The Rise and Fall of the Chicago News Cooperative

What can the Chicago News Cooperative experiment teach us about the future of non-profit news?

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  1. In late February 2012 news broke that the Chicago News Cooperative would "suspend operations." At Free Press we have watched the Chicago News Cooperative closely since its launch. In 2009 we wrote a paper examining the new models of journalism, with a specific focus on nonprofit and non-commercial news models. CNC was interesting because, from the outset, it seemed willing to explore models like cooperatives, low-profit limited liability corporations (L3C), partnerships and fee for service. 

    In the end, at least part of the problems facing CNC related to an ongoing debate at the IRS that is threatening a number of innovative new journalism organizations who want to operate in the public interest. Read more about that issue below.
  2. Here is a bit more about the Chicago News Cooperative from the Nieman Journalism Lab Encyclo and the Columbia Journalism Review's News Frontier Database.
  3. Led by James O'Shea, who had been an outspoken critic of the ways commercial consolidation had impacted American journalism, CNC created a lot of buzz at its launch. Below are just a few of the links to stories about the site from 2009 and 2010.
  4. Inside the Chicago News Cooperative
  5. The Chicago Reader broke the story but its initial post was brief and confusing. This second, longer article provides more details and background but the details are still be debated by various players. 

  6. A number of other outlets published follow-up reports.
  7. Finally, a few days after the initial Chicago Reader piece, James O'Shea sent a message to supporters of the Chicago News Cooperative. In his note, he seems to argue that reports of CNC's demise may be premature: "CNC always has been an experiment in trying to figure out a way to finance accountability journalism, the kind of reporting that many news organizations are abandoning as they struggle with a deteriorating business model and financial problems. This is a very difficult problem especially in major cities and carries ominous implications for a democracy.  An organization dedicated to public service journalism is an indispensable civic asset, and we remain committed to finding some possible answers. In the coming days and weeks, we will be examining our potential to see if we can identify an alternative path and preserve some of the journalistic assets we have developed." 
  8. O'Shea makes a point to say there is more to the story of CNC then has been covered in early reports from the weekend. "Early stories and Twitter posts on our problems were inaccurate.  The reporting was sloppy and simply reinforced in my mind the need for solidly reported, well-edited journalism, the kind that professional CNC journalists have been doing." More details and context will be forthcoming.   
  9. What's next for the Chicago News Cooperative, and what role with the Chicago Sun Times play?
  10. The new owners of the Chicago Sun-Times didn’t come to the rescue of the Chicago News Cooperative, as some had hoped. But they may be helping to bail out the defunct nonprofit news outfit after all. “The Chicago News Cooperative is close to a deal with the Chicago Sun-Times that will help us wind down our affairs and, most importantly, make certain all of our former colleagues get paid,” David Greising, managing editor of the CNC, wrote in a note Tuesday to CNC’s free-lance writers. “The Sun-Times is paying only enough to help us cover our bills, including the amounts owed to our former colleagues, but the Sun-Times will not release any money until it receives releases from 100 percent of the CNC's former contributors. . . . In exchange for your help in this matter, you will receive a check for $100. The Sun-Times will take this amount from the sum they are paying to help us cover our obligations and liquidate the Cooperative in an orderly fashion.” It’s nice to know that the writers may get what they’re owed. But it’s not clear what the Sun-Times gets out of the deal.
  11. With the collapse of the underfunded CNC last month, Mihalopoulos was one of the first staffers to be approached about employment by the Sun-Times. Among multiple connections between the two organizations, Michael Ferro, chairman of Sun-Times owner Wrapports, was on the CNC board, and John Canning Jr., one of Wrapports main backers, was chairman of the CNC board. Since then, the company also has hired CNC political reporter Hunter Clauss for the Sun-Times Media Wire, and editorial assistant Bridget O’Shea, daughter of CNC editor Jim O’Shea, as a suburban Pioneer Press reporter.