By: Mark Fitzgerald
In August, ChicagoNow, a network of more than 300 local blogs created by the Chicago Tribune, expects to celebrate not just its first anniversary, but also its first profits. At a time when services like Patch abound, allowing newspapers to outsource the seemingly daunting task of erecting a blogging community, the Trib took the do-it-yourself route.
In an interview in Col. McCormack’s gothic Tribune Tower, and in remarks to the American Society of News Editors, former Sports Editor Bill Adee — who now goes by the title of Vice President of Digital Stuff — tells how built ChicagoNow by flipping journalism ethics rules on their head, getting White Sox fans to actually trust something from the owners, until very recently, of the rival Cubs and how it came to be that the Chicago Tribune now hosts the hottest hip-hop blog in Chi-town.
Why a newspaper should look outside the newsroom for bloggers. “Look at certain topics that newspapers cover, like gardening. In the old days (five years ago), we all had gardening writers. But do you really have to be a journalist to give good gardening advice? I always think of it too from a sports view. We send 15 people to a Bulls game. Well, is that 12th or 13th voice from the newspaper really adding anything? Or is there someone out there who already has a community following him, who could offer something else.”
How the newspaper benefits. “At the Tribune, we’re here in a Gothic tower, literally and figuratively, and we figured we would learn from the blogging community what they had learned.”
Throw out the conflict of interest rules. “We don’t make our bloggers sign an ethics code, as we would with anyone here in the newsroom. For us, the very conflict of interest is what gives them their expertise. If we have a real estate agent blogging, they should disclose that, but generally people accept it for what it is, and decide whether to trust someone or not. It’s an ethics marketplace at some level. And what better way was there for us to get White Sox fans to trust us than bring in (former pitcher) “Black” Jack McDowell as a blogger?”
And toss out the freelance agreement while you’re at it. “What we did basically was flip our freelance agreement 180 degrees. They have all the rights, and we have almost none. We get that URL once for one time. We pay our bloggers $5 for every 1,000 local, local, page views.”
It’s not that being a journalist disqualifies you from being a ChicagoNow blogger, but … “When we started we must have looked at 500 blogs. I basically look for comments because that indicates they’ve assembled a community around them. Now we’ve got 350 bloggers who in any 24-hour period put up over 100 posts that get 700 to 800 comments. In April, we had 16 million page views and 2 million unique visitors. We think we’ll have 20 million page views a month by the end of the year, and if we’re on schedule, we’ll be profitable in the first week of August.”
We built it, and a new audience came. “ChicagoNow has a younger, more diverse audience than the Tribune. We have Spanish-language blogs. We over-index on African-American and Hispanic readers, and have a higher percentage of women on ChicagoNow. You never think of the Chicago Tribune as a hip-hop place, but we have the most popular hip-hop blog in the city (GoWhereHipHop).”
Redefine hyperlocal. “We found it very hard to get blogs that work on a neighborhood hyperlocal level. And that’s because what makes the blog work is the passion. So it’s hyperlocal passions. It’s the Chicago knitting community not Norwood Park or Harwood Heights. Nobody is passionate about the town council.”