Web news: Chicago vs. Boston

From the Knight Digital Media Center last week came this report on a number of news-gathering web operations that have sprouted in Chicago.

Having practiced journalism in both Chicago and Boston, I can cite a number of similarities between these two outstanding cities.  They both are driven in large part by those three entertaining pastimes — politics, sports and revenge.  They are both major financial centers.  In Chicago, it’s the commodities trade. In Boston, it’s mutual funds and money management.  (In fairness, there are many more Fortune 1000 company headquarters in the Chicago area.) Both are elite medical centers and boast prestigious universities.

So there’s lots of news.  Yet Boston, though it has many opinion blogs, has not been a welcoming place for news gathering experiments such as the Chicago News Cooperative and the others listed by Knight. (I define “news gathering” as offering original reporting on a consistent basis, not just news aggregation from other sources.) I wonder why. Here are my theories:

1. The most obvious.  Chicago is a much larger market. The Chicago metro area’s population of 9.7 million is almost half again larger than the 6.7 million population of the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

2. For all the attention last year to the possible sale of the Globe, there has been far more upheaval in Chicago’s two newspapers, the Tribune and Sun-Times.  Both are under new ownership in recent years and the Tribune, Chicago’s broadsheet counterpart to the Globe, has dramatically changed its look and its ambitions. The Globe has also cut back, but in ways that may be much less obvious to the eye.

3. Fewer willing journalists in Boston.  There are plenty of former Tribune, Sun-Times, Globe and Herald folks in each city who could be put to good use on news-gathering operations.  But in Boston, with no change in ownership at the major newspapers, there may be more loyalty to the legacy newspapers. 

The Chicago News Cooperative is led by editor James O’Shea, a former Tribune managing editor.  Among other Tribune alumni, Ann-Marie Lipinski, a former editor-in-chief of the paper, sits on the co-op’s advisory board, former features editor James Warren is a columnist, and star business reporter David Griesing jumped to the online start-up.  (The Chicago edition of The New York Times presents two pages of regional coverage by the Chicago News Cooperative on Fridays and Sundays.

I think this last factor is key.  There are plenty of ex-Globe news people I know who could form an impressive renegade team tomorrow.  But I think, though some may have a grievance here and there, they retain a loyalty to the paper. In fact, star investigative reporters Walter V. Robinson and Steve Kurkjian both departed yet still make significant contributions to the paper. In terms of how the alums feel about their alma mater, The New York Times Co. may have done itself a favor in returning to a home-grown publisher in Chris Mayer.

A friend who knows both cities also noted that Boston is more heavily “wired,” in his opinion, meaning there are already far more locally-oriented sites, even if not news-gathering in nature, compared to Chicago.  “So the newcomers have a higher bar to get any recognition.”  Among the ones in the Bay State with which I’m familiar (apologies for slighting anyone) there are Mass Beacon, Massachusetts Liberal, Blue Mass Group, Media Nation, Beat the Press, Marjorie Arons-Barron and, last but not least, Commonwealth magazine!

Finally, and here I might be a homer, I think compared to the Tribune’s online site,  the Globe’s is a more creative and constantly evolving presence that could be intimidating for outliers with newsy ambitions, in part because to some extent it breaks out of the Globe mold with some down-market zaniness.   And the Herald has its market share as well.

Matthew Storin, the former editor of The Boston Globe, is currently an adjunct professor in the Gallivan Program for Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.

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