Justin Kaufman
Justin Kaufman

Two years ago, when Vocalo was new, I got an earful from WBEZ journalists who despised everything about their station’s new Web-based baby—the incoherent audio and online products, certainly, but also the time, attention, and money that Chicago Public Radio was lavishing on it. To CEO Torey Malatia, Vocalo was the cutting-edge hybrid that would reinvent public radio. To many WBEZ reporters and editors, it was a lost opportunity. They “wanted to seize the day,” I would write, “responding to the crumbling of Chicago’s newspapers by spending the money it would take to turn itself into the city’s preeminent news source.”

They wanted to do that by snapping up some of the reporters the dailies were laying off. The day wasn’t seized. But now something along those lines is going on. Not at WBEZ. And not at Chicago Public Radio, for that brand was retired this spring in favor of Chicago Public Media. But CPM is assembling a small but formidable blog network composed of experienced journalists with followings and reputations. And for the moment, the network functions under the aegis of Vocalo.org.

“It’s surprising to me that a lot of these voices are available,” says Justin Kaufmann, who runs the network, “and I think it speaks to something bigger in Chicago that they’re looking for an outlet. But I also think we’re getting to the stage where they’re looking for a better outlet. For me, the main goal is to establish a place you have to go to in the morning. There are two kinds of ways to go about creating a blog network. There are a bunch of aggregators saying, ‘This is in the newspapers today, and I’m commenting on it.’ But we have the ability to be the conversation starter—to say, ‘This is not only our take on the news but this is the news.'”

The Vocalo blogger closest to my heart is a temp, John Conroy, who wrote about former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and police torture for the Reader from 1990 until budget cuts made him unaffordable in 2007. Conroy is now blogging the Burge trial for Kaufmann, who made a better offer than anyone else in town (including the Reader) for his commentary.

Joining Conroy this week are three permanent additions to the network: former Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis, cohost of WBEZ’s Sound Opinions; novelist Achy Obejas, who’s written for the Reader, the Sun-Times, and the Tribune; and author Anne Elizabeth Moore, a former editor of Punk Planet. Steve Edwards, who as CPM’s content development director is Kaufmann’s immediate boss, will soon join the site to contribute interviews and commentary.

The old hands, so to speak, are humorist Amy Krouse Rosenthal; Channel Seven’s “Hungry Hound,” Steve Dolinsky, who’s won 12 James Beard Awards; and Lee Bey, who after writing about architecture and urban planning for the Sun-Times became Mayor Daley’s deputy chief of staff for planning and design and then executive director of the Chicago Central Area Committee, a Loop-focused business group. The oldest Vocalo blogger of all—which means he’s been around a full seven months—is Robert Feder, who covered Chicago’s broadcast industry for the Sun-Times from 1980 until 2008. When Torey Malatia, CEO of Chicago Public Media, hired Feder for Vocalo last year, the move was like a barrel of buckshot fired at every critic, like me, who’d ever snickered at it. Take us seriously, it said.

That was a tall assignment. Chicago Public Radio’s last strategic plan, the one announcing the name change to Chicago Public Media, began circulating in-house shortly before Feder was hired, and it pulled no punches about what needed to be done. “As a website,” it said, “Vocalo must be seen as unsuccessful. Great websites exhibit a much steeper growth pattern than we have experienced. . . . This must be fixed urgently.”

Malatia went out and got Feder and then Kaufmann got the others. Kaufmann calls Feder his “superstar” and tells me he draws over half the site’s traffic. “I would guess Robert Feder is competitive with the best at ChicagoNow”—the Tribune‘s blog network. “ChicagoNow has something like 700,000 [unique] visits a day month and Vocalo is like 160,000,” Kaufmann says. “But they have 300-plus bloggers.”

[Kaufmann got his figures from compete.com and they’re what was available for March. Since then ChicagoNow’s traffic has gone up and Vocalo’s has come down.]

Two weeks ago the Poynter Institute and Mashable.com jointly named ChicagoNow one of “5 innovative Web sites that could reshape the news”—and it was the only one of the five that was a product of mainstream media. Imaginatively assembled and aggressively promoted by social media and by alliances with such less-than-obvious partners as AOL, the burgeoning ChicagoNow—editorial director Tracy Samantha Schmidt herself isn’t sure how many bloggers she has, but the number’s approaching 350—officially launched last August. In September, Schmidt says, it received 3.2 million pageviews, last month more than 20 million.

To quote Mashable’s Samuel Axon: “ChicagoNow drops traditional journalists and news reporting in favor of a large network of volunteer bloggers, all writing about the community, culture, politics, and everything else in the city of Chicago. Investigate the network and you’ll find evidence of the leading trend in the new web and mobile-based news networks: local. The network cranks out 100 posts per day and thrives on comments and feedback from readers. Bloggers arrange in-person meet-ups at Windy City watering holes to further develop the community.”

Looked at one way, ChicagoNow and the Vocalo blog are nothing alike. “They have a monstrous marketing campaign,” says Kaufmann. “WBEZ is notorious for not having a marketing budget.” Kaufmann went out and got Jim DeRogatis. Tracy Samantha Schmidt says, “We’ve recruited big personalities,” and the first she mentions is Ashley Bond, Miss Illinois 2009. Conroy is blogging the Burge trial for Vocalo. Nobody’s blogging it for ChicagoNow, but one day last week Kaufmann counted nine ChicagoNow bloggers with something to say about the Stanley Cup. Kaufmann edits his bloggers, doesn’t let them duplicate each other, and wants them blogging every day. Schmidt says her bloggers are encouraged to post daily, but it’s no big deal when they don’t. The day before she and I talked, she made a sweep of her site looking for bloggers who hadn’t posted in a month or more. There were about 15 of them. Were they dropped? No, says Schmidt, but she got in touch to find out if they were still interested.

“I can’t argue with ChicagoNow—they probably have five times the traffic I have,” Kaufmann says. “I’m smart enough to know I’m not really in competition with it. I see myself more like the Swamp Fox—I get in, steal some supplies, and get out.”

The ethos of all for one and one for all still nominally prevails among online media, where everyone’s making it up as they go along, nobody’s figured out how to get rich, and linking is common courtesy. But there are only so many hours a day anyone has to root around online for news, and somebody looking at Vocalo over morning coffee isn’t looking at ChicagoNow. Perhaps ChicagoNow doesn’t need to cover the Burge trial; you can find the Tribune‘s coverage at chicagotribune.com. But then again, you can find WBEZ’s at wbez.org. The day the Burge trial began, WTTW’s Chicago Tonight put a panel together to discuss it; flanking former state’s attorney Dick Devine were Conroy and WBEZ’s trial reporter, Rob Wildeboer. “You’ve got to love that panel,” Kaufmann told me. “Both of our properties were represented.”

In 2007 WBEZ launched a blog and in 2008 Kaufmann—a former Eight Forty-Eight producer—took it over, moving into the newsroom to work with the reporters and editors who posted on it. And then, he says, Malatia “had the idea of bringing Feder in. He said, ‘Let’s amass some talent and make a dent.’ And obviously, Feder has been tremendously successful.”

There were technical reasons to assign Feder to Vocalo—its Web site enjoyed a more sophisticated operating system than WBEZ’s—but those weren’t the only reasons. “We sort of wanted to evolve the Vocalo experience,” says Daniel Ash, CPM’s vice president of strategic communications. “We wanted to find well-known, strong voices and create some momentum.”

Yet Kaufmann says, “I’m not Vocalo.” As if counting on his fingers, he lists the constituent parts of Chicago Public Media: “WBEZ radio and Vocalo radio. And Vocalo’s Web site representing their station and WBEZ’s representing their station. And the blogs are in the middle of all that. I am in no way a representative of Vocalo. I share the name because that’s where they put the blog network.”

This will change. This summer CPM is moving not only wbez.org but also thisamericanlife.org and soundopinions.org to Drupal, the open-source content management system Vocalo’s using. Once these sites share the same architecture, says Ash, they’ll all have easy access to CPM bloggers no matter where the bloggers are, and they’ll be assigned the nominal homes that seem to suit them best. For instance, Ash supposes Lee Bey will wind up at wbez.org because architecture and urban planning are subjects that just seem to belong there.

In the meantime, Vocalo is being overhauled. Ash tells me Silvia Rivera, who took over as managing director on March 1, has slashed its hours of live broadcasting from 55 to 20 a week as she and her staff work “very aggressively to reimagine the broadcast.” Along those lines, Ash says, Rivera will be signing up a new batch of bloggers who are “very Vocalo” —and whatever else that means, it’s likely to mean roughly half the age of the current crop, several of whom won’t see 50 again.

So if a golden era of Vocalo blogging is remembered, it’ll be as little more than a moment. But the moment’s done a world of good at putting a respectable face on a secretive operation that made a lot of people mad: the WBEZ staff whom Vocalo staffers had no contact with, and the WBEZ supporters who weren’t even told where some of their money was going. “We wanted to create space for us to experiment in,” says Ash, explaining the Berlin wall around the Vocalo operation, “and it created a lot of tension. We learned a lot with Vocalo and it was tough learning.”

The learning continues. But these days, Ash says, “we’re all sitting around the same table.”