CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — Shortly after launching what is now ChicagoTalks.org in 2006, Barbara Iverson realized that the project’s original vision of enlisting citizen journalists to cover neighborhood beats just wasn’t materializing. Originally pitched as a “meta-placelog” that would cover news in all fifty of the city’s wards, the site received its initial funding from the school and through a grant from the start-up catalyst J-Lab. As part of the project, then dubbed “Creating Community Connections,” Iverson and co-founder Suzanne McBride, an associate chair of the department, set out to find people interested in writing the stories of their communities for the web.
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But, according to Iverson, “It was more difficult than I had thought to get community people to spontaneously submit articles.” She and McBride found themselves falling away from neighborhood reporters and back into Columbia College Chicago’s rich stock of undergraduate and graduate student journalists.
That switch, Iverson says, has suited ChicagoTalks–and Columbia–just fine. “With journalism students, I always think it’s better for them to be doing something rather than just thinking or talking about it,” she says.
Soon, ChicagoTalks will operate in conjunction with Iverson’s “Digital Newsroom Workshop,” a class for undergraduates that teaches writing, reporting, and other web journalism skills. For now, the site fields contributions from a pool of about fifty students at any given time, mainly undergraduates taking the school’s “Writing and Reporting 2” course, but also an average of six to eight graduate students per semester. A dozen or so “permanent contributors”–former students as well as non-journalists from the community–also write for the site.
ChicagoTalks updates five days a week with stories on local and county government, public schools, and nearly any other topic–coverage is wide-ranging and serious-minded. Time-consuming day to day reporting such as courts coverage usually doesn’t fit the schedules of the students, Iverson says, but the day-to-day routines of the journalist-in-training often bode well with certain subjects. Case in point, she says, is the site’s lock on public transit issues.
ChicagoTalks also puts a premium on long-term initiatives and partnerships. The site has co-published stories with local and regional independent media entities like the Beachwood Reporter, Community Media Workshop, and Great Lakes Echo. One of the project’s biggest breaks came in early 2011, when The New York Times published a collaborative piece by ChicagoTalks and the non-profit Chicago News Cooperative on how the city’s tax subsidies program disproportionately overlooked businesses in favor areas that were already on a firm economic footing. The students also showed off their investigative chops with an eleven-part series on the misuse of state legislative scholarships in 2009.
Last year, McBride launched AustinTalks, an offshoot site that focuses on one neighborhood on the city’s west side. Like its predecessor, AustinTalks is produced by current Columbia students or graduates, and the site also publishes work by the Austin community and partners with the area’s local paper, the Austin Weekly News. AustinTalks is currently funded by the philanthropic foundation Chicago Community Trust, with additional support from Columbia.
The next step for ChicagoTalks, says Iverson, is achieving wider exposure. She and the students have recently started tooling with search engine optimization models and social media applications in the hopes of expanding viewership and attracting more writers. ChicagoTalks has yet to run ads alongside its content, but Iverson hopes to someday, and when she does would like to channel that revenue toward compensating students who work on longer-term, in-depth reporting projects. (Iverson currently pays a small stipend to the site’s editor). About 90 percent of the funding for ChicagoTalks comes from the school, with no further grants lined up at this time.
Though the site has switched gears from its initial format, Iverson says that the original objective of ChicagoTalks remains relevant. “There’s a great need to connect people in communities that are under-covered by traditional news with news they can use to get involved in community and civic life,” she says.