The Future is ChicagoNow

It's been eminently fashionable to bash Sam Zell for his gutting of Tribune Co., and with good reason—a copy of the Baltimore Sun I saw recently looked about as substantial as a cocktail napkin, and that was before the Sun's latest newsroom layoffs. The chain's other papers aren't much better, by all reports.

But Zell's minions have also been doing more innovation than a lot of their counterparts in the industry, fiddling with everything from radical redesigns to ambitious hyperlocal networks. And now Tribune seems ready to unleash its most interesting experiment in reinvention yet: ChicagoNow.

It's a little hard to see exactly what ChicagoNow is up to—the beta site is still very much a work in progress, with a launch promised in a few weeks. But there are strong hints available if you click around the site, and a very promising—even thrilling—description of what's coming in a promotional video here. The ChicagoNow staff is blogging about its progress, too.

At its core, ChicagoNow appears to be an effort to create a new kind of local site by aggregating and curating local bloggers, staff material and other content, with a heavy sprinkling of social features, mobile options and other goodies. The video called it "HuffingtonPost meets Facebook for Chicago," which may be a bit strong, but it's a healthy ambition. This is the sort of source-neutral, smartly curated, aggregation-heavy, social-savvy, distribution-prolific local site that every news organization should be doing. It's what Web-centric companies like HuffingtonPost (which already has its own local Chicago blog/aggregation site) do naturally. 

In other words, it's the obvious way to go, the kind of thing people like Jeff Jarvis and I have advocated for years—do what you do best and link to the rest, as Jeff aptly puts it. Phil Anschutz's Examiner.com is quietly building cookie-cutter curated, aggregated sites around the country, and the NBC-owned TV stations are doing the same. But as far as I know, Tribune is the first major newspaper company to take this overdue leap into the future in a major way in its home market—the market it knows best and in which it can bring its expertise and power to bear for readers (and advertisers). Kudos to them. 

Chicagonow_mock-thumb-380x300-763 
It remains to be seen how ChicagoNow will grow from its sketchy beta—the initial hints of content are good, but it needs an interface, and a good one is shown in a teaser graphic on the home page, reproduced here—but the Zellots are taking a huge step in the right direction. Finally, at long last, something very different than just pasting the newspaper on a screen. (It sure beats weird, timid, token efforts like the NY Times' new "social media editor." Wow. Bold.)

ChicagoNow is probably too late to the game to really help Tribune, alas, given the crappy economics of the newspaper business these days. But at least one of the big publishers is trying something radical, visionary and out of the box. It's about damn time. Everybody else in the industry should be following the development of ChicagoNow closely—and scrambling like crazy to get their own curated, aggregated, social sites ready for their markets.

14 thoughts on “The Future is ChicagoNow

  1. Mark – Thank you so much for your excitement about ChicagoNow (I am a developer working on the project) and for recognizing just how radical and progressive this project is for the industry. I can’t wait to hear what everyone has to say about the project once they have more time to explore it more closely.
    As for me, my personal goal as someone working on the project is for The Tribune to engage Chicagoans in a way that they might not be accustomed to by a major news brand – by giving them a voice not only through the content they share with one another, but also in the shaping of the product and web site itself through the feedback they provide. As cliche as it may sound, at the end of the day, we view ChicagoNow as a resource for and by the people of Chicago. It is a promise I hope we live up to adequately and admirably.

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  2. This looks interesting and a genuine effort.
    It will be interesting to see how ChicagoNow is consumed by readers when a significant local news story breaks. That should be the litmus test for any such media.

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  3. We’ve recently had something that sounds similar to this launch in Richmond – http://richmond.com. Media General kind of missed the mark, though – they don’t really link out all that well, and local news is actually more difficult to find. The value of the added social networking and in-house blogs are not readily apparent when done poorly.

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  4. Actually, Tim, I’d argue that the real test is how CN will be used when *little* news is happening. NP.coms have never had trouble drawing audience for huge news; it’s the day-to-day that’s troublesome (average user coming back only two or three times per month, for example), and it’s convincing people that the sites aren’t just a) a regurgitation of the print edition, and b) showcasing all the sheer breadth of content.
    A network of linked niche blogs is a potentially clever way of addressing those problems. I may not *care* about my local city council until one of its members violates the canard about live men or dead women … but I’ll read a blog about my favorite passion / community of interest every single day.
    Kudos to @Bill80 and @CeeDeeBee (and Byrne & the rest of the team)for their work here.

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  5. Even though I find the phrases: “source-neutral, smartly curated, aggregation-heavy, social-savvy, distribution-prolific” somewhat nauseating, it is encouraging to see such progress by Tribune. One question though, is it going to make any money?

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  6. Davey: As with everything these days, whether ChicagoNow can make money remains to be seen. But I hear that they are developing some advertising models that are as innovative as the ways they are aggregating content.

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  7. Mark: How about “aggregating” some info on how many papers are doing innovative (or quasi-interesting) things all over the country?
    You’ve reported on many in recent months. Can you at some point give us a list of the most important, intriguing, successful or otherwise interesting ones?

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  8. so exactly what can i get there that i can’t find anywhere else? and why would i go there instead of directly to the blogs?
    seems like most of the blogs are trib properties anyway. yawn.

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  9. WickedLocal is similar, and I’ve written about it before. But ChicagoNow is more ambitious, on a much larger scale, and will have a lot more social-media features in it. Both should not be exceptions, however—all news sites need to be doing this.

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  10. Not Impressed: It’s a very raw beta, and still under construction. The blogs actually come from a wide range of Chicago bloggers. Look at the video I linked to for a better idea of what’s going on.

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  11. Hey Mark,
    Thanks again for the initial review of ChicagoNow’s beta site. The buzz from your review has been incredible and we’re already learning a lot from the comments your review has raised on Twitter. Thank you, thank you!
    To address two of the issues raised by your readers here:
    1. Our platform is not just a platform for bloggers. We’re also focused on the user experience–what can we do to create a site that is enjoyable, informative and useful? A site that they will return to?
    When fully rolled out later this summer, ChicagoNow users will be able to integrate their social media feeds from many sites including Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. Users will also be able to post their own writing, photos and videos directly to ChicagoNow.
    Our developer, Byrne Reese, and our designer, Jason Santa Maria, developed several ways to display and cross-post the user content throughout ChicagoNow. Their goal was to make ChicagoNow as egalitarian as possible.
    2. Monetizing the site. Mark, you’re absolutely right that we’re working on creative solutions to the million dollar question. You’ll start seeing those in the weeks ahead.
    To your readers, thanks again for the all comments. We appreciate any and all feedback. Drop us a line at staff@chicagonow.com. Or for the very latest, check out our staff blog: http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/staff-blog.
    All the best,
    Tracy Samantha Schmidt
    Editorial Director, ChicagoNow

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  12. Good points, Mark, squeaks of denial notwithstanding.
    As for the lack of original content, I recently worked up a little experimental collection of links meant for the Houston market (near which I live), but which could be reproduced in pretty much any major market. (You can find it here: http://www.bobdunn.com/Article/247/newspaperless-news)
    It consists of web sites at which one could obtain countless gallons of local, national and international news, weather, sports and business information without ever having to land on a major monopoly newspaper site inclined to access one’s credit card for the visit.
    I’ve also included instructions for turning this set of links into a Speed Dial screen for your Firefox or Opera browser.
    Look, I was an inky wretch in newspaper newsrooms for 20 years, and I sympathize with those still struggling to make a go of it.
    But it’s not the Internet that killed the business – it’s the corporate owners who lobbied successfully to gut media ownership laws and created those swell joint operating agreements that killed off virtually all American newspaper competition by the mid 1990s.
    We all can see the car wreck that newspaper journalism is about to become. But I believe the good news is that the playing field still is wide open for journalists willing to partner with technologists and take a chance on creating something that serves the public better than anything heretofore in existance.

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