Yesterday the Chicago Reader broke the story that the Chicago News Cooperative, the non-profit journalism outfit that launched in late 2009 with a big pile of MacArthur cash and a contract to supply the New York Times with twice-weekly Chicago coverage, will suspend operations at the end of the month.
As someone who held high hopes for the CNC when it launched back in the fall of 2009, I wish I could say that I’m shocked. But I’m not.
So what happened?
CNC, which has contributed four news pages a week of Chicago news to the New York Times and maintained a news-centric website since O’Shea launched it in the fall of 2009, asked the Times for financial support that would allow it to continue, O’Shea said, but the Times refused.
Those news pages the CNC supplied to the Times ran on Fridays and Sundays in the Chicago-circulated editions of the Times, and also appeared on the Times website. The CNC was not the Times’ sole source for Chicago news—it maintained its own reporters and stringers as well.
The loss of the Times’ support (if that’s indeed what happened—it’s unclear whether the Times pulled their current support or that they wouldn’t give additional funding) is understandably a blow, but did it need to be a death-knell? If the CNC had blossomed in the last three years into something beyond their New York Times contributions, absolutely not. But they didn’t.
One need only access the Internet Archive to see why the CNC is really closing up. The first CNC site archived, from November 23, 2009 (about a month after their launch), prominently features the text: "Coming in 2010: An innovative news site dedicated to building communities through quality journalism".
That text remained at the top of the CNC website for virtually the entirety of 2010, finally changing in late December 2010 to read "Coming soon: An innovative news site dedicated to building communities through quality journalism."
"Soon" turned out to mean more than four months later, when the site relaunched, not as the “innovative news site” they’d been promising for a year and a half, but as a somewhat shambolic Wordpress-driven site that updated infrequently and was difficult to navigate.
If the CNC’s web presence was too little too late, their presence in social media was too little too little. Despite the fact that in June of 2011, founder Jim O’Shea told the Harvard’s Nieman Reports that “we are trying to use journalism to create communities organized around an interest in the news,” but the obvious channels for that kind of community building, the CNC Facebook page and Twitter presence never moved beyond auto-posting stories from their website. Another attempt to build community, the "Palm Card Holiday 100," which sought 100 donors to support the CNC’s daily e-newsletter, topped out at 48.
Treating the internet as an afterthought was not a way to run a successful news organization in 2009 when the CNC launched, let alone today in 2012. You want to know why the CNC is ending? That’s why. And it’s far too common a refrain.
On the day the Cooperative was announced, I wrote a laudatory piece for the Huffington Post. The final paragraph is surprisingly prescient:
The success of their endeavor—and in all these experiments in nonprofit journalism—really resides in that: rebuilding for today, not for yesterday. If they’re not already, the CNC needs to start talking to the smart programmers, data journos, and social media kids around town. Because it’s great to know that they’re thinking of a website, but that’s the bare minimum nowadays — the “you must be this tall to ride” sign of modern news. Where are they on mobile phones? What’s their social media strategy? How do they leverage user-generated content? How do they work with the larger web ecosystem here in Chicago and beyond? What content will be available via an API and how can I mash it up? Where do they stand on Creative Commons licenses? The questions go on and on and on. And sure, they’re a pain in the ass to answer—it’s a lot easier to rebuild the newsroom you worked in for 40 years—but they’re the questions, and they’d better be able to answer every one — because if they can, they win. And so do we.
That paragraph was written without a shred of cynicism. I wanted the CNC to succeed, not just because Chicago desperately needs new blood in its news ecosystem, but because the pathways to really building journalism anew on the internet seemed so very clear and full of promise. With the suspension of operations of the CNC, that promise is still unfulfilled.