The Pitfalls of "Cooperative" News 

San Francisco's new Bay Citizen pitches a controversial plan. Plus: what it can learn from the Chicago News Co-op.

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What he's not saying, but I'm hearing, is that the CNC is sending New York a stronger report than the Times expected. Pride is a good thing to run on when there's no $5 million.

Jim Schachter, the Times's editor for digital initiatives, oversees the campaign to build up local coverage in other cities. He tells me the Bay Citizen will benefit from the lessons the Times has learned in Chicago,

Which are?

"The experience of collaboration we've had working with a very capable and experienced bunch of journalists asking them to do a tricky thing—asking them to satisfy the New York Times. Me and the other editors who work closely with them have learned about the very distinctive bobbing and weaving it requires to let your partner have its head while meeting the expectations and standards and goals we have. Presumably we will be more adept at that with the editors of the Bay Citizen.

"Talented people tend to be willful people," he continues. "Part of the joy of working in journalism is the give and take, I expect a fair amount of give and take, and we thrive on it. There's a hard-to-define place where give and take turns into friction. Look, what we expected was that we were working with extremely talented people who knew Chicago really really well. And from day one that's what we've had. What we've worked on, go back and forth on, is balancing a Chicago feel with a Times-like feel, and I really think that what the folks at Chicago News Cooperative experience is akin to what every reporter who works for the Times after working somewhere else experiences. With every publication there's a certain amount of idiosyncrasy—I'd go so far as to say we have more than our share of idiosyncrasy. Once you get past that 'Oh, boy! My byline is in the New York Times,' then you say, 'Oh, boy! What a pain those people are.'"

He goes on, "I don't want to say anything that denigrates their experience at the Tribune. I would say that the way we sort of write things in the Times is maybe slightly more nuanced than the way they were accustomed to. And so we've gone back and forth about that and I think we've come out in a good place. We wanted a vigorous, eye-opening local news report that complemented the work of our national correspondents, and that's what we're getting."

"The biggest point of friction," says Greising, "has been stories that our newsroom wants to do that the New York Times national desk is saying, 'That's a good story. We want all our national readers to see that story.'" CNC stories run only in Chicago.

Earlier this year CNC decided to profile Senator Bill Brady, the downstate Republican nominee for governor. The Times national desk thought that was such a good idea the whole country should read it—which meant assigning it to Chicago bureau chief Monica Davey. CNC was forced to choose another angle. "So we did Brady and the challenges he faces raising money in Chicago," says Greising. "We're not cheapening our news judgment but we're shifting gears a little bit."

Davey suggested the fund-raising angle to CNC. Her profile of Brady has yet to appear in the Times.

By both Greising's account and Schacter's, the CNC project is succeeding. The economic argument for the Chicago pages was to defend the Times's readership in Chicago, and over the past six months, says Schacter, readership has actually increased. "Focus groups value the fact that local people are producing content," Greising says. "They see us bringing a kind of local savvy that they don't expect quite as much of from the New York Times. They don't realize Monica Davey is a former Tribune reporter who grew up here and knows the city as well as any of us. They think she parachuted in." 

Like the CNC leadership, Davey used to work at the Trib, so everyone's friends. She doesn't vet the stories CNC sends to New York. But whenever managing editor Jim Kirk—another Tribune ex-pat—thinks there could be a conflict, he checks with her. In the early days CNC had to deal with Davey through New York. "It made no sense," says Greising. He says Davey "looks at us as freeing her from some of the obligation of covering the city. But she has final say. If she wants to bigfoot us, she's entitled. But in every case but one, we wound up doing a story we were happy with. When we get the Web site going, if she wants to bigfoot us we'll just say fine and put it on the Web."

By all appearances, that day can't come soon enough. The CNC blast e-mailed twice a week to tout each new batch of stories makes no mention of the Times, which is where they can all be found. The blast links to the stories on the CNC Web site, and the Times isn't acknowledged there either. It's as if the Times merely subscribes to the CNC report, rather than oversees it. From the get-go the Bay Citizen will be posting more stories than the ones you might read in the paper that shall not be named—and that's what $5 million gets you.   


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