Newly Launched Block Club Chicago (Out of DNAinfo) Goes a ‘Bit Old School’

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Photo of the Block Club Chicago staff, from top left clockwise: Stephanie Lulay, Shamus Toomey, Jen Sabella, Mauricio Peña, Kelly Bauer, Lee Edwards, Alisa Hauser, Mina Bloom.

Chicago, where local journalism was historically practiced with tenacious skill and anything-goes bravado, lost one of its primary community-news assets last November when discount-stock-brokerage billionaire Joe Ricketts summarily shut down his DNAinfo operations in the Windy City and New York City.

But in a fast-paced reinvention, the DNAinfo/Chicago team has Kickstarted its way back onto the streets and into the neighborhoods with the June launch of Block Club Chicago.

In this Q&A, Jen Sabella, a DNAinfo/Chicago alumna as well as director of strategy and co-founder of Block Club Chicago, tells how the brand-new site is progressing as it seeks not only to recapture the digital savvy of DNA but also repurpose some of the talents of old-fashioned legacy journalism.

You’re back in business after about 10 months—how’s it going?

So far, it’s going well. We’re surpassing our traffic and subscription goals. We reached more than 1 million pageviews in just a few weeks, which was honestly a shock to us. Not that pageviews are king or anything, but it’s good to know people are reading our stories. We’re also on pace to meet our goal of 10,000 paying subscribers within one year. At $59 annually, or $6 a month, we think it’s a pretty good deal.

The biggest adjustment is not covering as many neighborhoods as we did at DNAinfo. We have to grow sustainably, and it’s just not possible to come out the gate with 15+ reporters. For the most part, we think people understand and are glad to have us back. We’re hoping to ramp up coverage in other neighborhoods by using freelancers and would just love it if some generous soul would make a donation for a full-time neighborhood reporter.

Your site says you cover more than 40 neighborhoods. How many reporters are doing that right now?

We’ve got six full-time reporters, and each of them covers a cluster of three or four neighborhoods. Some of our neighborhoods don’t yet have a full-time reporter. For those, we use freelancers. Where we have a full-time reporter in a neighborhood, we’ll have two or three stories from them daily.

We’re working to expand our pool of freelancers so we can get back to some neighborhoods where we had a loyal following at DNAinfo. Every time a story tip comes in that we don’t have the capacity to tackle, it pains us.

Who’s on Block Club Chicago who came from DNAinfo/Chicago?

Myself, Editor-in-Chief Shamus Toomey, Managing Editor Stephanie Lulay, and reporters Kelly Bauer, Mina Bloom, and Alisa Hauser all came from DNAinfo. Reporter Mauricio Peña also worked at DNAinfo in the past. We’ve also brought on Lee Edwards and Alex Hernandez, who have been incredible assets to the team.

You have acquired the assets of DNAinfo/Chicago. What do they include?

New York City public radio WNYC was generous enough to gift us the DNAinfo archives, mailing lists, and social media assets. I helped launch DNAinfo in 2012, and can’t begin to express how much getting these assets back meant to our team. We worked so hard to build that audience, and it was just really nice to be able to say, “Hey, we’re back!”

There are stories we started reporting in 2013 that we’re still following, and access to this work is so valuable to us as a news organization.

How important was the “decentralized marketplace” Civil in getting Block Club Chicago off the ground?

Without Civil’s financial and technical support, we would not be here. They made this happen; they’ve done so with no strings attached and with full confidence in our vision. We could not be more lucky to have such incredible partners.

DNAinfo had a reputation for thorough neighborhood coverage. How are you doing in preserving that?

It will take time for each reporter to figure out what stories people in the neighborhood care about. By embedding reporters in the communities they cover, we’re able to really know what is impacting residents of those neighborhoods. Residents will stop reporters on the street and fill them in on something happening—it’s a connection that happens from being there, not from parachuting in. That is the way we will always do things.

What are you doing about crime coverage, which was a big part of DNA’s news menu?

We are doing less crime coverage than we did at DNAinfo. Other news sites in the city do that, and we know people in the neighborhoods would rather have us provide coverage at the super-local level. That said, we do cover crime in the neighborhoods. We just are thinking more critically about how we cover crime and try to provide more context when possible. We’re trying to get away from publishing a straight police account of a situation with no additional reporting.

Around the country, there’s the meme of “violence in Chicago.” What’s Block Club Chicago’s attitude toward that?

Chicago is not the most violent city in America per capita or in any other way. It’s more of a historical stereotype than a fact. Our coverage shows that there is so much more to Chicago than the frankly bullshit violence narrative. We have stories about business owners and residents doing good work in their communities. We write about real things that are going on—people living their lives. Happily! It’s not just a war zone.

That said, the violence that plagues some parts of the city is unacceptable, and we aren’t diminishing that—we just are showing there is more to these communities than violence. There’s also the misconception that people in these neighborhoods don’t care about the violence. Again, bullshit.

Around the U.S., cities and other urban centers are beginning to emphasize equity in setting new goals—especially in closing gaps between people based on racial, ethnic, and other groups. Is that happening in Chicago?

Definitely. Housing is the biggest equity issue we cover at Block Club Chicago. We’re having conversations every day with people in the neighborhoods about whether developers are being inclusive enough in providing enough affordable housing. We show up. We’re there, as in this recent detailed article we did on the new report, “A City Fragmented.” Gentrification and its impact are a very big part of our housing coverage.

What’s there about the character of today’s Chicago that people in other parts of the country might not be picking up in what they read about the city?

Chicagoans are showing so much enthusiasm about getting involved in issues like neighborhood revitalization. For example, there’s a great group we’ve partnered with and covered called My Block, My Hood, My City that is replacing South Side block club signs that used to have messages such as “No Gambling” or “No Drinking.” Now there are more positive messages like “Reflect and Respect” and “We Promote Laughter, Love, Peace.”

More young people are getting really involved in politics. They know who represents them. There will be local elections in November, which we’ll be covering, and some of the challengers to the city’s longtime aldermen are in their 20s. Young people, especially in communities of color, are getting more involved, and they’re saying, “We’re not going to stick with the Chicago way of politics. We’re going to have our voices heard.” It’s inspiring and definitely worth covering.

What about audience development?

We’ve been pretty lucky in building audience. We have been able to reconnect with the DNAinfo audience on Facebook. We also have been able to reach out to old newsletter subscribers. Honestly, I don’t believe in a magic bullet or new app when it comes to audience development. I think if you report stories that are relevant to peoples’ lives, they will come.

Are you doing anything different from DNAinfo/Chicago that’s significant?

We’re going a little bit “old school.” At DNAinfo, everything was digital. We had our newsletters and a strong social presence. Now we’re getting back to the roots of our communities. We’re being there in real life, like hosting events. Our reporters are setting up office hours in their neighborhoods. They’ll say, for example, “Hey, I’m going to be at this café until 3 o’clock—pitch me a story.”

We’re getting a little bit deeper in reaching the communities than we did at DNA; we’re also opening things up through collaboration with other news organizations.

What about comments from your communities? How are you handling that?

We’re working on a members-only commenting platform. We don’t want to bring back the open commenting we had at DNAinfo. It was really horrible. We want comments from people who are committed members of the community.

Now that you’re reconnecting with readers you had at DNA, are there any surprises about the new relationship?

I thought there would be more negativity because we can’t cover every neighborhood right away. But people, for the most part, have been understanding and nice about what we are doing. They really did miss us!

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.