Chicago was the quintessential twentieth-century newspaper town. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play Front Page, which premiered in 1928, captured the city's zest for breaking news. Tribune Tower, a monument to Colonel Robert McCormick's vision of his daily as the "World's Greatest Newspaper," was also a buttressed symbol of power. In its pre-World War II heyday, the Chicago Daily News had the premiere cadre of foreign correspondents in the country. In later years, New York was the financial and media capital of the nation. Los Angeles had the movie business. Washington had politics and government. Chicago had The Mayor (Richard J. Daley) and the ne plus ultra of big-city columnists, the great Mike Royko.
With both of its surviving metro newspapers in bankruptcy and local network affiliates' running cut-rate news outfits, this decade has been a harsh comedown for newsgathering on the southern shore of Lake Michigan.
The Chicago News Cooperative (CNC), which launched last week, is not, singlehandedly, going to reverse that decline. It is a start-up, and many major tests are still to come. But as CNC's press release declared, it is committed to providing "high quality, professionally edited news and commentary to the Chicago region on the Web, in print and over the airwaves." The cooperative begins with the backing of Window to the World Communication, the parent of WTTW 11, Chicago's public television station, and on November 20, it will start providing two pages of news twice a week to the New York Times for its edition distributed in Chicago and the region. The editor of CNC, James O'Shea, is recruiting a staff whose work will begin appearing immediately in probably the most prestigious newspaper in the world. Good luck, Jim.
I am the chair of the CNC advisory board. My Chicago bona fides in journalism are all second hand. I married into a family with deep Hyde Park roots more than thirty-five years ago; my son spent a decade as a reporter and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, which made me a regular reader. My friend (and former fellow Moscow correspondent) Howard Tyner introduced me to the digital future when, as editor of the Tribune in the 1990s, he helped establish the multi-media newsroom, with a strong presence on America Online at its peak and a local news channel CLTV operating round-the-clock--all this a decade before most people came to realize that newspapers would need to expand their platforms and adapt their revenue models. CNC has refined that model, updated to the technical and fiscal realities of today.
O'Shea would make all those twentieth-century Chicago news people proud. He has a natural reporter's energy combined with leadership skills. For CNC, he has made himself knowledgeable in the expectations of contemporary readers, a combination of public interest news with a community base, a balance between the best of professional news gathering and respect for what interests and concerns the people who will, over time, become CNC's consumers. "Journalists must adapt to new technologies and devise some creative, innovative ways to fulfill our obligations," O'Shea said in the CNC release. That, succinctly put, is the challenge we face.