CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — In 2006, after fifteen years as a print journalist, including six years as a political reporter with Chicago Magazine, Steve Rhodes took the biggest gamble of his career. Frustrated with what he viewed as the magazine’s obliviousness towards the Internet, he quit his job and threw all of his financial and journalistic resources behind his own online magazine, The Beachwood Reporter.
Rhodes describes the site as “a bar’s-eye view of Chicago,” a reference to the site’s origins. He says he started the website because of “frustration” with his old bosses at Chicago Magazine, “combined with feeling like it was time for a change, combined with the fact that I hung out at a bar called the Beachwood Inn, and I was sick of my friends and I talking about what we wanted to do and not doing it.” The bar would provide the website with its name, as well as many of its contributing writers. Five years later, a lot of the site’s writing retains the informal, snarky feel of an alcohol-fueled bull session. “This is us sitting at the bar making wisecracks about how stupid the world is,” says Rhodes, “but we’re not the uninformed angry guy at the bar.”
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Rhodes, who is the site’s only paid employee, and a couple dozen volunteer freelancers ruminate on a broad range of Chicago-related topics, and everything from the persistent futility of the Cubs to alleged corruption in City Hall is fair game. Rhodes’s unifying goal is to avoid sounding like the traditional media outlets for which he used to work. “A lot of what traditional journalism does is really fake,” he says. “For some reason they’re afraid to say ‘Mayor Daley lied again on Thursday’ when it’s just provable. I think I’ve been able to kind of cut through a lot of that.”
The Reporter’s front page is where much of that cutting takes place. Since the site launched, its homepage has been dedicated to a daily column that combines media criticism with local news aggregation. A recent column looked at the Chicago media’s history of failing to report on the relationship between outgoing mayor Richard Daley and a businessman with alleged connections to organized crime; the next day’s post was a bullet-pointed list of links to local news developments with one or two sentences of biting commentary on each.
The front-page column’s voice is informative and very often caustic, a function of Rhodes’s own sense of traditional media’s failures. “When I was coming to the end at Chicago Magazine,” he explains, “one of the things that really struck me was how the Daily Show and The Onion were doing a better job telling the truth than journalists were.”
For Rhodes, a self-edited website’s chief advantage over a traditional media outlet is that it can tell the truth without being hamstrung by a house style or a tone-deaf editorial hierarchy. He says part of the reason he started the Reporter was because he wanted “the ability to say things in a direct way, a witty way, and sometimes a passionate way that the conventions of traditional newspapers or magazines kind of handcuffed me and others from doing.”
Perhaps the best display of this website’s ability to balance seriousness and snark is its sidebar, which links to, among other places, a stolen bike registry, historic issues of Spy Magazine, and a website that provides users with constant updates of what music is playing at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
Rhodes says that he wants the site to be useful to Chicagoans, but that it’s just as important to him to edit a publication that isn’t predicable or mundane. For instance, he wanted to provide links to city services–but not ones that his readers might already know about or could easily find on their own. “A useful link isn’t the link to your alderman’s office,” he says. “The city has a place where you can complain about your cable. That’s cool!”
From a financial perspective, Rhodes’s gamble hasn’t been overwhelmingly successful. The website is barely profitable, and Rhodes says that the Reporter has survived off of a grant from the Chicago Community Trust, opportune private investments, and his own personal savings. The grant from the CCT came after the organization received a grant from the Knight Foundation to start its own news site but decided to abandon the idea. Instead, they received permission from Knight to redistribute the money themselves, and invited both for-profit and nonprofit Chicago media to apply.
Rhodes applied for a $100,000 grant that he said would allow him to make tech upgrades, incorporate contributors who had offsite blogs onto the Reporter’s site, and start publishing new sites under the Beachwood Media Group banner. He received $35,000, which allowed him to get a jump on his plans, but the idea of a stable of Beachwood sites has yet to come to fruition. Devin Hester is Ridiculous, a Chicago Bears blog named after the team’s returns specialist, has been dormant for about a year; Agony & Ivy, a blog about the Cubs that was revamped using some of the grant funding, is updated frequently but needs a number of upgrades before it can be effectively monetized.
Still. Rhodes has faith in the “stable of sites” model and feels that it could help ensure the Reporter’s long-term survival. He hopes that revenue from future Beachwood partner websites, as well as smartphone applications that he plans to develop, will eventually be able to subsidize the Reporter’s own editorial expansion. He says that “a business need for resources–human and/or financial” has slowed the site’s growth.
Despite these difficulties, Rhodes says that his professional profile has never been higher. “I did a lot in my print career that I’m really proud of,” says Rhodes. “But it’s very interesting that I had to leave the business, so to speak, to get people to pay attention to me.” Rhodes is a frequent guest on local Chicago media, and a go-to source when reporters from out of town want to write about some aspect of the city’s politics. The Reporter’s unsparing look at Chicago’s political scene, along with traditional media’s attempts at covering it, has turned both the site and Rhodes into a local authority, albeit an offbeat one.
The Beachwood Media Company
Name: The Beachwood Media Company