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State of Pay: A Chicago News-Blog Suspense Story

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Veteran journalists I know really enjoyed seeing themselves played by Russell Crowe in the recent film State of Play.

Handsome, disheveled, world weary and all-knowing, worn down by the events he views and records, Cal is still honest to a fault. Me, I am not as veteran as most -- so my favorite was the set design of Crowe's apartment. He had way too many refrigerator magnets on his fridge. That's where I am at.

These days, it's best to decorate the fridge, rather than open it. The shelves aren't bare exactly, but they're not stocked either.

I'd have to say that's due to the current "State of Pay" in the journalism field.

As new and unexpected methods of news delivery reveal themselves, systems of vetting and hierarchy will develop, and established journalism will find itself embedded somewhere in this news delivery ecosystem developed by Steven Berlin Johnson, one of the founders of Outsidein.

Our emerging newsrooms will be staffed in part by a generation of newshounds -- yes, journalists -- who've taken on the task of news delivery through the Web on their own.

You can learn more about this world of independent news bloggers at The Chicago Media Future Conference, a free afternoon event Saturday, June 13, put together by Scott Smith, a senior editor at Playboy.com, and fellow co-conspirators, Barb Iverson, teacher of all things digital and journalistic at Columbia College, and Mike Fourcher, founder of Purely Political Consulting.

Meawhile, read on. I talked to a sampling of these entrepreneurs and here's their review of the current "State of Pay" in Chicago.

The Beachwood Reporter
Steve Rhodes

"We just added a fantasy sports columnist," says Steve Rhodes, editor and publisher of the Beachwood, "in addition to a new horse-racing correspondent and auto-racing correspondent."

"We just posted another YouTube parody song, Wee Love Q by Green Bay Bill, Tom LaTourette and Joe Dillo. It has already been played on the radio."

This follows a notable success. The Society of Professional Journalists in April honored a joint investigation by Chicago Talks and The Beachwood Reporter with the SPJ's 2008 national award for online investigative reporting by an independent media outlet. The Better Government Association assisted with the investigation into the activities of Chicago City Council committees.

"The award was nice because it is the second year in the row that we have won while working with (Journalism Professor) Suzanne McBride's class," Rhodes says. "If Beachwood can do this without any money at all, with just a little bit of money we could compete with the legacy media," Rhodes says. "It's not like the newspapers are the only ones who can do it."

Named after Rhodes favorite Wicker Park bar, The Beachwood Reporter is unique among Chicago's news blogs. Searing political commentary is Rhodes' signature and the rest of the coverage -- on music, TV, politics, sports, books and People, Places and Things -- shimmers with humor and creativity.

Joining a stable of 20 contributors associated with The Beachwood are
new columnists Dan O'Shea on fantasy sports, Thomas Chambers on horse racing and Carely Lundin on auto racing. Each and every one is a volunteer.

Recently, Rhodes says, one feature is soaring in popularity: Ferdy On Films, a member site of the Beachwood Media Company, is getting 40,000 unique views per month.

Windy Citizen
Brad Flora

"WindyCitizen's front page is a snapshot of what is new and most interesting in Chicago right now," says Brad Flora, editor and publisher. "It will all be local and it will all be interesting."

Flora was one vocal guy at the Chicago Journalism Townhall in February. We won't repeat what he said, but it was passionate and angry. He's calmed down since then, and focusing on the business side of his site.

"We are very similar to a Digg or a Reddit," Flora says. "It's a people-powered editorial approach to pulling together the news of the day."

As a crowd-powered front page for Chicago, on any given day Windy Citizen will feature local blogging, video, photos, news reporting that contributors have brought to the site. Flora says Windy Citizen has 42 blogs in its network, who are compensated by enhanced visibility. But none of them are PR writers, he said.

It's a central place where links can be shared and content can be voted up and down.

"The stuff that gets the most votes floats to the front page using an algorithm," Flora says.
He's currently running a fundraising drive and he's making some money. But the general state of money things?

"It's been paying my rent and Ramen noodle bill," Flora says.

New Communities
Patrick Barry

"We have some fermenting going on here and pretty soon the cork's going to pop," said Patrick Barry, an editor and writer at NewCommunities.org. "I hope that when the cork does pop it will unleash a bubbly cascade of champagne."

Barry works with Gordon Walek to put out a suite of news sites that report on Chicago neighborhoods at Newcommunities.org.

Recently Walek and Barry launched NeighborhoodSportsChicago.org. They pulled everything together -- reporting, writing and graphic design -- and published it in 11 days.

"It was our latest experiment in trying to create new avenues for underreported stories," Barry says. "We got decent traffic during that week."

Built almost five years ago, New Communities sheds light on media-neglected Chicago neighborhoods and the organizing and economic growth going on in those places. It's the kind of coverage that was the bread and butter of Chicago's newsrooms in the days when newspapers were more prone to report on stories relevant to the entire demographics of a city instead of the top 50 percent income demographic.

The sites have sustained funding from the MacArthur Foundation, so unlike the editors of many news sites, NewCommunities editors and writers get paid for their original reporting. But still, since they are a nonprofit, their search for operational revenue is never-ending.

"I don't want to simply pass on something from somebody else," Barry says. "I want to create original content that is not provided anywhere else and provide some insight into why it deserves to be up there."

"That takes work," Barry says.

"I think people really have very little understanding of what goes into putting out news. The layers and layers of editing, reporting, graphic support and now technology support."

Barry says NewCommunities coverage brings alive the language of community development in a powerful way.

"It's allowed people to understand what community development means," Barry says. "We just showed them by running stories and photos. You can touch and feel it a lot more rather than some theoretical presentation of comprehensive community development theory."

Barry says the sites have been successful because of the vacuum they're filling.

"The search engines saw the stuff immediately," he says. And once they started publishing the sites, the neighborhoods got involved and started building their own grassroots sites.

"They realized that they could have their own voice," Barry says.

Gapers Block
Andrew Huff

"We are soldiering on," said Andrew Huff, editor and publisher of Gapers Block, a Chicago-centric Web publication providing information on news and events around town.

"We are looking for some new contributors in art. Our editors get a small stipend as an indication that we do want to try and pay everybody.

Chicago's network of news bloggers is "definitely collaborative, and extremely supportive, but unfortunately that doesn't translate into financial success," said Huff, who launched Gapers Block six years ago.

And that's what's holding everybody back.

"I believe that the future of journalism is a whole bunch of little sites," he said. "The newspaper isn't being destroyed. It's being exploded."

And everybody is flying out and doing their own thing -- pay be damned.

"In the past, newsrooms were considered to be almost a community utility," Huff says. "But since investors started expecting ever-increasing returns, the money equation for newsrooms hasn't made sense." In the old days it was a stable profit, not an ever-increasing profit.

"I don't think money people know how to make money with news," Huff said. What does that mean for Huff who writer for business blogs to make ends meet?

"If I left, the site would die," he said.

Community Media Workshop
Gordon Mayer

Thom Clark and his Community Media Workshop are making a list and checking it twice to understand what is happening in Chicago's online news streams as part of a Chicago Community Trust project.

"One of the things that we are doing is building a list," says Gordon Mayer, vice president. "We know how to do directories."

"We found 70-80 solid online news sites. There are a couple of questions about what does and doesn't fit into this category. That's what's going to be in the report," Mayer says. "It's basically impossible for a single organization to come up with an authoritative list."

Mayers says that In looking at newspapers, "what really shifted was their mission of who they delivered information to. The audience shifted from everybody in Chicago to an audience that was more monied."

And the Internet is clobbering newspapers because of it, Mayers says.

The Community Media Workshop's portal opens into a plethora of channels aimed at assisting nonprofit communicators and others who want to connect with the legacy broadcast and newspaper press. Its NewsTips service offers insight into the kinds of stories nonprofits are seeking to place in the press.

The CMW is doing the report for the Chicago Community Trust and planning to build its own newsroom, Mayer says.

CMW's annual conference June 9-11, Making Media Connections this year on June 11 includes a session on social media and the news that's free. But if you want to attend anything else at the conference the cost is $95 for the half-day workshops and $190 for full-day workshops.