The Tail Wagged the Dog

Jan Schaffer

Posted on February 28, 2012  |  Blogically Thinking

Amid the current shakeouts of independent news sites, it's important to understand all the ingredients that make these sites successful. In the case of the Chicago News Cooperative, its problems were not confined to its failure to raise revenues.

From its very start, the site was never able to generate the kind of juice that is critical to convert audiences into donors, advertisers or committed readers even as it generated some good journalism.

When you compare its efforts to the likes of the Texas Tribune, Minn Post, or even the much smaller VTDigger, there were key elements missing.  Namely, buzz, impact, engagement and transparency.

The site launched without much fanfare two and a half years ago.  One had to stumble around to find it. A redesigned website took forever to get launched. Even then, "multimedia" offerings were siloed in their own section instead of being well-integrated into story pages.

CNC was the first metro news startup wooed to contribute regional content to the New York Times. And The Times, in addition to the MacArthur Foundation, made a quiet but significant initial startup investment – on top of monthly payments for content.

From then on, the tail seemed to wag the dog.  The site found itself committed to populating four Times news pages a week before it could develop its own content stream and identity.  Other metro startups had more time to develop their areas of focus before they agreed to supply Times content.

Even before it went dark, CNC's news portfolio was thin. It covered City Hall and three metro sub-topics: Education, Culture and Sports.  The Times had a keen interest in Culture news.  However, one could question how much value CNC added to existing sports coverage.  Meanwhile, Education was not only being covered by legacy news media in town, but the highly regarded Catalyst-Chicago has long provided in-depth coverage of the city's schools.

Several metro news startups have embraced significant transparency about their enterprises with the likes of Minn Post and Texas Tribune generating annual reports on revenues and traffic. CNC curiously was always tight-lipped about its operations, even as founder Jim O'Shea decried the "sloppiness" of the reporting about its demise. 

Finally, CNC never seemed to achieve an engagement mindset that invited its readers to interact with its journalism.  No conversations with newsmakers, no interactive databases. No  "Minn Roasts" or Texas Tribune festivals, no "Beacon and Eggs," the St. Louis Beacon's town hall meetings.

It was pretty much journalism as a commodity – not a conversation.  It's too bad, because it could have worked.