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When Half Empty Is Too Much to Hope For 

A look at journalism’s past year and what it might mean for the future

Chicago Journalism Town Hall, February 2009

Chicago Journalism Town Hall, February 2009

Karen Kring

What to say at the close of the year about the state of news media? A pessimist is someone who'd call the glass nine-tenths empty. An optimist like myself would call it one-tenth full. A year ago the Tribune was in bankruptcy, the Sun-Times was in bankruptcy, the Reader was in bankruptcy, and worst of all, it was hard to tell if anybody in Chicago whose job wasn't on the line even cared. The picture changed in February, when Ken Davis held his Chicago Journalism Town Hall, and a crowd too big for the room to contain showed up. The young Turks and the old lions hammered at each other for three hours and nothing became clear except the one thing it was most important to know: the next generation is smart, imaginative, healthily naive, and in no rush to get rich.

So I stopped worrying about whether Sam Zell would ever lead the Tribune Company to the promised land and began writing about people and places with a vision: such as the not-for-profit magazines Mother Jones and the Sun, the first focused on collaborating with other media and on growing an elaborate Web site, the second, with a minimal online presence, on creating an "intimate conversation between reader and writer" uninterrupted by any "sales pitch." And about TriCity News, a New Jersey weekly with no Web site at all. And about Cynthia Typaldos, promoting a system called Kachingle as a way to monetize online news content by letting Web browsers pay for the sites they value, shaft their guilty pleasures, and admire themselves as enlightened patrons of fine journalism. And Bill Densmore, whose Information Valet Project is designed to monetize around the proposition that the more of our wants and needs readers expose to advertisers, the more willing they'll be to underwrite our time online.

Even before the Town Hall I wrote an inquisitive column on my friend Carol Felsenthal, because she was veteran author writing for free at HuffPo, and if the work-for-nothing virus continues to spread, journalism's financial troubles, at least, will pretty much melt away. One of the louder young voices at the Town Hall belonged to Geoff Dougherty, who'd rounded up a lot of seed money from foundations and launched the Chi-Town Daily News, a new-model site dedicated to standing watch over the second-tier public agencies that urban dailies increasingly ignore. When Dougherty ran out of seed money in late summer he laid off his paid staff and hung a notice online saying the site would be kept up by unpaid volunteers. In a troubling development for anyone with high hopes for the citizen journalism model, it hasn't been updated in three months.

The biggest story in local media in 2009 was the rescue of not merely the Sun-Times but the entire Sun-Times Media Group and its dozens of daily and weekly titles by financier Jim Tyree and the colorful crew of investors he rounded up to take an extraordinary flier on print journalism. In a perfect world, I would not want my old paper partly owned by the owner of the hockey team that dominates its sports pages, or by the guy the same paper denounced (with his father) a few years ago as "marquee villains" in the Emerald Casino fiasco. But having said that for the record, what I actually feel is astonishment and gratitude.

The Sun-Times is a wisp of its old self, but it's out of bankruptcy, and even though Tyree, the guy in charge, says he saw a business opportunity, I can't help but think he would never have looked for one in such an unlikely place but for a sense of civic concern. The Reader's also out of bankruptcy and under new ownership—namely the creditors who financed the reckless deal two years ago that delivered this paper to Creative Loafing Inc. in Tampa. The Tribune Company should emerge from bankruptcy next year, though senior and junior creditors are now battling each other in court over future control of it. In the aforementioned perfect world you wouldn't want the local press controlled by investment banks and hedge funds any more than by wannabe casino magnates, but this is no time to be picky. Unshackled from Zell's billions of dollars in debt, the Chicago Tribune should make its next owners some serious money. It's been market-researched to within an inch of its life—and though I regard the seawall of front-page human interest features that separates readers from the serious news within to be as weird an editorial choice as the use of spellings like altho, frate, and photograf decreed by Colonel McCormick for two decades of the last century, there must be data indicating it attracts the "frenzied families" and "carefree couples" to which the Tribune has tied its future. There's nothing really new about this—recall Walter Burns's famous order in The Front Page when he was throwing out stories to clear space for an exclusive? "No, leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest." But then, Burns didn't work for the lofty Tribune.

Genuinely eccentric by the standards of the new Tribune are the vestiges of the old Tribune that survive—such as Steve Mills's occasional pieces on death-row injustice in Texas or the recent series on Agent Orange, partly financed by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. This kind of directed outside funding is becoming one of the ways of the new world. So is more extreme collaboration at every level. The intent of the Media Consortium is to "amplify independent media's voice, increase our collective clout, leverage our current audience and reach new ones." It's being run by Tracy Van Slyke out of her apartment on Logan Boulevard. In May, America's top newspaper execs flew into O'Hare in search of the same grail Typaldos and Densmore are chasing. The subject of their discreet meeting: "Models to Lawfully Monetize Content"—the "lawfully" an acknowledgment that the ten-ton boulder in their path is the nation's collection of antitrust laws. And in one of the year's most high-profile developments, Jim O'Shea, former managing editor of the Tribune, rounded up some Tribune pals and launched the not-for-profit Chicago News Cooperative—gotten off the ground, as so many media experiments are these days, by a grant, in this case from the MacArthur Foundation. (O'Shea's on the board of the Reader's parent company, and one of his CNC contributors, Jim Warren, is this paper's new publisher.) CNC's first public act was to start producing two pages twice a week for the Chicago edition of the New York Times. But O'Shea's ambitions go far beyond that. He's got a five-year-plan during which the CNC is supposed to create a news-rich Web site, team up on big stories with other media, wean itself off philanthropy, and sustain itself through ads, fees, and memberships.

And on the subject of collaborations, the moribund Better Government Association, which in its heyday joined local papers and TV stations in running some of the most ambitious and brilliant investigations of the last 40 years, is being brought back to life by former WLS TV political reporter Andy Shaw, who recently summoned "nonprofit superstar" Rita McLennon (Shaw's phrase) from New York to be his deputy director in charge of filling the pot with a lot of fresh beans. Since Shaw and McLennon are both good friends and my wife and I feel like matchmakers, I'm watching this one with close interest and high hopes. A healthy BGA would be a tonic for Chicago journalism.

Whatever the future of the news media turns out to be, expect parallels with the organization of an anthill. Globally, the Sun-Times miracle was left in the dust as a significant development by the uprising in Iran, which put social media on the map as instruments of news dissemination. This big story took journalism beyond collaboration to collectivization. Each tweet and and cell phone photo might have reported out only a shard of information, but collectively they defied tyranny and guaranteed the whole world was watching. And the beauty of this digital deluge was that it gave old-fashioned journalists around the world plenty to do, because it was up to them to organize the shards into a mosaic. In Tehran, everyone became a reporter: the movement covered itself, and the power of the uprising was inseparable from the attention it made the world pay it.

In Washington, a Free Flow of Information Act that would give journalists some protection from inquisitive prosecutors and grand juries is slowly working its way through Congress. The problem with such a law is that it's meaningless unless it defines who's a journalist, and in doing this it must also define who's not a journalist—which brings us one step closer to thinking of journalism as some sort of guild. Undesirable even in the old days when relatively few people controlled the flow of information, it's absurdly defensive in the new world of collectivized news generation—like deepening the moat around the castle at the same time the kingdom declares itself a republic.

For decades the kingdom of journalism was peaceable. The means of acquiring and reporting information were limited but sufficient to satisfy the commoners, and the limits guaranteed those yeomen who acquired and reported it an adequate living and their masters fortunes. Today information flows to us and among us in so many different ways and with such astonishing speed that the danger is we'll drown in it. The professional journalist is becoming someone who monitors the flow, and the young idealist who wants to speak truth to power, or afflict the comfortable while comforting the afflicted, or do whatever it is young idealists want to do, has tools at hand those old yeomen could never have imagined. The problem is that his or her chances of being noticed are small, and of being paid a living wage smaller.

Why's the glass just one-tenth full? With so many possibilities, why not even two tenths? Because 21st-century journalism hasn't figured out how to support itself. Because Jim Tyree could decide he's throwing good money after bad and give up on the Sun-Times. Because the uprising in Iran failed, reminding us witness has its limits. Because in focusing on go-getters with high hopes I'm whistling past the graveyard. Bill Currie is a former Tribune reporter who left town nine years ago to spend three years working for the West Highland Free Press on Scotland's Isle of Skye. Back in Chicago now, Currie recently e-mailed me with news that can stand as a sort of precis of the state of journalism. The news was that Free Press had just been sold by its owners to its staff, making it Britain's first employee-owned newspaper (in other words, what the Tribune Company papers, under Zell's byzantine takeover deal, pretended to be). It's a small staff, running a hyperlocal paper in a remote location where readers and advertisers don't have many choices. After many lean years, the Free Press is doing well.

The startling thing Currie just learned is that those owners, during the 39 years the paper belonged to them, "never took a penny of profit out of it." They had other sources of income, they believed the paper provided a service, so they kept it going. They weren't simply owners—they were patrons.

So there it is, the business model that looks as good as any. Combine unflagging idealism with a captive market and don't pay yourself a dime—and you're giving yourself a fighting chance to survive. One-tenth full it is.

Find more media coverage at chicagoreader.com/media.

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