The Chicago News Cooperative (CNC) ran its last piece today. The non-profit endeavor is ceasing operations after two and a half years of trying to gain traction and funding in the shaky arena of news media.
Whether the CNC is news to you at all might say more about it than its demise.
While it is a disheartening blow to journalism and publications dependent on donors, it is hardly a surprise. "If you cannot figure out a way that you can raise revenue from your content,” explained Founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief James O’Shea to the Chicago Tribune, where he was managing editor before the bankruptcy years, “and if you can't diversify your revenue stream, you'll never make it."
From the onset, the CNC relied on MacArthur grants, donations, and an auspicious partnership with the New York Times in its Friday and Sunday paper. That partnership, which the NYT does with many local news outlets, is what tipped me to finally subscribe to the Sunday Times. I’ll keep the Times; I won’t miss the Chicago News Coop coverage.
Finances aside, the content of the two-page supplement at the back of the front section never lived up to its “Chicago coverage.” While the CNC was staffed with top Chicago journalists, it usually only ran two to three pieces: a longer-form local interest feature that was newsworthy but rarely news; an editorial by James Warren; a sports bit by Dan McGrath. The feature was always the crux of it and while it was certainly affected by space, the piece always seemed random. The latest, about two homeless teen illegal immigrants, was the last in a series about the “rising numbers of homeless youths and families in Chicago.” It’s interesting and vital as a public service, but it doesn’t suffice for the main news story for our city.
The website, by contrast, benefited from digital space by featuring five sections. Subscribers got morning email updates alerting you of new content. Still, it didn’t and couldn’t have the breadth of its competition. In total, the CNC staffed seven and kept a dozen or so freelancers, according to the Trib obituary.
The emphasis on credible reporting, or what O’Shea calls in his send off, “accountability journalism,” wasn’t enough to compete with all the news outlets, including that darned internet. Regarding inaccurate reports on the demise of the CNC, O’Shea comparatively huffed, “The reporting was sloppy and simply reinforced in my mind the need for solidly reported, well-edited journalism, the kind that professional CNC journalists have been doing…”
Every writer benefits from a good editor and most readers gain from the relationship. That’s not at issue. How do we get readers to pay for content, and how do we ascribe value in a way that translates to dollars and sense[intended]? The CNC was a bold experiment to gauge the public support of quality journalism through major donations, foundations, and high-profile partnerships. It wasn’t enough. The end of the CNC says more about the business model than the state of journalism. Could a hybrid model based on the CNC approach and a significant subscriber base, that is, without relying on ad revenue, succeed?
Interestingly, the end of the CNC comes at the long-awaited dawn of a similarly structured venture: the launch of The Chicagoan, a biannual glossy without any advertising that costs $19.95 an issue. Flipping through that first issue muted the skeptic in me—it’s beautiful. But more on that later.