I was going to write something about the Trib‘s new ChicagoNow blog network, but Mark Potts says most everything I wanted to say. It’s a sharp idea, they’ve got some good young minds behind it who are ably making the shift from print to digital, and they’ve already recruited some idiosyncratic voices with deep ties in both the online and meatspace communities, like comedian and author Amy Guth of Pilcrow and RUI. Leslie Hindman’s auction blog looks addictive. The Web is the most powerful talent-recruitment tool given to publications in forever, so it’s refreshing to see it treated as such.

A paid local blog community isn’t a new idea; the Examiner beat them to it, but the Examiner remains perpetually desultory, bland and difficult to navigate. Maintaining such a community isn’t that far removed from maintaining a stable of freelancers, so it’s really not that foreign to old-school institutions, which arguably are better positioned to do so.

Most importantly, such an idea is probably the most practical solution to what will be an ongoing problem to monetizing the blogosphere. For all the hullaballoo over places like HuffPo, the essential problem is that newspapers and similar institutions will lose eyeballs to things that can’t really be monetized, not in any proper form. For instance:

Back in the day I might have spent more time with the Trib or the NYT if it wasn’t for Balkinization or the Volokh Conspiracy or Lawyers, Guns, and Money or Ill Doctrine or the hundreds of other Web sites I visit hourly, daily, weekly, or what have you. Yes: the evolutionary Andy Rooney is a hip-hop DJ in New York.

Now I spend less, because I, personally, would rather spend time with them than 90% of the op-ed industrial complex. (Why does the NYT care what a professionally incurious dead-ender like Katherine Jean Lopez thinks of Sonia Sotomayor, when what Eugene Volokh and his crew or Daniel Larison have to criticize her about is guaranteed to be more interesting, and substantiative, and something a reader can actually learn from? Because they don’t read? Because they’re afraid of information? The mind reels….)

But… a lot of people wouldn’t. A lot of people would still rather read Maureen Dowd, because they need to take a long hard look at the world, or because they’re behind the times, or something. Or they’d rather read other blogs that I don’t, for whatever reason.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that, to the extent that newspapers are losing readers (and that’s a long argument), they’ll be doing it a handful of readers at a time to niches. Those niches might be more nerdy, or ideological, or funny, or just more interesting prose stylists. For instance, Doghouse Riley isn’t always more insightful than a lot of other bloggers, I just like the way he writes. But I wouldn’t expect him on an op-ed page in a million years. This is part of what happened to the music industry: it’s not just free distribution and cheap production, it’s also a natural loosening of the cultural zeitgeist.

[Oh: also, per eyeballs and places to stick ads, we are competing against icanhazcheeseburger.com and its ilk, too. It’s a much more complicated scenario than “other people are writing about the news too!”]

Right, the argument: By wooing those niches and giving them a cut of the action, you can give them some possibly-wanted institutional backing (and, perhaps one day, integration into institutional resources and culture, another way to win them over… photos, press passes, etc) while treating everyone to the PR and SEO magic that comes from building a network and having professionals maintain it. 

In short, I think TribCo is taking a leap ahead of ChuffPo, whose dedicated local offerings aren’t nearly as broad, and its old media competition (please make the TimesPeople bar go away kthxbye). We’ll see how the particulars pan out, but it’s a worthy experiment.

The next step, I’m guessing – besides integrating such networks with the institution in a more traditional, meatspacey kind of way – will be for media institutions to seek out adventurous voices with national appeal. One point I keep trying to make is that we’ve got a local new-andold-media institution that does a fine job selling content to subscribers: Baseball Prospectus. They nailed down the science, and then they sold it to people. I give them money not out of the kindness of my own heart, but because I want their science.

I doubt they have any need for backing at this point, but I bet there was a time when they could have been interested in the lucre, and the next race will involve finding the next stars whose content you could actually firewall, or at least pitch to a national audience (cf. Paul Krugman).

Here’s a hint, IMHO: it’s never too late to get in on the ground floor on whatever the conservative movement will be after it returns from its carny years.