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Media Fri Sep 11 2009
Chi-Town Daily News, one of the first and more prominent efforts to create a citizen journalism-driven online newspaper, has laid off its entire staff, effective yesterday.
One of the laid off writers, Peter Sachs, who also writes for A.V. Club Chicago, told that publication that "Geoff told us Wednesday that we were out of money, and that was it," and that the staff would not be compensated for their time in the most recent pay period. That's an unfortunate outcome, but if the organization is out of money, the Daily News had no choice.
While the Chi-Town Daily News is essentially down, it's not out quite yet, and what began there is actually evolving into something new. Here is part of a statement from Editor-in-Chief Geoff Dougherty today:
The editorial team at the Daily News is moving on to launch a new, for-profit local news venture.
Over the past four years, the staff, volunteers and supporters of Chi-Town Daily News have built an impressive thing -- a new kind of news organization that works aggressively to hold public officials accountable to voters and empowers members of long-ignored communities to tell their neighborhood's stories.
We've concluded that, as a nonprofit, we cannot raise the money we need to build a truly robust local news organization that provides comprehensive local coverage.
So, after much soul-searching, we've decided to turn our efforts toward a business model that will support the kind of vibrant public affairs coverage that Chicago deserves. Ultimately, we believe we will be able to fulfill the same mission we set out to accomplish with the Daily News, though with a different business structure and a slightly different approach.
Dougherty said that the organization has some angel funding lined up and hopes to have the new venture up and running in about a month. This is a bold change for Dougherty, who has long been a champion of the nonprofit journalism model. This reversal will have major repercussions for that movement.
The Chi-Town Daily News site will continue to be updated with articles by volunteer citizen journalists, as well as with with content from Loyola University's City News reporting class.
When asked about the staff layoffs, Dougherty replied in email, "We did lay people off, though we expect they'll resume similar jobs at the new company shortly -- we hope within four weeks or so. The layoffs were necessary because we're not ready to launch the new product." And since the new venture will constitute a new corporate structure, anyone being kept on board was going to "lose" their Daily News jobs anyway, and be "hired" by the new company.
Dougherty noted that not everyone will be making the leap. "While we expect to be better-funded than Chi-Town, we're not so flush that we can pay folks when we don't have a product to support their work." It also remains to be seen how many staffers, burned by the Daily News' implosion, will even be interested.
"I can't speak for any of the other staff, but I'm not thrilled with the way this was handled, and that's going to impact whether I choose to stay on," said Frank Edwards, former community organizer for Chi-Town Daily News. "The volunteer program's future, though Geoff has some ideas about how to save it, is incredibly unclear. Geoff has offered me a position with this new venture, but at this point, have no idea whether I would be on board with this new for-profit venture. ... Geoff understands well that the volunteer program would have no place in this for-profit venture, and as such, I'm not likely to continue working with him. Again, if an independent outside organization wants to take over the program, as he suggests they do, I'd seriously consider running it."
"Personally, I'm pretty disappointed," Edwards continued. "I wish we'd known about this sooner, I wish we had more details. I've put a lot of work into this organization, and have built the volunteer program from the ground up, and would hate to see it just vanish. We found out about this on Wednesday, so it's still pretty fresh. I wish we'd had more time to digest this and prepare for unemployment."
Dougherty said the new site will be "explicitly targeted at public affairs. It's a direction we were moving in with Chi-Town, but it'll be a more fully realized entry into that niche." That puts it whatever comes next in direct competition with existing The Chicago Reporter and Catalyst, both owned by the Community Renewal Society. Time will tell how this new site will differ from those award-winning publications -- and whether Dougherty can pull off yet another evolution in online media.