What We’ve Learned From Aldertrack (Part Two)

February 1, 2015


Regardless of where it goes now, Aldertrack has become more than anything my partners and I ever imagined it would become. From that first time Jimm Dispensa and I really talked about it at the Skylark Lounge in early September to when I convinced Ramsin Canon to help out with our email updates in November – it’s hard to believe so much has happened in that short period of time. [First in this series is here.]

So, with a week until Chicagoans start to early vote, and the actual first Election Day on Tuesday, February 24, what exactly HAS happened with Aldertrack?

  • We have a weekday email update that goes to about 4,100 people with an average 26% open rate.
  • The email list includes many of Chicago’s consultants, lobbyists, politicians, top bureaucrats, journalists and politically passionate people. We’re sure there are many we’re not reaching, but anecdotally, we hear that the weekday email has captured the zeitgeist of the elections.
  • We have about 610 people that have purchased either the 1st or 2nd Editions of the Racing Form.
  • Our Twitter following has grown and interactions have become critical to our success. We’re at 1,440 followers as of today, which is by no means big, but it’s become an important news source for us.
  • We started with our first national advertiser, The American Petroleum Institute, which is kind of the epitome of big business thinking. If THEY think Aldertrack can serve their needs, we must be doing something good.
  • We’ve interviewed three dozen candidates on video. Our YouTube channel has only about 5,000 views as of today, but we keep hearing from “insiders” that seeing so many actual candidates has made the ward races seem more accessible and changed their thinking.
  • We made a handshake agreement with a local pollster for exclusive Aldertrack polls. Our first one was last week, and it showed some very interesting stuff in the 43rd Ward.
  • We added two more people to our team, A.D. Quig, who produces our candidate interviews, and Claudia Morell who reports for the Update. They are wonderful, amazing and make all the difference.

Checking on some expectations:

  • Jimm and I thought we’d get to about 6,000 email subscribers by Election Day. That could still happen with some big event, but I don’t see it right now.
  • We thought Racing Form subscriptions would top out around 800 by Election Day. That seems likely at this point.
  • Jimm and I concocted this as a little hobby project for the two of us. It now involves five people gathering information and chatting daily on Slack. It takes a lot of everyone’s time.

And, the newest lessons learned:

1. Great Reporting Comes From Great Readers. We’re doing more and more original reporting each week, but many of our leads come from our totally engaged readers. Twitter, email and phone calls. Without our great readers, we’d be so much less.

2. Keeping It Simple Is A Daily Struggle. Every day we are confronted with, “What if we did this?” and then we have to figure out how hard it would be and if it would actually bring a result people would want. Mayoral coverage is something that keeps coming up and we keep deciding, “No.” The fact that we all have day jobs keeps us focused in a good way.

3. Exposure On Other Media Doesn’t Directly Result In New Readers. Other media outlets have been very kind to us. We’ve appeared on radio, television, in print and all over the web in Chicago. However, each time we’ve noticed only a small number of upticks of email or Racing Form subscribers. BUT our existing readers tell us whenever they hear us, see us or read about us elsewhere. Clearly, exposure in other media reenforces Aldertrack’s legitimacy and probably has an important indirect impact on our readership numbers.

We interviewed Michael Scott, Jr., who's running in the West Side's 24th Ward.

We interviewed Michael Scott, Jr., who’s running in the West Side’s 24th Ward.

4. Video Doesn’t Get As Many Eyeballs, But It Makes You Seem “Professional”. Anecdotally we keep hearing that our on-camera candidate interviews have changed how people think about ward races. They make candidates from far-flung wards seem real with actual personalities and ideas. On top of that, video still has an element of glamor to most people. The parade of people coming by for interviews seems to elevates Aldertrack to a level above “basement bloggers.”

5. Professional DIY Video Is Here. We’re lucky to have access to a great quiet, professional studio with our partner Rivet Radio (where I work my day job). But when candidates get into the studio and see just two iPhones on tripods, they’re all shocked. Incredibly, shooting with stock iPhones (we use a 6 and a 4S) and editing with iMovie provides you with broadcast quality 1080p video. It helps that we have a professional studio with great sound, but those things could have been solved with less than $200 of prosumer equipment. Technical challenges for video production are gone. Today’s challenge is producing good interviews.

6. In Many Parts of The City, Aldertrack Is The Only News Outlet Around. DNAInfo deserves a great deal of credit for how much aldermanic coverage they’re providing this cycle. They write about the salient issues in each competitive race and while they’re not covering the whole city (big swaths of the poorer South and West Sides are uncovered) if there’s a candidate forum, they write it up. But in the parts of Chicago without DNAInfo, or a legacy neighborhood weekly newspaper, Aldertrack is it. More than once I’ve had to explain to people in those communities that we’re purely about the politics of the race, not the issues. I wish we could be…(See #2) On the flip side is that the bigger outlets in town clearly gravitate to the neighborhoods where their reporters live: wealthier, hipper, whiter (I’d like to count up articles about Lincoln Park’s 43rd Ward versus Roseland’s 9th, which is a way more interesting race). News is no longer a workingman’s business anymore, so we’re missing a lot of coverage from that perspective–and it shows.

7. Has Our Audience Size Plateaued? The number of email subscribers has only grown about 350 people since November. Below that top line number there was a big churn of unsubscribes and new subscribes, but the overall audience size has stayed about the same. The total number around 4,200 makes sense, because that was the about the size of The Daily Palm Card email update we produced with the Chicago News Cooperative back in 2011.

8. What’s Next Is Still Unclear. We really want to figure out a way to extend Aldertrack past the elections. Clearly there’s an audience for what we’re offering, but post-election demands are very different. Also, candidates have a great deal of relevant information they want to share with the media. Anyone who’s worked in Chicago news knows that City Hall and the various agencies lock down information flow pretty hard. It’s a different world after April 7.

So we’re thinking hard about what comes next. We’d love to hear your thoughts and we’ll tell you as soon as we figure something out.