covered business or dealt with corporate budgeting in their previous jobs, but that’s far from being a slave to the bottom line for years on end. Just as there’s a discipline to crafting a strong lede, there’s a discipline to knowing what costs to avoid and which to incur. It comes with experience.

This is not to say that journalists cannot be successful businesspeople. Jeff Jarvis points out that most don’t want to (And then there’s Josh Topolsky and Josh Marshall). To be successful in the news business you have to have a single-minded, undistracted focus on running your business. CNC’s business manager was also the managing editor. That’s too much distraction for anyone.

2. The NYT isn’t going to save anyone. (But we didn’t know that two years ago.)

Let’s zero in on an important figure: $15,000 a month. That’s how much the New York Times was paying CNC for their news coverage. At the end, when things were getting tight, Jim O’Shea reportedly attempted to get an fee increase from NYT and NYT said no. More than anything, this says the New York Times clearly thought through the value of CNC coverage to their publication’s profitability, and they decided it was a mere $15,000 a month. $180,000 a year.

That may sound like a lot, but the NYT is an editorial beast. They set all the rules with very specific copy and content requirements, and if one of their reporters is covering an issue, they’ll go with their reporter rather than yours. And still, CNC, or Bay Citizen or Texas Tribune would have to fill the content hole with something unobjectionable to NYT. That stuff gets expensive. You can’t do it with just one $70k editor and two $40k reporters.

The New York Times is a for profit business, and despite its giant Mexican bankroll, it is not in the business of “saving journalism.” It needs to save itself first.

But we didn’t know that in 2009, when CNC was first announced. It seemed like a pretty smart play at the time: Leverage the New York Times brand to build something good in Chicago. What gradually became clear though, was that the NYT audience in Chicago wasn’t a big enough platform to leverage, and meanwhile, $15,000 a month was not paying enough bills.

3. Too many stars on the team weigh it down.

It is unbelievable how many good reporters and were at CNC. Really good.

But a roster of star players can sometimes not equal the sum of its parts. When you have so many great, great people, there’s fewer people on the team that feel the need to prove themselves. Who becomes the breakout player? And oh, yeah, then there’s the issue of salaries and egos – although from all accounts, I’ve never heard anything about outsized egos at CNC. But still, when there’s a lot of deference going on, who’s really pushing hard to do the new, cool thing?

The talent roster at CNC positioned it be the next big news media force in Chicago. But, the publication never grew to fill those shoes. Really, most of those big names should have been heading big teams themselves (as Jim Kirk now is, as head of Editoral Operations at Crain’s). Had CNC limited itself to one or two great people, and a squadron of cheaper lesser-knowns dying to cut their teeth, maybe things would have turned out differently.

 

Ultimately, I hope and pray that someone else will take a stab at what CNC tried to do. The space for high-quality content is still wide open and someone could probably make money at it if they were able to pick up where CNC left off.