Friday, February 1, 2013

A local community meets to save hyperlocal digital journalism

Posted By on 02.01.13 at 01:42 PM

Mike Fourcher
  • Mike Fourcher
A few days ago I wrote about Mike Fourcher, a new-media trailblazer in Chicago who's still looking for a formula for success. Fourcher established a couple of hyperlocal news sites, centersquarejournal.com and roscoeviewjournal.com, that he'd decided to stop maintaining because he couldn't figure out how to support himself by running them.

Hard as it was to build an audience, selling ads was even harder. What he'd discovered, I wrote, was that "the competition for the ad dollars of local merchants is overwhelming; but confounding all the ad sellers is the spreading perception among merchants that they don't need to be spending ad dollars at all. As long as they have on staff or on call someone adept in social media, they can promote themselves for a relative song."

But if the public valued his sites, the public deserved a chance to save them. He called a community meeting for Thursday evening in the DANK Haus in Lincoln Square. "I believe that if the community wants to keep the sites going, they will have many more ideas than I will," Fourcher told me. "I think a good number of people will be there. But I'm not holding my breath."

Between 50 and 60 people showed up for Fourcher's meeting on one of this winter's coldest nights, and Fourcher seemed satisfied by the turnout. The crowd wasn't boiling for action, but it raised some ideas and raised some hands when the time came to either tiptoe away or volunteer.

The audience threw out suggestions, and Fourcher and his friend Ryan Blitstein, who moderated the discussion, wound up with a list of ten possible ways to proceed. Fourcher studied the list and said he could get behind three:

• Join up with an existing news organization and operate as a "North-Side bureau."
• Pull together a consortium of neighborhood organizations to sponsor the operations.
• Obtain microdonations and run a Kickstarter for annual operations.

"To me, they had the strongest potential to be carried out," says Fourcher, whose report on the community meeting can be read here.

None of the ideas is surefire. Turning the websites into a north-side bureau was suggested by someone who noted that WBEZ is getting into satellite operations in various neighborhoods. True enough, but as Fourcher said, the station's CEO, Torey Malatia, has his own agenda. Still, he can ask.

And Blitstein questioned the feasibility of raising money from Kickstarter and thousands of microdonors year after year to keep going.

Fourcher and Blitstein estimated that there are around ten chambers of commerce and other neighborhood organizations that operate in the areas covered by the two websites, and that if each contributed $2,500 to $7,500 a year, the sites could continue to operate. (Fourcher says in his Friday post, "I figure that to keep CSJ's operations rolling, we'll need about $60,000 a year to pay for original reporting and other operations.") A woman from the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce said her organization should be good for $7,500, but she cautioned that chambers of commerce have agendas: "If my group took it over it would become fluffy."

I asked her about that after the meeting. It might be avoided, she said, but only if a serious journalist like Fourcher runs the operation. But Fourcher wants out from under the burden of editorial responsibility.

He writes:

The truth is, I can’t work on CSJ full time any more, it has to become a side project, as I work to earn a real income for my family. So, if we’re going to move forward, CSJ is going to have to gain a lot more volunteers, and more importantly, one or two or three more people who want to make CSJ into their personal project and convert it into a new kind of, never-seen-before news entity.

I think operations can be sustained through a mix of relationships and sponsorships with other not-for-profits, news organizations and neighborhood groups, then gathering local donations from community members. But, a lot more neighbors and community leaders need to come forward and make specific time and funding commitments before I can be sure CSJ will keep moving forward.

About a dozen people volunteered at Thursday's meeting. Fourcher says others who want to help can e-mail him, or join the growing list of volunteers who are responding to his post.

One woman at my table announced that she'd like to write profiles of neighborhood businesses, with an eye to buttering them up to buy ads.

"Sponsored content?" said Fourcher dubiously. I'm sure every purist in the room winced.

Not a quid pro quo exactly, the woman explained to me. But if we write up some shops and the coverage brings them new business, ads could follow.

Anyway, she was fired up. And the point of the meeting was to send people away more enthusiastic than they arrived.

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