09/18/2012 01:17 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

In Chicago, Neighborhood News Leads Online Innovation

The greatest innovation in online news is happening at the neighborhood level, according to The NEW News 2012, the third report on Chicago's online news ecosystem from the Community Media Workshop.

In a review of hundreds of news sites, those operated by citywide news organizations -- and especially TV stations -- demonstrated "a remarkable consistency in news judgment," according to the report.

In contrast, the greatest diversity in online approaches and "the biggest diversity of sites, business models, and news presentation" is found in at the neighborhood level, "where online startups compete with weekly newspapers and efforts funded by foundations and nonprofit," according to Emily Culbertson, co-author of the report.

After culling through hundreds of news sites for audience reach appropriate to potential audience, Workshop staff rated 191 sites on multiple elements of news quality and community engagement. The result is a ranking of top sites for citywide news, neighborhood news, specialty news, arts and entertainment, and news aggregators.

(Disclosure: I was one of Workshop staff raters and also contributed a report on online news outlets in the suburban area.)

Top-ranked neighborhood sites included Uptown Update, Chicago Journal, and Center Square Journal.

In a summary of report findings, Culbertson says that use of web and social media tools varies widely, and reader engagement with online news sites overall is infrequent and generally not of high quality. At citywide sites, it was investigative journalism that lifted some sites above pack journalism.

Three years ago, the first NEW News report found a long-term decline in local news coverage, and the second report in 2010 identified a growing online audience along with challenges in sustaining online news efforts.

Some top-ranked sites from previous reports -- like Chi Town Daily News and Windy Citizen -- have since gone out of business.

A companion report, Linking Audiences, identifies sites that most consistently link readers with content on other sites as well as the sites that are linked to most frequently. Both reports were commissioned by the Chicago Community Trust and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.