Monday, May 3, 2010

"Newspapers have served the interests of investors at the expense of readers"

James O'Shea, formerly a top editor of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, is a gingery advocate of public interest journalism. Mr. O'Shea edits Chicago News Cooperative which, in only five months of operation, has found a regular client in The New York Times, for which it produces two weekly pages.

Does Chicago News Cooperative represent a sustainable business model for America’s beleaguered news industry? I Q&A'ed with Mr. O’Shea via instant messenger on the sidelines of the 11th International Symposium on Online Journalism at which he had unveiled, as revenues of his venture, journalistic services, philanthropy, ads, and a $2-a-week fee from reader-members of the cooperative. In our conversation, Mr. O’Shea elaborated on that business model and on the redemptive value of public interest journalism for emerging news operations.

Nikhil Moro: Jim, congratulations on Chicago News Cooperative’s stupendous success. How does it feel to be only five months old but have two weekly pages published in The New York Times?

James O’Shea: It feels great, although I would feel better if I had all of the funding in hand to implement the website we are developing. The New York Times will be only one element of the cooperative. The Times is our first customer and a great one. It is a legacy media institution that is quite interested in experimentation while adhering to the high standards it has always pursued.

Moro: Can you name some of the “high standards” by which you measure good journalism?

O’Shea: Sure. The Times is a rigorously edited newspaper. The Chicago copy is originated in Chicago and edited here but then it is copy edited in New York. We share values such as accuracy, original reporting and balance in our stories. I always say that we report, we don't just repeat. Times editors examine our copy with the same rigor that they apply to their own writers.

Moro: What does “cooperative” mean? We don't seem to hear the old industrial revolution term much in American businesses. Can you give an example of the finest public interest journalism produced by Chicago News Cooperative?

O’Shea: By cooperative, we mean a news organization in which readers join us in developing ways to cover the news and finance the costs of news gathering through a $2 a week membership fee. It gives readers a sense of ownership in the news. Public interest journalism focuses on holding public officials and civic and commercial institutions in the community accountable.

One of the best examples I can think of is coverage of the death penalty when I was running the newsroom at the Chicago Tribune. Our reporters examined whether the death penalty was fairly applied -- that is did a poor, black man living in Illinois have a better chance of being sentenced to death for a crime than a more affluent white man? Our reporting suggested that the answer to that question was Yesand the stories we wrote prompted the then Republican governor of Illinois to slap a moratorium on executions in the state until reforms were undertaken. That is an excellent example of public interest journalism, the kind that gives voice to those who can't afford a megaphone.

One of our first stories at the CNC was a piece in which we reported on the huge profits being logged by the company that paid the city to take over Chicago’s parking meter franchise. It is a secretive process and we showed how the company that got the contract was making lots of money off it and raised questions about whether citizens of Chicago would have been better off keeping the franchise.

Moro: Didn't Mencken or Dunne, or some other muckraker, say that journalism must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? In that role, journalism would be, in itself, a function of public service.

O’Shea: Yes, I agree.

Moro: What are your plans for community journalism in the Chicago area?

O’Shea: As we develop our website, we are looking for opportunities to partner with community journalism practitioners in the city. We would like to develop profiles of all major schools in the city and I believe that we could help community journalists in this area and that they could help us.

Moro: As an expert in the newspaper industry, whose decline is the subject of your forthcoming book, would you say that Chicago News Cooperative represents a business model that could provide a future for the news industry?

O’Shea: Over the last 30 years, I think the newspaper industry spent entirely too much effort serving the interests of its advertisers and investors at the expense of readers. We must reconnect with readers and EARN their respect. This is an effort to do that. If it works, and I wouldn't be expending so much of my time and effort on the coop if I didn't think it would work, then the coop model could become a strong element of the future of journalism. We desperately need journalists and journalism is this country. This is an effort to figure out how we can finance the kind of journalism that the nation and the nation's journalists need more than ever.

Moro: How many journalists does Chicago News Cooperative employ? How much copy do you produce a week? Is your partnership with WTTW a convergence of staff, or more?

O’Shea: Currently, we have about a dozen journalists working with us. We produce about 8,000 words a week. Our partnership with WTTW is getting better by the day. We recently hired a joint reporter. CNC pays half his salary and WTTW pays half. He works for both of us, using the raw material of journalism that we produce as a base to extend his reporting and create broadcast journalism and video content for WTTW and our website. This is much better than a print reporting simply handing over his story to a broadcast outlet and then talking about it on air. We have a partnership that I hope will simply improve with time.

Moro: Dan Gillmor is optimistic about the news industry perhaps because, as he quipped at ISOJ a few days ago, “It doesn't cost us anything to try anything new any more.” Would you agree?

O’Shea: I agree with Dan. I am an optimist. So is Peter Osnos, the co-founder of Chicago News Cooperative who played a huge role in getting this organization off the ground. When I got into journalism, you had to be a wealthy person like Sam Zell to start a newspaper. We just started a news organization in Chicago with next to nothing.

Moro: How has your experience of editing the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune helped you run a news coop?

O’Shea: My experiences in Chicago and LA taught me to stay focused on what you are trying to do and don't get distracted by criticism and all of the people who like to take shots at you. I also learned the value of great journalism and picking people you can trust. There is no substitute for good people.

Moro: Why and when did you get into journalism?

O’Shea: I became a journalist in 1967 when I was in the U.S. Army. Basically I got into journalism in the Army to get out of the infantry. After the Army, I returned to journalism school at the University of Missouri and got my master's degree. I then went to work at The Des Moines Register in 1971, my first job on a daily.

Moro: Can you say anything about your forthcoming book?

O’Shea: I am working on a narrative about the collapse of the Times Mirror Tribune merger as a microcosm of what happened to the American newspaper. It is an epic tale.

Moro: O.K., I wish you the very best, Jim. And I hope that Chicago News Cooperative will pioneer a new business model for the news industry.

O’Shea: Thank you, Nikhil.


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Maguire said...

This was a great interview and I really enjoyed finding out about the Chicago News Cooperative. It really seems to be an interesting melding between professional news and citizen journalism, giving power back to the reader and producing more unbiased news.

There are two interview series that you should check out covering both aspects of journalism. One of professional journalists discussing the future of journalism and one of citizen journalists.

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