From DNAinfo’s Ashes, Three News Vets Are Launching Their Phoenix in Chicago

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Chicago used to be a hotbed of local news, way back in print’s rambunctious days in the previous century. The founders of Block Club Chicago want to create a digital version of those times. The trio – veteran local journalists Shamus Toomey, Jen Sabella and Stephanie Lulay – won’t be launching their Windy City pure-play until April, but they’re already making headlines.

They’ve raised $142,553, so far, on Kickstarter, and their month-long pitch still has 20 days to run. They’ve also signed up 2,383 subscribers at $5 a month, a number that is sure to rise as momentum builds toward the launch, and they’ll shortly be rolling out a menu of premium memberships.

Editor Toomey, Director of Strategy Sabella and Managing Editor Lulay all were part of DNAinfo Chicago, which was shut down in 2017 with the other four city sites run by its founder, trading billionaire Joe Ricketts, who — following an employee vote to unionize — said that his highly regarded experiment in deeply covered neighborhood news had failed to prove itself financially.

Block Club Chicago’s non-billionaire founders aim to succeed with a radically different revenue strategy that does not include advertising, which was DNAinfo’s all-or-nothing. In this Q & A, Sabella tells how she and her partners are mapping a new way to make local news work:

First off, what’s the source of “Block Club” in your site’s name?
The name Block Club Chicago actually came about before we even realized we’d be operating the site on the blockchain. Block Clubs are a Chicago tradition dating back to the Great Migration. While the signs have served multiple purposes over the decades, Block Clubs are often at the center of civic engagement in many Chicago neighborhoods. We thought that rich history of community and coming together represented what we want to do with Block Club Chicago.

Which leads to the next question, How does “blockchain” fit into what you’re doing?
We are excited by the possibilities and security of working on the blockchain, but understand that many folks are unfamiliar with it and the cryptocurrency world. Our friends at Civil have been fantastic about breaking this down for us, and we suggest you check out some of their pieces on how local newsrooms can benefit from blockchain technology.

From a user standpoint, Block Club Chicago will operate like any other news site (but like I said before — no horrible, browser-crashing pop-ups). We’ll accept payments and donations in credit cards and cryptocurrencies.

Blockchain’s purpose and how it works are explained in these links — here, here, here and, one of my favorites, at the New York Times, here.

DNAinfo Chicago is a great source of inspiration for you and your co-founders. Talk about that experience, including how will you build on it to make Block Club Chicago a success.
With the launch of DNAinfo Chicago, we were able to engage and reach readers in large numbers in a shockingly short period of time. Coming from HuffPo, I thought hyperlocal would be a massive uphill battle for a completely unknown news site. But once we launched, we quickly realized how desperate Chicagoans were for truly local coverage. We were kicked out of neighborhood meetings because no one had covered them for more than a decade (in some cases, never).

Reaching people is something we have been able to do well and will continue to do, but yes, when it comes to the business side a lot will be different. First off, we are starting smaller. Of course that means we won’t please everyone off the bat, but we hope our robust freelance network will help us cover as much of the city as possible and do it well. By relying on subscriptions and charitable contributions, it will be a hustle for sur. But we are optimistic based on the overwhelming response from readers so far.  We have 2,400 subscribers in four days without a live site, which is pretty impressive. We’re working on other revenue ideas as well, like events, sponsorships, paid partnerships.

You’ve been told that if you convince 3% of your readers to sign up for subscriptions (which you’re pegging at $5/mo), you’ll be sustainable. Is that realistic?
Of course we won’t have our full DNA audience back in April. Our startup funding from Civil has allowed us some runway and we will have some time to rebuild that audience. Also, our monthly subscription amounts vary and we’re offering more perks for folks who can give more monthly. We’ll roll those levels out soon.

That said, those numbers don’t scare me.  We know Chicago is hungry for relevant local news and the ability to read it without their browser crashing.

There’s much talk today about not only connecting with readers but actually listening to them (e.g., the Hearken audience-engagement tool). Is that important to what you’re proposing to do with Block Club Chicago?
Definitely. We’re already talking about events that connect residents with their neighborhood reporter, and we’ve always had a pretty open line of communication with readers. I personally responded to as many Facebook messages as possible, residents text tips to reporters or pop into the cafe where they’re working.

One of our reporters (Alisa Hauser) does Twitter polls asking readers which story they’d want to read first if she has three on her agenda. We’ve brought the old-school beat reporter back to Chicago and some people are able to access a reporter for the first time ever.

There’s also talk in the local news industry and at Facebook about video and podcasts supplanting text. Do you agree?
Stories have and will always be first for us. That said, we want our reporters to be creative and branch out, and are already working on some partnerships that would allow us to do things like podcasts on the cheap and with some support from folks who are good at such things.

Our reporters all shot video while at DNA, and we’ve been talking about ways to do more video for social without overburdening them or taking time away from reporting. For example, our Chatham/Englewood reporter Lee Edwards built up a following among young basketball fans when he covered youth sports by posting quick interview clips on Facebook after games. We love that idea— kind of the “Oh, hey, my picture is in the paper” thing but instead it’s a tag in a Facebook or Instagram story.

We don’t do newsroom mandates like, “We’re pivoting to video.” Because, barf. Also we will never let Facebook or Google or anyone else tell us how we should cover Chicago news. We trust and listen to our reporters and try to support them any way we can.

Chicago has a history of being a great news town (e.g., Ben Hecht’s autobiographical “A Child of the Century”). But today it seems as if many local Web publications have disappeared or gone relatively quiet. Is there a relative vacuum to be filled, and does Block Club Chicago seek to do that?There was definitely a huge void left in coverage when DNA shut down. We straddled a line between a small, niche, Web-only publication and a tip sheet for all the television stations and other news outlets. The stories we found on the neighborhood level were too good for the “big” outlets to ignore.

Not all but many of our stories reached well beyond neighborhood-blog status and we became the primary news outlet for many Chicagoans .

We want to be that again, but acknowledge it’ll take some time. In terms of other
small operations, I’m so excited by the amazing work the civic journalism lab City Bureau, the Better Government Association and Pro Publica are doing. The Tribe is another outlet doing unique and important work.  There are so many stories to be told, and it’s cool to see people stepping up to tell them. This industry is a struggle, for sure, but we love this city and know the way it’s portrayed nationally is trash. We’re ready to tell real Chicago stories.

Block Club Chicago founders Jen Sabella, Shamus Toomey and Stephanie Lulay.

Will you be collaborating with any other news sources in any media?
Definitely. We are open to working with anyone who wants to tell stories of Chicago and its neighborhoods. We’ve already met with a few people and haven’t worked out any specific partnerships yet, but everyone has been so supportive and we’re excited by the possibilities.

Disparities in public K-12 education remain huge in Chicago. Will you been doing anything major in this area, especially in sparking more action to close performance gaps?
DNAinfo Chicago’s education coverage was always hyperlocal, and that will continue. We go to school meetings big and small, and are able to spot citywide education trends through that block-level reporting.

Education coverage is something our readers demanded from us, and we take that seriously. Our early coverage of Chicago Public Schools’ plan to close Manierre Elementary has been credited for the district ultimately deciding keeping the school open. This year, the district declared the once-doomed school was in “good standing.”

When April 2019 arrives, what will you want to have achieved in year one editorially and business-wise, and what kind of relationship with the Chicago community, down to the neighborhood level, will you want to have forged?
If we can replicate the growth and loyalty we saw during Year One of DNAinfo, I’ll be beyond thrilled. Especially knowing that we did it through reader support. If we can hire one additional reporter, that will be a great sign.

Editorially, we hope we can strike a good balance between fun, interesting neighborhood stories and impactful, enterprise pieces that can improve the lives of Chicagoans.

We know we won’t be able to be everything to everyone right off the bat, but we’re going to work our butts off for this city.

Believe me, this is scary! But we’re also so happy to be trying it. Chicago is so much more creative, resilient and frankly badass than anyone gives it credit for. If you can win over a Chicagoan, you’re doing something right. So, yeah, that’s the goal: not to win over the award committees or the media critics, but to be trusted and valued by people in the neighborhoods.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.