Thursday, February 09, 2006
LOCAL: ChiTownDailyNews.org has ambitious "micro-news" and payment plans for nation's No. 2 city, E&P story says
Former Chicago Tribune staffer Geoff Dougherty has an ambitious "micro-zoning" plan for covering Chicago news online, according to a Dec. 28, 2005 story in Editor & Publisher magazine.
Hyper-Local Chicago News Site to Pay 'Citizen Journalists'
By Jay DeFoore
Editor & Publisher Magazine Online Editor
Published: December 28, 2005 3:36 PM ET
NEW YORK -- With ChiTownDailyNews.org, former Chicago Tribune staffer Geoff Dougherty is going where few so-called "citizen journalism" practitioners have dared to tread: he's offering to pay his amateur news reporters a regular stipend.
The standard $25 contributor reimbursement ($100 goes to the writer with the most-viewed story of the month) is certainly not a king's ransom, but it marks a distinct contrast from the majority of citizen journalism sites that have sprung up over the past year or two.
Dougherty, 35, aims to use these citizen contributors to cover the type of "hyper-local" neighborhood news he said is not being offered by the Tribune and the Sun-Times, Chicago's big daily papers.
So far the idea is gaining traction, and Dougherty has already raised the ire of one of his much larger competitors. The Sun-Times, which took over the original Daily News' archives after the paper closed in 1978, recently sent Dougherty a cease-and-desist letter staking its claim to the name. Although Dougherty claims he's on firm legal grounds in using the Chicago Daily News name, which he says the Sun-Times has let lapse as a copyright, he agreed to tweak the name to ChiTownDailyNews in order to avoid a costly legal battle.
"I'm really committed to the idea that the Internet is a beautiful thing because you can reach out to a lot of new people and forge a community and it doesn't cost a lot of money," said Dougherty, who until November worked as an investigative and business reporter at the Tribune.
Dougherty's business plan calls for him to assemble a network of "neighborhood correspondents" in all 50 ZIP codes in Chicago to cover things like school council and community policing meetings. The site is set up as a non-profit, and Stephen Doig, the Knight Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University, sits on the board of directors.
Doig, who is simply an advisor and not an investor, said Dougherty's business plan is "ambitious" and "optimistic," but he thinks it may have a shot at succeeding. "Chicago is a place where this kind of micro-zoning could really work," Doig said. "With the Tribune empire cutting back, all the problems at the Sun-Times, and with the shutting down of the City News Bureau, maybe this is the right time for him to try something like this."
Doig said there are few places in the country where the local, dominant paper can claim to be covering all the news down to a local level. But Doig cautioned against the "utopian" ideal that building a citizen journalism site is as easy as opening up the publishing pipeline to masses teeming with journalistic impulses.
"An important part of journalism is editing and oversight," he said. "There has to be somebody vetting content, thereby giving me as a reader the assurance that more than one person is saying this."
Doig pointed to the recent Wikipedia debacle, where a user anonymously posted false and defamatory material on the site about former journalist John Seigenthaler Sr., as an example of the problems that can arise "when you entrust the entire world to put up whatever they want."
Dougherty's business model calls for the site to reach 35,000 readers a month by the end of its first year. Blogging on the site Dec. 15, Dougherty wrote, "we've had 5,000 visits, and the number grows every day. We've served up more than 50,000 articles, which suggests our readers are doing more than stopping by for a quick look. They're reading most or all of the content on the site."
Dougherty is hopeful he can exceed those numbers, and to do so, he plans on being more innovative, responsive, and daring than the big papers. To wit, when he learned that most of the early submissions from "citizen journalists" were "more like vignettes, or personal essays, than traditional news stories," rather than junking them, he created a new section of the site to show them off. Hence "The Big City" area of the site.
Another idea that might create space between Dougherty's project and the big boys: he is in talks with a Chicago theatre company to co-produce streaming video Op-Eds satirizing local politicians. Trying finding that at www.chicagotribune.com.
One of Dougherty's next goals is to find someone to sell ads on a commission basis. Dougherty believes there is a significant amount of untapped demand from Chicago's small businesses looking for less expensive advertising venues. Dougherty said reaction to this site so far has been "amazing."
"The gratitude from people I've never heard of is stunning," he said. "I've never done anything in 12 years as a journalist that's connected to people the way this has."
Whether or not ChiTownDailyNews is successful in the long-term, Dougherty is among a growing number of journalists who have opted for the do-it-yourself route. And as Internet publishing technology becomes cheaper and easier to deploy, the numbers of online citizen journalism and non-profit news sites should only increase.
"What Geoff is trying to do probably is something that will be a lot more common in the future," Doig said. "The difficult part for Geoff is that to some degree he is pioneering this."
Jay DeFoore (email@example.com) is E&P's Online Editor.
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