Konkol leaves Sun-Times to write for DNAInfo Chicago

Mark Konkol, the Chicago journalism superstar who won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting last year, is leaving the Sun-Times to join the startup of a hyperlocal digital news service covering city neighborhoods.

Konkol, 38, resigned Monday after eight years at the Sun-Times to become writer at large at DNAInfo.com Chicago, which is expected to launch this fall online and over a variety of mobile platforms.

“I‘m excited to go over there and do what I do, which is to write about Chicago, take readers to places they otherwise wouldn’t go, and introduce them to people they otherwise wouldn’t meet, and to hold people accountable from time to time and to have fun,” Konkol told me. “I’m looking forward to finding a place on people’s phones and iPads. It’s not the death of a newspaperman. It’s the start of something else.”

Konkol’s new boss hailed the move as a sign of the company’s determination to “hit the ground running” and compete for news seriously and aggressively. “He’s a really logical hire for us,” said Robert K. Elder, managing editor of DNAInfo.com Chicago. “Few people cover the neighborhoods as tenaciously and thoughtfully as Mark does.”

With offices at 233 North Michigan Avenue, the operation is modeled after DNAInfo.com/New York, which began in 2010. The enterprise is headed and funded by Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade Inc. and father of Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts. (The name is short for Digital News and Information.)

Elder, a veteran of the Chicago Tribune and AOL Huffington Media Group’s Patch.com, has assembled a lineup of seasoned journalists, including two senior editors — Justin Breen, former assistant managing editor of the Times of Northwest Indiana, and Jen Sabella, former Chicago editor of the Huffington Post and a former wire reporter for the Sun-Times.

Konkol is the biggest name so far on a full-time reporting staff of about 20 that includes Becky Schlikerman from the Tribune, Victoria Johnson from the Sun-Times, Ted Cox from the Daily Herald, Wendell Hutson from the Defender, Sam Cholke from the Hyde Park Herald, and Patty Wetli from Brown Line Media.

“We want our reporters out on the streets, sending us amazing stories,” Elder said. “The core is neighborhood reporting, and that’s everything from education, politics and crime to small business, nightlife and arts reporting — everything that reflects what it’s like to live in those neighborhoods.”

Although “hyperlocal journalism” has had a negative connotation since the Tribune’s scandalous dalliance with Journatic earlier this year, Elder doesn’t object to the term.

“I think when people say ‘hyperlocal,’ they really mean traditional, aggressive reporting,” he said. “We are the exact opposite of Journatic. At a time when other news outlets are either cutting back staff or outsourcing their local news to various places, we are putting experienced reporters in neighborhoods, doing solid reporting. We do have a free-lance budget, but our full-time staff will provide the lion’s share of the content.”

Elder said he has been assured that CEO Ricketts and his family will have no involvement whatsoever in coverage or reporting decisions. “We have complete editorial independence. It actually came from him that he wants us to cover the news ‘fairly and fearlessly.’ He wants fact-based unbiased reporting.”

Even when it comes to the Cubs? “I worked at the Tribune for 10 years, and I know what it’s like to work for a media company that also owns a sports team,” Elder said. “We will cover them like any other piece of our coverage area.”

Konkol, a native of Chicago’s south suburbs and graduate of Thornwood High School and Western Illinois University, wrote for the Star Newspapers and covered City Hall for the Daily Southtown (now the SouthtownStar) before joining the Sun-Times in 2004. Along with Sun-Times reporter Frank Main and photographer John J. Kim he won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for “immersive documentation of violence in Chicago neighborhoods.”

Kim resigned to join the Tribune a few weeks ago. Of the three, only Main remains on staff at the Sun-Times.


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