CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — [UPDATE: On February 20, 2012, Chicago News Cooperative editor and CEO James O’Shea announced that CNC was suspending its website, as well as its contributions to The New York Times, in order to ” reassess our operations and determine if there is a more sustainable path to the future.”]
The Chicago News Cooperative was famously the first outside news organization to produce entire pages for The New York Times—but the deal was in the works before the CNC was even a fully formed idea. During the summer of 2009, CNC co-founder and editor James O’Shea, a former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune (and, from 2006 to 2008, one of the revolving cast of editors at the Los Angeles Times), was assembling a business plan for a member supported (i.e. cooperative) news nonprofit that would cover the city of Chicago when he got a call from Monica Davey, a former employee of his at the Tribune, who had since become the Chicago bureau chief for the Times. O’Shea flew to New York soon after to discuss the arrangement, the Times agreed to provide an initial contribution to help get the CNC underway, and, roughly four months after the initial call from Davey, the infant CNC was producing copy for the Gray Lady’s Chicago edition. (Disclosure: Peter Osnos, CJR’s vice-chairman, is a co-founder of CNC and a current member of its advisory board.)
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With its launch so greatly expedited by the agreement with the Times, the CNC has been playing catch-up in order to meet its original goal of being a membership based, cooperative news source for the Chicagoland area. O’Shea explains: “When we started, it was really going to be a cooperative and it was going to be financed by members, and we felt we were going to have to spend more time developing the membership model. But then the Times came along, so we decided to go ahead.”
Since that time, the CNC’s staff, largely made up of former Tribune reporters, has been producing solid, straightforward, newspaper-esque journalism for both for the Times and for its own still fairly rudimentary website. October of 2010 saw the launch of Early and Often, a subscription-based CNC web venture aimed at Windy City political junkies. A planned January 2011 revamping of the CNC’s website will introduce yet another member supported product: social networking sites based around an interest in the news.
Social network members will be charged a flat rate of two dollars a week to gain access to niche content on topics ranging from local politics to education to the arts. Members will be encouraged to exchange ideas and interact with reporters in these forums; the format is akin to a social networking site organized around a common interest in a specific area of the CNC’s coverage. “The whole idea of creating these news interest networks is in two things: to create a level of involvement in the community, so that a person who’s a member of the coop can interact with reporters and editors,” O’Shea notes. “And secondly, if you’re really interested in [a topic], you’re interested in helping to finance coverage of it”. With the implementation of this new membership format, O’Shea’s original vision of a cooperative will finally come to fruition.
CNC launched as a project of Window to the World Communications Inc., a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. It has received a major grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and support from the Chicago Community Trust. Both a law firm and a public relations firm have helped the CNC out with pro bono services along the way, and its office space is also donated. Though the CNC applied for its own nonprofit status in 2010, O’Shea is open to any number of scenarios, and could even see the site becoming a for-profit at some point.
“We intend to make something that’s self sustaining,” he says. “I don’t know that you could do this at a newspaper. This is something that you can do if you can just step out of that and say we’re going to go over here and, in our own little space, experiment around and see if we can find something so that five or ten years down the road we’ll still be here. And I think we will be.”
The Chicago News Cooperative Data
Name: The Chicago News Cooperative
Principal Staff: John O’Shea, co-founder and editor; Jim Kirk, managing editor; David Greising, general manager and deputy editor.
Affiliations: The New York Times, WTTW-Channel 11, the Chicago Community Trust.
CJR on the Chicago News Cooperative:
05/01/10: Bite the Hand that Feeds - The Chicago News Cooperative and the tricky nonprofit terrain - Jamie Kalven
10/23/09: Video: Jim O’Shea Discusses the Chicago News Cooperative - Megan Garber
10/22/09: Say Hello to…The Chicago News Cooperative - Megan Garber