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Voting Early and Often Could Be a Good Thing

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Chicago entrepreneurship is converging some powerful forces for political reform in Chicago: Early and Often.

Early And Often!

We provide unmatched coverage of the 2011 Chicago mayoral campaign, aldermanic races and the city treasurer and clerk contests - right through the April 5 run-offs.

Early and Often says it will be offering a database of 170 mayoral and aldermanic candidates, including profiles and contact information as well as exclusive news dispatches from the Chicago News Cooperative at least twice each day.

The service is a business partnership between Mike Fourcher, former Democratic political strategist, now publisher of Center Square Journal and a few other hyperlocal news sites, and Jimm Dispensa, the creative -- some would say diabolical -- mind behind Aldertrack. Also at the table is the Chicago News Coop.

At launch, Dispensa already had loaded the system with 1300 items on Chicago's City Council and Mayoral races, says Fourcher, dubbed Business Manager for Early and Often in his email signature.

"It's everything from YouTube videos that people have submitted to press releases," says Fourcher. "We are also aggregating news stories and breaking them up into wards."

The Chicago News Coop will also be contributing some original reporting.

As to the business structure, Fourcher says that the Chicago News Cooperative is licensing its content to Aldertrack Inc. to produce the publication Early and Often.

"We see the [News Coop] as a nonprofit that has gathered together some of the city's best writers and they are working together to create a great newsroom and high quality content," Fourcher says. "They are leaving it to other folks to figure out the business model."

The other folks are Dispensa and Fourcher, who are 100% owners of the Early and Often C-Corp. The Chicago News Coop is licensed to receive 50% of the proceeds generated by the partnership.

I wrote about the service called Aldertrack more than three years ago when I was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. I was inspired by Dispensa's ambitions to post MP3s and agendas for just about every piece of business going on at Chicago City Council, the place where so many shenanigans begin. You can see remnants of what I wrote about Aldertrack at the time on my Sun-Times blog. When we talked back then, Dispensa pointed me to Everyblock, which was just a start-up at the time.

If I were a political reporter, an attorney, somebody who does business with Chicago government, or works for a politician, I'd subscribe to Early and Often in a heartbeat. But at $150 per subscription it's a bit rich for my wallet right now, although you can get a few of its pages for free for a limited time. It also distributes a free email newsletter called The Palm Card.

Early and Often has a potential subscription base of 10,000 to 15,000 individuals and organizations. "We'd be happy to get a third of that," Fourcher says.

Early and Often is a shrewd move to make money on the web offering an information service that people will pay for. It's also the beginning of something that could become a deep source of quality political information in Chicago. It's a little disappointing that it is so expensive, but you get what you pay for: a high price guarantees high quality information. More important, the high price guarantees a high premium audience, the kind that advertisers will pay to get in front of.

Addressing the internet axiom that paywalls don't work because some subscribers will simply distribute the content for free as they choose, Fourcher said, "We will just have to trust people."

With its powerful, experienced partners, Early and Often is making a strong start toward to birthing a real news service delivering critical information to Chicago political news junkies, something like a Chicago version of Rich Miller's must-read Capitol Fax Blog. As Chicago's newsrooms, dealmakers and influencers subscribe, Early and Often could very well become a solid foundation for much of Chicago's political reporting.

There's a distinct flavor of Democratic Party in the leadership of Early and Often, but also considerable journalistic counterbalance in the involvement of the Chicago News Coop and its reporters and investigators.

With this added intelligence in the political circus that is Chicago, we could have one hell of a real election in 2011.