News coop for Chicago: print, online, on WTTW

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1044-news0920schmidtA multimedia news organization committed to public service journalism will begin producing regional coverage of the Chicago area and Illinois for The New York Times next month.

WTTW, one of the few public TV stations with a longstanding tradition of producing a nightly news report, is a founding partner in the Chicago News Cooperative, announced Oct. 22 by its editor-in-chief, veteran newspaperman James O’Shea.

O’Shea will build a news staff of 25 reporters to produce in-depth regional coverage, according to Dan Schmidt, WTTW president and a member of the cooperative’s governing board.

Neither of Chicago’s two dailies is financially strong. Both the Tribune and the Sun-Times have declared bankruptcy. On Oct. 16, a federal bankruptcy court approved the sale of the Sun-Times to a new holding company, Sun Times Media Holdings LLC.

The cooperative launches with a deal to produce two pages of local news coverage and commentary for Chicago editions of the New York Times, to be published two days a week beginning Nov. 20. It’s also building a news website, Chicago Scoop, for launch next year. CNC reporters are to appear on WTTW broadcasts and some of their work will also appear on WBEZ-FM, Chicago’s dominant NPR News station, may also join the partnership.

WTTW will serve as the cooperative’s fiscal agent during startup but will not tap its own revenues to support the cooperative, Schmidt said. “It is absolutely, entirely consistent with our mission to be affiliated with quality news and information content given the collapse of enterprise journalism on both the statewide and regional level,” he said. WTTW is raising money for the cooperative and will serve as a “loud megaphone” to promote the news service and the reporting it produces, he said.

“Our news operation will be enriched by this, and as a founding partner we will bring a couple million eyeballs to it every week through Chicago Tonight,” Schmidt said, referring to WTTW’s signature local news program, airing weeknights.  “We would expect the journalists coming out of the CNC would be available to us and enriching the reporting and coverage on Chicago Tonight.”

Business plans call for the cooperative to solicit donations from individuals and foundations and to earn revenues through advertising or sponsorships and partnerships with the Times and other potential outlets.

The John D. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, a frequent funder of national public television and radio programming, has awarded $500,000 in startup aid to the cooperative, according to Elspeth Revere, v.p. of the foundation’s general program.

The CNC may be set up as a Low-profit Limited Liability Corporation, or L3C, a hybrid corporate entity recently established in a handful of states, including Illinois, to encourage investment in businesses that fulfill an educational or public service purpose. “It opens the door for something that could be characterized as philanthropic investing,” Schmidt said. Profits earned by the cooperative, which would be limited, could be distributed to investors, but the CNC would also qualify for charitable contributions from individuals and foundations by virtue of its public-service mission.

The top recommendation of Columbia University’s recent study on the future of American journalism proposes to establish L3Cs in the federal tax code (separate story).

The MacArthur Foundation, which usually awards media grants to national programs, agreed to back the cooperative out of a shared concern about the future of in-depth local news reporting and an interest in supporting innovation, Revere said. “This is a time of change in the news industry and supporting experiments . . . is a good thing, especially when there are serious professionals who are committed to making them work.”

The foundation recently awarded general support grants to ProPublica, the New York-based investigative news nonprofit led by Paul Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and to the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., headed by former NPR news chief Bill Buzenberg.

O’Shea, chief editor of the CNC, is former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and editor of the Los Angeles Times. James Warren, a veteran of the Tribune and a television commentator, signed on as a columnist for the New York Times Chicago edition.

The CNC’s governing board includes Peter Osnos, founder of Public Affairs Books; Newton Minow, Chicago attorney and onetime FCC chair; Martin Koldyke, a venture capitalist, education reform activist and former WTTW chair; and Anne Marie Lipinski, v.p. of civil engagement at the University of Chicago and former executive editor of the Tribune.

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