Monday, February 23, 2009

How much is the future of journalism going to cost?

Posted By on 02.23.09 at 06:51 PM

For the most part, the old dons were on the panel and the young turks in the audience at Sunday's Chicago Journalism Town Hall. One exception was panelist Geoff Dougherty, founder and editor of the online Chi-Town Daily News. While the rest of us panelists were trying to peer into the future, Dougherty argued that his interesting foundation-funded, not-for-profit site already embodies it.

His Daily News specializes in the sort of B-list local reporting that once formed the backbone of the dailies' city report -- in the day when the various municipal and county boards and courthouses each had its own assigned beat reporter. Dougherty said that Monday morning his site would offer the best local news in Chicago. I don't agree -- I'd describe his report as supplemental coverage, though it's valuable. Or worthy might be a better word -- but I know that word grates.

And Dougherty also said that for about $35,000 a reporter and $2 million a year, he could cover the local news as well as the Tribune or Sun-Times does. Skepticism ensued. So on Monday he e-mailed various other panelists a "spreadsheet" that he said proves a "$2 million news organization" can work. He also ran the spreadsheet online, with his comments:

"The spreadsheet is payroll only. But our experience is that other expenses are pretty much negligible. Tack on an extra 30% for benefits. We're paying $25,000 in rent for a space that would house the reporters listed below. A couple thousand bucks for insurance, some cash for the lawyers and accountants, and you're in business for well under $2 million."

I don't know. Someone retorted Sunday that liability insurance alone costs $2 million. That's not going to be true of an operation with no delivery trucks, camera vans, or much of anything else; but the one insurance any serious news organization absolutely has to buy is libel insurance, and though that doesn't come close to costing $2 million, "a couple thousand bucks" doesn't come close to buying the coverage a daily needs.

And as much as we all might wish, a newsroom consisting of the 26 positions in Dougherty's spreadsheet could never approach the daily output of a newspaper with many times that number of editorial employees.

I came skeptical and left skeptical. But I admired the energy Dougherty and some of the other netizens brought to the discussion. It'll take stamina to keep getting things wrong until someone gets them right.

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