Category Archives: Uncategorized

Aldertrack Lessons Learned, Part 3


April 11, 2015

Holy crap! We have a functioning company! With revenue!

That’s the first thought that comes to mind whenever I stop to think for even a moment about what’s happened to our little hobby project. We’ve created a living, breathing organization, with paid employees, a culture of its own and a truly differentiated product.

Even though we started work on Aldertrack just six months ago and made the decision to become a paid, year-round product just three months ago, Aldertrack was far from an overnight success. It was years of learning and failures that led us to where we are today.

Most important, there were many who helped us along the way. Readers, journalists, political operatives and politicians who knew us from long ago and people who took a flyer on helping us learn, build an audience, gain sources, find advertisers and much more.

People who made a difference:
Anabel Abarca, Jim Allen, Brian Bernadoni, Niala Boodhoo, Justin Breen, Sarah Calder, Will Caskey, Ken Davis, Pat Doerr, Bruce DuMont, Katelynd Duncan, Derek Eder, Mike Flannery, Greg Goldner, Eric Herman, Mike Houlihan, Ben Joravsky, Jake Kaplan, Justin Kaufman, Joanna Klonsky, Michelle Kucera, Kitty Kurth, Kevin Lampe, Fred Lebed, Paul Lisnek, Terri Lydon, Carol Marin, Dan Miller, Rich Means, Jordan Muck, Avy Myers, Mike Noonan, Tom Ogorzalek, Dan O’Neil, David Ormsby, Cindy Paulauskas, Mike Reever, John Rowley, Tracy Schmidt, Jaimey Sexton, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Scott Smith, Tom Swiss, Anne Szkatulski, Sean Tenner…and many more who shall remain nameless because they probably prefer it that way.

And on to the lessons!

  1. Sales calls matter. As we got closer to Election Day my sales call time fell off the schedule, but when I was making calls to ask people to subscribe, it made a world of difference. Plenty of people said no, but enough said yes that we’re able to pay our employees. A few people actually said they wouldn’t have subscribed unless we’d asked.
  2. For niche content, it’s all about information, not graphic attractiveness. Neither our website nor email look very good. But we’ve yet to hear someone complain. But when we don’t cover something people think we should have covered…plenty of complaints.
  3. There is such a thing as too much information. Especially when we got close to the General and Runoff Election Days, the amount of information we could gather and the reporting we could do was staggering. And we wanted to cover every last thing, all of us working well into the night. Some of our email reports went well over 8,000 words with close to 100 links and a dozen different stories – all written in one day by five people. It was obscene. Looking at our clickthroughs, I’m not sure our readers really wanted all that. Maybe it was important as a kind of tour de force so show how bad ass we really are, but our subscribers probably didn’t want or need as much detail as we provided.
  4. Presenting well on TV and radio is task all of its own.

    One amazing experience for me was that in the course of the runoff I went on a dozen different TV and radio shows. In particular I had one weekly in-studio radio show and one TV show I did every day for a week. They were exhausting. Before every show I wrote extensive notes and even practiced how I would speak. For TV I spent time thinking about how to dress, stand and sit. I listened or watched every show, made notes about how I sounded or looked and then tried to do better the next time. TV in particular is hard: Knowing which camera to look at, where to look when you aren’t speaking and being able to speak quickly and change topics in a short period of time is a big challenge. I have a whole new level of respect for people who do TV and radio. Looking halfway human while speaking on a topic (even one you know a lot about!) consistently is hard, hard, hard.

  5. A professional PR person really can help. In February I was reconnected with a D.C. acquaintance, Michelle Kucera, who volunteered to help us put together our first Election Night party. Michelle, who was Tipper Gore’s communication’s director at one time, makes everything seem easy. Our first party went without a hitch, and Michelle made sure plenty of people knew great things about Aldertrack.  We threw our second party without her, largely because she had other paying things to do instead, and boy did we notice the difference. Someday when we’re really ready to grow, we’ll engage her to help with much more than event planning.
  6. Say yes to every media opportunity, no matter how small. Reporters and producers constantly struggle to fill their shows or news holes. When you show up and do a great job, they remember you and ask you back. Also, sometimes, when you’re at a TV or radio station, you run into people you’d like to know or talk to. There’s a certain magic at those places, where people become willing to say yes to all kinds of things. And of course, when you’re on TV, radio or in the newspaper, it validates you in a big way.
  7. Throwing a party is hard work, but pays off in all kinds of little ways.

    Gathering our readers, sponsors and subscribers in one place creates another kind of magic. “Hey! I like this! And so do you!” These people all want to know one another. And it’s fun. After our first party people would stop us and say, “What a great party! When’s the next one?” That is a great kind of goodwill.

  8. Tweet, and treat it like a totally separate medium. Our whole team tweeted from @aldertrack We’d tweet pictures, observations and pieces of news we discovered. Sometimes we’d discuss on Slack whether or not to push things out on Twitter, but mostly we put as many small news bits out as possible.

    Plenty of people retweeted our stuff and twitter became a whole new outlet–and path of discovery for us. Our audience is still only about 2,700 people, but everyone in political media follows us, as do many politicians. It only binds everyone closer.

  9. Take people out for lunch and coffee. When you’re in the thick of things, it’s tempting to constantly work, get to the point, be direct. But the best relationships, conversations and ideas come from slow, longer discussions. When you meet people interesting, ask them out for a sandwich or coffee. You’ll never regret the results.
  10. It’s wonderful to know your audience. While we have a few thousand email subscribers, our power readers number in the hundreds. We’ve managed to meet most of them and they tell us all the time what they like and don’t like about Aldertrack. It enables us to not only get better, but have the confidence that we’re doing something great­–and have more fun as a result.
  11. Slack, Slack, Slack. I know I mentioned this before, but more than any other, this tool has emerged as a game changer for our team. Everyone is reachable, everything is searchable, and it feels so intimate. Slack has, in many ways, made us into a more tight-knit team than we would have been otherwise.
  12. When you make a mistake, own up to it as fast, as publicly, as directly as possible. Occasionally we made some mistakes in reporting. As a reporter, making a mistake is doubly bad because not only are people getting the wrong information from you, but you may have unintentionally besmirched someone’s reputation. Own up to it fast–Twitter was the fastest way for us–and then make sure everyone knows you made a mistake along with the correct information. We’d print “Correction” or “Clarification” at the top of our email the next day with a one or two sentence explanation. Generally, people forgave us and everyone lived to work another day.
  13. Do great work consistently. Other people who do great work will find you. Aldertrack’s two amazing and talented reporters, A.D. Quig and Claudia Morell, found us. Tom Ogorzalek, who made great maps for us, emailed us out of the blue. We have a dozen of these kinds of stories. Because we love what we do and work hard at it, other great people want to be a part of it. And knowing whether something is “great” is totally intangible, you only know it when you just know.

Say “Hell No” To New York, Barack


March 13, 2015

Let’s just get it out there: Barack Obama is not from Chicago. It’s his most recent non-White House address, and he held office here, but really, it’s the place he landed after graduating law school. Plenty of people choose cities for job opportunities, and that’s what Obama did when he moved here from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Really, the guy is from Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts and even a little bit Indonesia. He is a polyglot person, like many of our nation’s brightest stars.

But Chicago is where he made his bones as a grown-up. Our city shaped him, molded the molten steel of his personality into the sharp blade he has become.

When he ran for U.S. Senate in 2006 2004, every stump speech included the line, “I’m a skinny guy, with a funny name from the South Side of Chicago.” Those of us from the South Side (as I am originally) laughed and clapped each other on the back, as we thought about all our friends with African-esqe names and how strange it might seem to outsiders that a guy named “Barack” would be so…normal.

Obama invited us, from the outset of his political career, to think of ourselves as the insiders. He was our clan, our people, and Chicagoans together were going to show America how it’s really done. When he went to Washington, he brought a herd of Chicagoans, including our current mayor Rahm Emanuel, and more importantly to Chicagoans of color, one of our brightest African American executives, Valerie Jarrett.

We were in. Not because we were invited, but because Barack (we use his first name warmly, like a neighbor) was one of us and we were part of the plan. Yes, it was clannish, but it’s the kind of loyalty Chicagoans do, and when it works, it works well.

Over the years though, he spent little time at his house on Greenwood Ave., and much more in Hawaii. We understood. He was busy and that place is probably too cramped for a President’s entourage. When he’s done with all that D.C. stuff and comes home, we’ll welcome him like the brother and good neighbor we know him to be.

Then things started to go awry with the whole Presidential Library thing. It seemed that maybe putting it in New York wasn’t just a foil, but a real possibility. What was up with that? A university with more Nobel Prizes than anyone else wasn’t good enough? Where Michelle used to work? Your hometown, Barack?

And then the whispers that Chicago wasn’t where they wanted to be, but actually New York. That was just too much to bear. Consuming it, we had two choices: believe it to be true and struggle with pain, or pretend it was just wasn’t true.

I’ve done the latter, until today. Yes, they’re still rumors, but why the heck hasn’t Barack put them to rest? Why hasn’t he and his family vacationed here? Went to a movie in Harper’s Court? Caught a Sox game? Gone to Rainbow Cone?

If President Obama – the guy in Washington, not our brother and neighbor – chooses to go to New York City after his presidency, he will have perpetrated one of the greatest frauds in Chicago history. He will have ditched our loyalty. Made that whole 2008 victory speech in Grant Park seem like a lie. He wasn’t us. We were just a stepping stone.

It’s a free country President Obama. But if you dump us like it looks like you’re about to, it’s going to be a burned bridge. And we, the neighbors you counted on, not politicians and businessmen, we never forget.

What We’ve Learned From Aldertrack (Part Two)


February 1, 2015

aldertrack-logo

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.

On Being A “Journalist”


January 18, 2015

Every time someone calls me “journalist” I feel a bit uncomfortable. The label doesn’t feel right to me, even though it keeps finding me.

More than most, I’ve had the label applied to me in public. Articles in Poynter, Columbia Journalism Review and others have applied the label to me. I’m not trying to brag (although I am proud) but typically if one of those places call you a “journalist”, you are one, right?

I think I’m reluctant to take on the title because I have had such a varied career, not at all the way I thought a person would become a true reporter. A path I could have followed: I was editor of my small college’s newspaper and my school’s director of communications, who had once been on the Providence Journal-Bulletin staff, offered to set me up with a job there (this sort of thing still happened in 1991).

I talked with her and someone at the PJB, and it seemed possible that I could go from a night reporter to metro reporter in just a few years. If I really applied myself, in ten years I could be doing investigative work, my true dream.

But before my senior year I interned at a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm, which lured me to the dark arts of politics. It was brawny, powerful and exciting. I loved the business for a long time.

Skipping ahead fourteen years, I no longer saw my political work making the world a better place, so I switched back to my first love: News.

That’s what I tell people I do. I work in “news.” Because saying I’m a “journalist” doesn’t feel right, even though I’ve been earning my living doing something related to that for almost six years.

A “journalist” to me is someone who did what I could have done back in ’91. The hard work of night reporting, copy editing, being a legman, associate producer. All that. The sucky stuff. But also honing a craft. Following an unwritten code and being part of a tribe.

I admire those who have done it for their sense of belonging and the badge of honor they’ve earned for years or decades of hard, often unacknowledged work.

But those tribesmen are also often the ones who adjust the slowest to the world that’s already changed around them. Their deeply engrained, unwritten code of professional and personal ethics limits them from experimentation.

The banner of “journalism”, I believe, is one of the biggest impediments to the future of news. Too many people on the editorial side of the news business use Big J “Journalism” as a shield from trying new things or adjusting resources to serve audiences differently. Have you heard or read these things lately?

  • Chasing clicks isn’t journalism.
  • Working without copy editors isn’t good journalism.
  • Having openly stated opinions isn’t good journalism.
  • Mixing business side responsibilities with editorial work isn’t good journalism.

I’ve done all four of the above. Repeatedly. Everyone I know that’s busy trying to be a news entrepreneur does at least two of them regularly.

So for me, I’d rather let the fusty people have their “Journalism” label and just focus on doing news work and building an audience. Give me the eyeballs, clicks and moving the needle. That’s the fun stuff.

What We’ve Learned From Aldertrack (Part One)


November 25, 2014

aldertrack-logo

In early October, Jimm Dispensa and I launched the third and newest version of Aldertrack, a quadrennial Chicago politics reporting service that focuses on the Chicago municipal elections. It’s changed quite a bit as we’ve learned how to run over the years what I’m calling a “hobby vertical news service.”

The first version, for the 2007 elections, was an all-text website operated entirely by Jimm that aimed to gather every last article and tidbit about Chicago’s elections, then sort it all out by ward. In a proto-Twitter/Facebook world, the free website still managed to go viral among Chicago’s biggest politics junkies with it’s total devotion to Chicago’s arcane political process and election minutia.

Then, I joined up with Jimm for the second version in 2011 after convincing him that we should team up with a “real” news outlet and create a subscription political news service. All of Jimm’s work, I argued, should be paid for by the people spending big money on Chicago campaigns. And with Chicago’s first open-mayoral election in decades, there would be lots of interested people.

To Jimm’s credit, he was game for my crazy scheme.

After talking with a few different news outlets in town, we teamed up with the non-profit Chicago News Cooperative to create Early & Often. With Jimm’s obsession with detail, CNC’s great reporting and my marketing efforts, we set a low target of a thousand subscriptions, hopes for maybe three thousand subscribers and a price of $150 a head.

Things didn’t go as planned. Our free weekday email topped out at about 5,000 people, while only about 250 people purchased subscriptions. Without significant revenue Early & Often petered out after the election and so did the Chicago News Cooperative soon thereafter, their assets going to The Chicago Sun Times which later reinvigorated Early & Often as its own political news brand.

This Election Season’s Experiment

Racing Form front pageFor 2014/15 Jimm and I decided to do something that would fall between the 2007 and 2011 efforts. Jimm envisioned distributing a document, an incredibly detailed Chicago Racing Form  about every aldermanic candidate (there’s 250+) to be sold as a paper and a PDF edition. The paper edition would be sold for $7 in Chicago neighborhood taverns where folks tend to hang out and talk politics. The PDF would be sold online for $5. We’d promote everything to our old Aldertrack email list of politicos and politics junkies, as well as some new people we scraped from City of Chicago lobbyist declaration forms.

We knew from the beginning that Jimm’s Chicago Racing Form was going to be an insane bargain. The amount of detail Jimm planned was staggering–probably worth hundreds of dollars a copy. But we wanted to create something that anyone could afford, with a low enough barrier to purchase so that we could find out just how many people in Chicago are willing to pay something, anything, for Chicago political news. We decided to conduct a social/economic experiment.

aldertrack-2014-salesWe had a great launch day on Tuesday, October 7. That day we sold 60 copies online of the Chicago Racing Form. However, sales plummeted after the launch and we only sold about 120 in total. It was still early in the game though, since the federal/state elections hadn’t been held yet. The chief buyers we figured, were true hard-core politics junkies. We figured the next big surge would be when candidate ballot petitions became due, November 17.

Paper copies were another story. Sales were anemic, only a few dozen copies, as barkeeps lost track of the copies, actual sales and we offered no point-of-sale marketing. Admittedly, we had planned poorly. The worst part was the printing cost–just under $600 for 500 copies of a 56 page 8.5×11 document. It was was fun to handout and sell tangible, paper copies, but for us it was a total wash.

As we watched digital sales flatten out after launch, we remembered that in 2010 interest in the upcoming Chicago elections kicked up as petitions to get on the ballot were filed, so we decided to create a Second Edition with even more detail and daily updates at a slightly higher price: $10.

In Illinois, “the race before the race” is the effort to file ballot petitions and stay on the ballot. Every candidate needs to file a certain number of valid signatures from registered voters in their district to get on the ballot. “Valid” is the key word. After candidates file their petitions, opponents (or any citizen) can pull copies of petitions and then compare names and signatures to voter registration records on file with the Chicago Board of Elections. Then, if the opponent finds enough “invalid” signatures, they can file a legal objection with the Board to knock the candidate off the ballot.

Lots of unwary and unprepared candidates get knocked off the ballot. The process is tricky and very little of the law governing it is codified, mostly existing as obscure case law. Only about a dozen Illinois attorneys practice in this area and political bosses maintain crews of petition scrubbing experts to keep ballots clean of people they don’t want to deal with on election day.

This is exactly the kind of insider event that Aldertrack was built for. Jimm decided he would check in at the Board of Elections multiple times each day during filing week On the first and last days of filing he’d basically camp out at the Board, tweeting out candidate filings and some pictures while I’d retweet what candidates and the media put out.

We gained 400 Twitter followers in a week and sold 149 copies of the Racing Form during that time. Not bad. But have we penetrated the majority of the market? We’ll see if we do better down the line.

Here, so far, are the conclusions I think we can draw from the process so far.

1. The audience for Chicago politics isn’t actually that big. In 2011 we were backed by a trusted news brand, the Chicago News Cooperative, and ultimately gathered about 250 paid monthly subscriptions. This year, with a $10 flat fee, we’ve only gotten about 150 purchases. That number will probably increase, maybe even triple, but it’s far from on track to sustain a news organization.

2. Politics junkies aren’t interested in reporting and analysis, they’re interested in raw information and data. Most people interested and invested in political outcomes already know most of the rumors and have figured out the available chess table moves. What they really want to know is where the chess pieces are so they can understand if there are new moves to make. Thus, information scarcity is what drives people to pay for political coverage, not the insight and analysis political reporters love to talk about.

3. It takes a lot of effort and inside knowledge to produce a high quality product for junkies. From a reporter’s perspective, political insiders already know much more than they do. A strong news business is in the information arbitrage business, telling readers what they don’t know already. Finding reporters that can just have an intelligent conversation with political insiders, often talking in a very local, hyper-specific context, so they can understand available arbitrage points is very difficult. But if your news organization isn’t able to do that, your information product will not be valuable to insiders.

4. Traditional advertising doesn’t do much to increase penetration among junkies. We spent about $100 on Facebook and Twitter ads and they did nothing. Granted, what wasn’t very much money, but our potential audience isn’t very big. Instead we spent our efforts building our email list and creating a sales funnel: Twitter > Email > Racing Form purchase. Inbound email marketing for the win!

5. Facebook is useless for small audiences. The social network’s throttling of free posts to your audience makes it hard to demonstrate value to the audience and thus increase it. Our Facebook follower audience stalled at around 200 while our Twitter audience has surged with every big news event to close to 700. And our Tweets promoting the Racing Form has converted into sales. Facebook never has.

6. No matter how simple the purchase process, someone will always have a problem. We built a super simple front-page button purchase process that keeps buyers on the same page. Once you buy, you’re automatically directed to the download page. We’ve had problems with people downloading, clicking the purchase button multiple times (making multiple charges) and having ultra-low 800x600px screen resolution so they can’t see the whole purchase form. I’ve tried to provide within-the-hour customer service response to emails by taking orders over the phone, emailing files, etc. But even so, we’ve probably lost about 3% of our sales to technical issues.

7. Unless it delivers some specific value, print is dead as a medium for small runs. Our attempt to sell print editions was a total bust. Granted, we used non-traditional venues rather than bookstores or newsstands, but we found those difficult to negotiate and either way we had no point-of-sale marketing, which would have made a difference, but another sunken cost. I don’t think we’ll do another print version unless we start turning out tens of thousands of copies.

8. WordPress is the bomb. The development costs of our operation were laughably low.
Hosting – $50/mo
Wordpress – Free
Site design/ThemeForest – $12
Secure download code/CodeCanyon – $8
Member management/Wishlist Member – $79
Mailchimp – $50/mo
Stripe – 2.9% + 30¢ per transaction

Before our first sale, we paid about $200 to launch the digital operation. That’s the kind of thing anyone could do.

Stay tuned for another update further down the line on what we’ve learned so far.

Apple Pay: It’s Good For You


October 29, 2014

Last week Apple launched Apple Pay, a one-touch payment system using the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, that uses your existing credit cards at cash registers at hundreds of thousands of brick-and-mortar stores around the United States. Within the first week, Apple announced over 1 million credit cards had been activated with Apple Pay, making it already the number one “contactless payment system” in the world.

I’ve used it and think it’s nothing short of revolutionary. Apple also claims it is the safest, most secure system available to consumers, which makes it even more impressive. More on that further down.

I’ve been using Apple Pay since the launch; the process works like magic. It’s so fast, that a couple of times, when I used it in a store, both the checkout clerk and I were surprised at how quick things went. After I’d registered my credit card (which in itself was easy) and I got to the checkout counter, it went like this:

  1. I pulled out my phone and waved it by the payment box (often a PIN pad).
  2. The phone woke up on its own, then showed me my credit card and indicated I should use my fingerprint reader.
  3. I “thumbed” my phone and a tone went off.
  4. Since I use a debit card, the checkout asked for my pin. I punched it in.
  5. Payment complete, receipt started printing.

Had I used a regular credit card, it would have skipped the fourth step and been even faster.

I’ve since used Apple Pay at Walgreen’s, Whole Foods, a taxi I hailed on the street, and most awesome: a CTA Ventra turnstile (it charged me full fare, not the reduced Ventra card fare). Every stop brought the same experience.

If you’ve ever tried Google Wallet, Square, PayPal or any other phone-based payment system, you know there are often more awkward steps and is it sometimes slower than just using a regular old credit card. And unlike those other systems, Apple Pay doesn’t cost the consumer anything more: Apple gets paid a fraction of what banks pay credit card companies for the transaction. This means credit card companies don’t lose out, and like the system more than they’d like Google Wallet, Square or PayPal.

Apple really has nailed the user experience of the payment system. It is fast, requires one touch and very little thought. Much like Amazon’s “one-click” purchase if you have Amazon Prime, it’s addicting and could potentially lead to many more purchases, I imagine.

But it’s the under the hood stuff, the security aspects, that makes Apple Pay really worth your time and the best defense against getting your credit cards hijacked by mass hack-attacks like the ones that hit Target, Kmart, Albertson’s grocery and others. It’s all because Apple uses “tokenization” and a special secure chip, meaning neither your credit card number or any other personal information is revealed during your transaction. And because the Apple Pay transaction is so secure from hackers, reducing fraud risk, banks love it so much that some are paying their customers to try Apple Pay.

There are some good explanations of how tokenization works, but essentially it reduces your payment request to the bank into a one-time mathematical code that means gibberish to hackers that may try to reverse engineer it. And because Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus manage the transactions on a secure chip, insulated from every other part of the phone, no hacker could break into your phone to get transaction information. In fact, once you register your card, the only people who know what transactions you’ve completed are you and your bank.

This payment Nirvana, where only a few people get to know what you’re up to, is not part of many big retailers’ plans. That’s why a group called CurrentC, made up of companies like RiteAid and CVS, has been opposing Apple Pay. They want to use their system, due to be launched sometime next year, to manage your electronic payments. And yes, their system will be much less secure and it will provide participating retailers with a lot of information about you. Not an appealing option.

If you have a iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, Apple Pay is very useful. And if you’re considering a new phone, I’d say Apple Pay should tip the balance in favor of the iPhone.

Cord Cutting Will Kill Local TV Stations


October 19, 2014
Pretty soon, this sort of thing might be extinct. Credit: Lars Plougmann/Flickr.

Pretty soon, this sort of thing might be extinct. Credit: Lars Plougmann/Flickr.

All of a sudden, it seems like cord cutting is gaining big momentum from content providers. HBO, CBS, Univision and event the NBA are creating plans that will allow regular folks to get their shows and games streamed online, without a cable TV plan. Exciting stuff for those of us who want to go more a la carté with our television consumption, whittling down that $120 cable bill.

But as I’ve been looking at the coverage, almost all of it is written from the networks’, the cable companies’ and consumers’ perspective. What about the television middleman, local broadcast stations? Especially the non-O&O guys who lack their networks’ deep-pocketed protection?

In just a few short years, cord cutting is going to create a financial drought for non-O&O stations. Built on the dependency of people watching a riveting episode of “The Good Wife”, and then keeping the channel on for the local news, or maybe turning it on before Letterman starts, CBS’ new streaming plan is going obliterate that long-standing system.

And advertising surrounding the news at 4:30, 5 and 10 are what have kept local stations afloat all these years. If people can get “The Good Wife” and Letterman streamed to their laptops for just $6 a month, do you think they’ll turn on the TV to watch Birmingham’s CBS42 News at 10’s Daily Pledge?

All of a sudden deals like Tribune’s $2.7 billion local TV station purchase don’t look so good.

Yes, local TV audiences have climbed a bit in the last year. And yes, local TV ad revenue has been going up, especially due to increased bi-annual political ad spending.

But local tv ad revenues are dependent on the current status quo. The networks’ growing support of cord cutting is going change everything in just a few short years.

Very soon, we’ll start to see small local TV stations closing up shop and ad spending will consolidate. There will no longer be room for three (or four) local TV news reports. Just like the merger of small daily newspapers, small TV stations will close up or join forces. And it won’t be pretty.

Just A Good Sandwich


October 9, 2014
Olga Bauer makes a smoked butt sandwich. Credit: Mike Fourcher

Olga Bauer makes a smoked butt sandwich. Credit: Mike Fourcher

Olga’s Delicatessen, in Chicago’s Albany Park, makes, flat out, some of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. I’ve been twice in the last two weeks, and each time she created an amazing Germanic pile of meat on great bread slathered with vinegary brown mustard. But first she would insist on offering me tastes of the various cuts she had on hand: Chicken and pork schnitzel, smoked butt, roast beef. All warm and fresh from the oven.

Sandwich and Jay’s potato chips: $7, including tax.

A glance around the place can be a bit…unsettling. It’s ostensibly a grocery store with a deli in the back. And many of the items on the shelves seem to have been placed–along with their dust–in the early 1980’s. Notice how she’s not using gloves in the picture?

The place is a throwback. Not just the decor, but the entire way of doing business. In the Chicago of my youth, back in the 80’s, there were dozens, if not hundreds of these kinds of places across the city. Slapdash lunch places where the food was cooked on a stove in back or upstairs with a decidedly less hygienic decor. Maybe some fly paper strips loaded with insects.

A chicken and pork schnitzel sandwich.

My chicken and pork schnitzel sandwich from Olga’s. Devoured in short order.

Walking from school to the L, every afternoon I passed a hot dog stand on North and North Park. It was a squat, dingy brick shack, painted white, just large enough for the grill, a counter and five stools against a foot-wide table on the wall. I’d pick up a bag of fries for a dollar now and then, as much as my teenage budget would allow. They were hot and covered with ketchup, keeping my fingers warm as I’d wait on the train platform a block away.

That place is an empty lot now, a victim of raising property values. But other similarly, low rent spots have fallen off the map as more efficient Potbelly’s, Costello’s and Chipotles have hoovered up customers looking for a decent lunch at a decent price…and hygienic conditions.

But we didn’t all die in the 1980’s when we went to the dusty spots. And I didn’t either after I ate at Olga’s. In fact, I enjoyed it. And I think you will too. You should go. 3209 W. Irving Park Rd.

Seeking: Diverse Childhood For Chicago Kid


October 9, 2014
Waters Elementary

Waters Elementary School in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. Credit: Mike Fourcher

It takes work to live a diverse life in Chicago. For someone raised by contentious, activist parents and who worked in minority Democratic politics for a dozen years, it’s an inescapable reality. And I’m beginning to believe that, unless my wife and I make some serious changes in where we live and how we spend our time–by deliberately seeking out diversity, nothing is going to change for us.

And let me be clear: By diversity I mean Latino and African American people. Asians. Native Americans. People of color. Brown people. I know that my neighborhood, Lincoln Square/North Center, is a generally higher income area, but not all of it (for now anyway). Yet according to the 2009 census, Lincoln Square is 61% white and North Center is 78% white. Why the heck don’t more people of color live in my neighborhood?

That’s a naive question, I know. Yet, I’m told my ZIP code has the highest number of Sierra Club members in Illinois. My ward was the one of the biggest vote getters for Miguel del Valle in the 2011 mayoral election. On the face of it, we’re a liberal, open community. So why don’t people of color feel welcome and want to move to Lincoln Square?

In fact, I feel like our community is getting even more lily white.

This year my son started kindergarten at our neighborhood elementary school, Waters Elementary. Since I once operated a community news site, I’d noticed that Waters seemed relatively diverse, with a significant Latino population, even hosting a fairly well-attended annual Dia del Muertos celebration. My wife and I, who both lacked diverse elementary school experiences, were looking forward to our son getting, “the full city experience.”

But something else important has been happening with Waters: relatively well-to-do families in Lincoln Square have been stuck in their mortgages, unable to move to the suburbs and unwilling to fork out tens of thousands of dollars a year for increasingly expensive private school. All of a sudden, over the last five years Waters Elementary has become, “a good neighborhood school,” where upwardly mobile parents volunteer in droves and plan to enroll their kids.

After the first day of school this year, Waters’ principal announced there would only be neighborhood kids in the Kindergarten class. Local demand was so high it could not take in children outside the Chicago Public Schools-defined boundary. In addition, the two kindergarten classes would reach the legal maximum of 33 kids each.

Sitting in evening orientation sessions, waiting on the playground for the morning opening bell to ring, my wife and I looked around and greeted the other parents of kindergarteners. They all looked like us: white professionals with a heavy sprinkling of white stay-at-home moms. Maybe a couple of Latino families–one a emigrant professional from Buenos Aires.

The diversity we had sought for our son seems to have eluded us.

Yes, the average single family home price is bumping up on $800k in the area immediately surrounding the school. And I recognize the average income disparity between people of color and whites is significant. Is it purely money? Or is there more?

But to ask a more concrete question: If I want my son to experience diversity in his childhood, do we need to move to another neighborhood?

I don’t have answers to these questions. Maybe you do.

ONA: Great Conference, But Missing Something


September 28, 2014

This past week brought the Online News Association conference to Chicago for the first time. Markedly different from so many other news conventions, ONA focuses entirely on digital without an ounce of print or broadcast–except to discuss the struggles of working within legacy organizations.

It was the first time I’ve attended ONA, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Extraordinarily well managed, the conference brought an all-time high of 1,900 attendees, according to the organizers, and exuded a vitality and optimism missing from most news-related gatherings these days. I ran into colleagues I hadn’t seen for years, met some people I’d long admired and got some great insight into how other news organizations are thinking about their work. Well worth the experience, and I’ll try to go again next year when it’s in Los Angeles.

And then, in the middle of everything, on Friday, Rafat Ali, creator of Skift.com and Paid Content (now part of GigaOm), posted This Vertical Life: The Media Models I Admire. He says:

While the rest of the media writes about the same five so-called-innovative-news/media/content-startups over and over again (check any Carr/Ingram/any-other-media-reporter article about BuzzVoxViceAtavistQuartz538GawkerUpworthyFirstLookInformation & ilk), verticals in digital have been buzzing even before blogs became mainstream, and a lot of them have experimented and thrived beyond just media-as-product.

Ali, who spends a lot of time writing and thinking about news business models slams the media world pretty hard. But, the post is well worth reading all the way through, especially for the list of models he likes. I’m not sure if he meant to publish his post smack in the middle of the ONA gathering, but in my eyes he certainly pointed out the biggest problems with the convention: the lack of connection between news production and money-making, and the tendency to laud the same well-known brands again and again.

Granted, ONA did host an interesting track of sessions on Business Leadership, but most of it was focused on the operations of building news organizations, rather than the monetizing. The conference also made a concerted effort to bring a number of news startups to the exhibitor hall (including my own, Rivet) which was probably one of the most interesting exhibitor halls I’ve seen at any conference. There were also numerous other startup workshops and judging panels that, while I didn’t attend (because there was just too much other good stuff), certainly looked like they had worthy speakers and discussion.

That said, the vast majority of the conference was about the craft of news making, reaching and building audiences. But I don’t think that was really the fault of the conference organizers as much as an ingrained way the news industry encourages a vast gulf between business and editorial. One editorial colleague I talked to at ONA, contemplating a move from news to advertising, spoke of it as, “selling my soul to the dark side,” for the sake of supporting boring brands.

And there, in a nutshell, remains the biggest problem the news industry needs to overcome: Believing that making money with news, branded content or advertising is not an evil deed. When the salesmen in your company say, “Readers want to see the ads, it helps them,” they are not bullshitting you. Devoting time to creating enticing branded content is not hucksterism: It’s paying the bills. Which is noble, creates jobs and makes the world go around.

While news, through digital distribution, is experiencing some of it’s biggest readerships and investment ever, the truly knotty problems are not in editorial or audience growth: They’re in business models and the broader news industry’s sluggish pace to adapt to new ways to profitably serve audiences. Most news editorial folks, shielded from the grubby process of money-making and sales from the outset of their careers, are shamelessly unaware of how news organizations sell their product. And many news organization business leaders, used to decades of quarterly gains, remain generally clueless about why audiences consume their product, or any other media product.

I’m not sure how, but I’d like to see some sort of conference that brought out people like Ali to talk about new business models and their money-making viability. News business leaders need to learn why audiences choose certain content. Editorial leaders need to learn how things get sold. Only when there’s more hybrid thinkers, will the news business really return to it’s glory days.