Former DNAinfo staffers link up with Civil for Block Club Chicago

A corner building in Humboldt Park/Logan Square, neighborhoods to be covered by Block Club Chicago. Photo via Josh Koonce/Flickr.

BLOCK CLUB CHICAGO is the latest hyperlocal news experiment in the country’s third biggest media market. It’s also the latest effort to fund local newsrooms by Civil, a crypto-currency based journalism marketplace that aims to connect journalists with audiences who will pay for their work. (In this December piece, CJR writer Mathew Ingram describes how Civil works.)  Civil’s website lists a handful of newsrooms focused on topics such as financial technology and health policy, as well another place-based site called Heart of Texas, and Popula, an alternative news and culture site overseen by Maria Bustillos.

Block Club, set to launch this spring, is staffed by former editors and reporters who worked at DNAinfo Chicago before billionaire owner Joe Ricketts abruptly shuttered the neighborhood news website and its East Coast counterpart, DNAinfo New York, in November. Chicago media reporter Robert Feder broke the news about Block Club Tuesday in a 6am post. The founders are former Managing Editor Shamus Toomey, Block Club’s editor-in-chief; former Senior Editor Stephanie Lulay, the startup’s managing editor; and former Deputy Editor and Social Media Director Jennifer Sabella, director of strategy at the new organization.

ICYMI: Civil says the future of media is blockchains and cryptocurrency

After DNAinfo Chicago was shut down in November, leaders at the neighborhood news website received calls and emails from potential funders who wanted to help bring it back in some form.

“Ever since we went away, I think people realized how much they used us, and that we were the only ones doing some of this work,” says Sabella, Block Club’s director of strategy.

I think people know that no one else is going to show up and do this. No one else is going to publicize their small events or write about the Christmas tree recycling extension in a specific park, or cover this neighborhood meeting or development as closely as we did and as well as we did.

The trio chose to move forward with Civil because the organization backed their commitment to neighborhood news, and promised them newsroom autonomy to continue producing a brand of journalism similar to their work at DNAinfo, whereas other potential investors wanted to change the model or scale it out to include other cities. Former DNAinfo Deputy Editor Nicole Bode is part of the Civil team, which also went a long way toward earning the trust of the Block Club team.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

With an initial staff of eight, Block Club is much smaller than the DNAinfo Chicago newsroom was, and without a billionaire’s backing, but will operate under practically the same model as DNAinfo did, with reporters assigned particular communities and clusters of neighborhoods.

“We are starting smaller, but we have big plans to grow sustainably and hopefully one day be able to fund reporters all over the city,” Lulay says. “We are starting with five full time reporters but have plans to hire more as we fundraise, and we have a pretty established network of freelancers too.”

The reporters include Lee Edwards, a former reporter for the Chicago Defender and City Bureau, and four former DNAinfo staffers: Mauricio Pena (who comes more recently from an associate editor post at Chicago Magazine), Alisa Hauser, Mina Bloom, and Kelly Bauer.

Bloom says she will cover the same cluster of Northwest Side neighborhoods she covered for DNAinfo before that site shuttered: Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and Avondale.

“These are some of the most hardworking, smartest, just all-around genuine human beings,” she says. “I think of myself as being supremely lucky.”

Sabella says the website will offer paid subscriptions for about $5.

“I think people know that no one else is going to show up and do this,” Sabella says. “No one else is going to publicize their small events or write about the Christmas tree recycling extension in a specific park, or cover this neighborhood meeting or development as closely as we did and as well as we did. So I think people, for five bucks, will say that’s a deal.”

We heard from so many people after DNAinfo was shut down, ‘I wish they would have just asked me to subscribe, I would have pitched in.’ And now they have the opportunity to do that.

Sabella wouldn’t give specific numbers, but says that Civil is providing a publishing platform and other technology, and has pledged about four months of financial support to cover staff salaries, operations, and insurance. Civil has promised more funding, “but it depends on how the next few months go,” Sabella says. Sabella indicated that some of the funding from Civil will also come via cryptocurrency, a digital alternative to traditional government-backed money systems.

Once Block Club launches, Sabella says, there could be a premium subscription for $10 that could include free entry to events, special newsletters, priority commenting, and other perks. Sabella says it would take $600,000 to $700,000 to fund the newsroom for a year, including enough money to pay for a lawyer, a website host, content promotion, and cameras and software for reporters. That estimate doesn’t include hiring more people, but Sabella says the goal is to grow Block Club. The organization might rely on pledge drives, and is even open to letting residents in neighborhoods sponsor reporters by pooling funds to cover, say, a $50,000 annual salary.

Sabella says Block Club will function as a non-profit, and that the goal is to be sustainable through grants, donations and memberships. On Tuesday, a Kickstarter campaign was launched for Block Club with a goal of raising $25,000 in a month. As of Wednesday morning the campaign had raised more than $87,000.

“It’s just kind of like a vote of confidence that people are excited about this, too,” Bloom says about the Kickstarter campaign.

Lulay says, “People know what good boots-on-the-ground, neighborhood news can be now, and they want it back.”

“And we heard from so many people after DNAinfo was shut down, ‘I wish they would have just asked me to subscribe, I would have pitched in.’ And now they have the opportunity to do that,” Lulay says.

Civil co-founder Matt Coolidge says the addition of Block Club was “humbling and validating.” He says he was encouraged by the public reaction and support for the Kickstarter campaign, and hopes it sends the message that Civil’s approach, which eschews advertising in favor of an audience revenue model, can be viable.

“It’s really heartening in terms of the age old question: are people still willing to pay for journalism,” Coolidge says. “I think our answer is a wholehearted yes.”

Coolidge says Civil is “a decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism.” What that means, he says, is that Civil is essentially providing Block Club with technology tools and a CMS (still under development) as a publishing platform that sits atop the cryptocurrency Ethereum’s blockchain. Civil tokens will be used to compensate journalists to publish their content on the platform. (Readers can also use any other currency they wish, including other cryptocurrencies.)

“I’m hoping Civil can be one of the ways that more people learn about blockchain, and what it really is, and that it genuinely is about more than just bitcoin,” Coolidge says. “We exist as a company because we care about journalism, we want to help introduce a funding model to sustain great journalism.”

The strategy now is to bring in a “first fleet” of journalists and help set up local newsrooms. Coolidge is careful to say Civil isn’t the answer to the journalism industry’s woes, but is “just one potential solution.”

ICYMI: ‘This wasn’t The New York Times, but for me it was a dream job’

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Adeshina Emmanuel is a Chicago-based journalist focused on race, class, inequality, social problems, and solutions who has been published in The New York Times, Ebony, Chicago Magazine, and by ATTN.com. He's a former reporter at the Chicago Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times, and DNAinfo Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @Public_Ade.