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Journalism’s élan vital continues to be a combustible mix of curiosity and anger; but the sine qua non is money, and here we see advertising giving way to philanthropy.
Newspapers like the Tribune and Sun-Times have at least one, and possibly both feet in the past, while the online and not-for-profit Chi-Town Daily News offers itself as the future. Donors think it might be; at any rate, this week editor and founder Geoff Dougherty announced two new grants: $100,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and $50,000 from the Abra Prentice Foundation. Dougherty said the money will be used to hire four full-time reporters to cover local government. Those four will double the size of his news staff.
In the midst of so much horrendous financial news about American newspapers, a story in the New York Times a month ago came as a tonic. “Web Sites That Dig for News Rise as Watchdogs,” by Richard Perez-Peña, focused primarily on voiceofsandiego.org, a site where in the last couple of years some of San Diego’s “darkest secrets have been dragged into the light,” but it said “similar operations” have cropped up in other cities, including Chicago, and “more are on the way.”
The unnamed Chicago operation was the Chi-Town Daily News, which Dougherty, a former Tribune reporter, launched three years ago. Last year the Knight Foundation gave him $340,000 so he could put together “a network of trained citizen journalists to provide coverage of local and hyperlocal news.” Dougherty’s Web site is an important work in progress, but by his own admission it’s had no particular impact yet as a watchdog. Actually, Perez-Peña’s headline writer got a little carried away. The papers discussed in the story don’t share muckraking credentials — they share a business model that leans a lot more heavily on grants and reader contributions than on ads.
The Times story prompted me to take a look around the Internet, and earlier this month in Hot Type, I wrote about a Vancouver Web site, thetyee.ca, where investigative journalism has been, from the beginning, the main point. Dougherty wants to measure up, and in his statement announcing the latest grants, he commented, “The past few days have provided eye-opening reminders about the importance of watchdog reporting, and of the declining ability of traditional news organizations to provide it.” He was referring to the arrest of Governor Blagojevich a day after the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy.
But Dougherty could have picked a better spot to argue for his product. He undoubtedly has the traditional news organizations beat on hyperlocalism, but they’ve covered Blagojevich to a fare-thee-well. So have the Reader’s Blago-bloggers. Steve Rhodes, always opinionated and readable, has weighed in enthusiastically at his beachwoodreporter.com. My visit to chitowndailynews.org turned up a commentary by Dougherty suggesting that the governor won’t resign until someone pays him to, but Blagojevich isn’t the Chi-Town‘s kind of story. “We don’t cover state government,” Dougherty says. “We made a really conscious decision that we’d provide pretty tightly defined Chicago coverage — even if it means keeping our mitts off a fantastic story.”
In a nutshell, the new Web sites do not do what the floundering dailies did, and still do. They fill niches — but how will they compensate for gaping holes?
Dougherty also announced this week an impressive addition to its board of directors — Don Wycliff, former editor of the Tribune editorial page.
Here’s a link to the Knight Foundation’s press release announcing the Chi-Town grant and three others — all to online news sites cited by Perez-Peña in the Times. While you’re there listen to the interview with executive editor Scott Lewis of voiceofsandiego.org. He describes not just the ideas and ambitions of new journalists such as himself and Dougherty, but also how much fun it is to be part of a small, presumptuous bunch of young reporters. These sites are attempting to create some sort of alliance, Lewis says — “It’s definitely going to solidify into something national, but with local entities.”