Post-Script: Reflecting on the Chitown Daily News

By Kate Gardiner in News on Sep 18, 2009 9:50PM

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On Tuesday, I did something unusual for a 23-year-old journalist two weeks out of grad school: I book-ended my career. I started at Chitown Daily News, the nonprofit public affairs reporting site funded by the Knight Foundation for a few years’ experimentation, in June 2007, just as editor and CEO Geoff Dougherty opened his first office in Andersonville.

The interns were paid to create a local news and events calendar - and do in-depth reporting for free. The nonprofit venture was a new model - and the journalism community was cautiously optimistic. Two years later, as its reporters were being lauded for their work, the website effectively closed its doors - firing its remaining staff reporters after completely running out of donated funds. While the nonprofit part of the business is allegedly for sale, Dougherty insists that the spirit of the organization will continue, thanks to mysterious angel investors and a partnership with Loyola's public affairs reporting classes; he said as much while sitting on a panel about the future of newspapers at Loyola Sept. 14.

At what was basically the news organization's wake Sept. 15, I was not surprised to hear about the troubles that faced the nonprofit recently - almost all of which were related to business plans and advertisers, in the face of its influential reporting. “We’re choosing to believe that Geoff did not tell us until the last day because he did not want to believe it was true,” one reporter said. “But at the same time he had to know - there was no money coming in.” Mostly, however, the lament was that Chitown’s death as a nonprofit would unfairly characterize the nonprofit model as unsuccessful and impractical way of practicing journalism. And, they added, if there really is a forthcoming for-profit venture, why did he fire all of us?

As someone who has been asked to produce content for free for almost every web site or news entity I’ve ever worked for I cannot help but wonder about this model we’ve created for ourselves. Few young journalists consistently make a living wage, something that we expect when we head into the profession. But the trouble is: there’s almost no way to become a good, sturdy local public affairs reporter in Chicago - while actually eating food.

In context, the closing of one of Chicago’s smallest public affairs-oriented journalism entities might not seem like much. But Chitown served a purpose: they were there at the agencies that desperately need to be covered - the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (an agency with money in a recession and budget crunch?), the environment, public housing. They were - almost always - first to report shady goings-on.

Given that all three of the city's newspapers are or have been in bankruptcy this year, bridging the gap between what needs to be covered and what is covered is just getting more haphazard. We could ill-afford to let Chitown die; now that we have, we have to ask ourselves - why did we?