Tomorrow’s news: Documentary spans Chicago media landscape

Some of us who’ve tried to adhere to old-fashioned standards of journalism while adapting to the new media environment tend to bristle at being dismissed as dinosaurs by younger peers.

That was how I felt in early 2009 when I participated in the Chicago Journalism Town Hall and listened as speaker after speaker assailed old media values as antiquated and obsolete. A few of those who yelled the loudest have since gone bust themselves.

And that’s a bit how I felt after screening Mashed Media, a 2010 documentary about efforts to redefine journalism in Chicago in an age of blogging, aggregating, mobile apps and social media. The one-hour documentary will premiere at 10pm Thursday on public television WTTW-Channel 11 (with a rerun at 4pm Friday on WTTW Prime).

Written, produced and directed over a two-year span by Brett A. Schwartz, an independent filmmaker who teaches media at north suburban Deerfield High School, it’s billed as a “rare and intimate look at the future of journalism now.” Chicago is the front line in the transformation of journalism, Schwartz asserts, although no one seems to know quite where it’s going.

Television, radio and print publications except for the Chicago Tribune are ignored as the film focuses on a handful of online entrepreneurs and the varying degrees of success they’ve achieved. When newspapers are mentioned, they’re invariably preceded by the words “troubled,” “bankrupt” or “dying.” At the same time, websites that pay their writers little or nothing at all for their work are depicted as “reinventing the profession.”

Among those profiled are Andrew Huff of Gapers Block, Adrian Holovaty and Daniel X. O’Neil ofEveryBlock, Steve Rhodes of Beachwood Reporter, and a couple of savvy Medill grads, Brian Boyer and Lizz Kannenberg, whose careers take notably divergent paths in the course of the documentary.

Balancing their stories are insightful reflections from a few older and wiser academic types, including retired Tribune editor and columnist Charles Madigan, Medill’s Rich Gordon and Columbia College’s Barbara K. Iverson.

But the real star of the hour is Bill Adee (pictured left), vice president of digital development and operations for Chicago Tribune Media Group and maybe the smartest guy in town when it comes to synching up traditional journalism with social media and digital platforms. Hearing Adee explain how he created Chicago Now out of thin air makes it easy to see why he’s inspired a generation of young acolytes in Tribune Tower — even if the unwieldy blog network still seems to be a work in progress nearly two years after its launch.

Schwartz raises a number of important questions about what constitutes journalism in a world without editors or gatekeepers. Is there real value in a microlocal site such as EveryBlock, which simply collects and posts public records and other raw data without context or interpretation? One answer comes at the end of the film when EveryBlock is acquired by MSNBC in August 2009 after only a year and half. By March of this year, however, MSNBC had relaunched the site as a neighborhood social network — a fact not covered in the documentary or its epilogue.

Mostly though, Mashed Media is about change — alternately scary, exciting, dizzying and exhilarating — as Chicago and the rest of the world define the future of news and information in the digital era.

“We manage sometimes to miss how much has really changed in the past 15 years,” says Medill’s Gordon. “It’s been enormous. I’m pretty convinced that the next 15 years will be every bit as transformative as the last 15. But I think in a lot of ways we’re just getting started.”



May 25, 2011 at 12:25 pm
Well, one thing you can say about Chicago Now is that it makes Huffington Post look good by comparison!

2.Dance Music Authority
May 25, 2011 at 1:22 pm
The DVR is already set. We would love to know what they used to edit the documentary–Avid, Adobe, Final Cut? Just a little, informal poll we have going. This will definitely be interesting.
BTW, Oprah’s final show was beyond classy. We, however, can’t wait for the bitter, miserable myopic “haters” and armchair critics to weigh in.

Thanks twice–in one day! 

May 25, 2011 at 1:30 pm
I need to break with you, Robert, on your conclusions about Chicago Now. It is not a success. If the project is still called a work in progress nearly two years after it was launched, it’s a bust.
The Tribune is terribly slow at dropping pet concepts that just haven’t succeeded (Triblocal is a fine example), and Chicago Now simply isn’t generating a profit and is not popular with readers. There are many really good reasons why the Tribune is still bankrupt, and its works “in progress” are part of the problem.

4.Jeff Doles
May 25, 2011 at 1:41 pm
Congratulations Brett. Looking forward to seeing the documentary. Sounds like a very interesting topic.

May 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm
Did the majority of new media bloggers go to J School? Are they doing basic fact checking? Are they unschooled, unprincipled writers? Do they sit down at the keyboard to crank out article after article in some semblance of news?
Most readers acutally think the answer is yes, they’re journalists. I call them “Fauxers” even though some call them “web journalists” and when you think about it they are, in fact, delivering the news and providing context. So that does make them a sort of journalist, even a small dose of “real” journalists? I think the question you have to ask and I fear some of us will be asking more often then ever is do they accept the word of officials at face value and do not research, let alone challenge any of their assertions?

But then I’ve always said: “tweet first, ask questions later!” Excuse me while I run to the bank to deposit this check…and..where’s that press release they sent me?

6.Alan Solomon
May 25, 2011 at 3:21 pm
” . . . even if the unwieldy blog network still seems to be a work in progress nearly two years after its launch.”
And there’s the rub: The dinosaurs among us would more eagerly embrace this revolution or evolution or however it’s defined if the best and brightest — and Bill Adee indeed qualifies — had been able to come up with something beyond “Look what we can do, and isn’t it cool?” The similarly bright Steve Rhodes and his like-thinking mates can rant all they want about the undeniably increasing irrelevance of the old media, but no one yet has come up with a new-media replacement worth celebrating. Moreover, ignore the “business-model/sustainability” element for a moment; is there any evidence that the new media has made today’s techno-sophisticated young people more worldly or better informed about anything beyond techno itself?

7.Lorenzo Felix
May 25, 2011 at 4:35 pm
What am I missing? Bill Adee’s “maybe the smartest guy in town” when it comes to synching up traditional journalism with social media and digital platforms. And yet, you call ChicagoNow “unwieldy” and a “work in progress”? I don’t think you can have it both ways. Bill can’t be the smartest guy in town at pairing journalism with new media platforms and yet, at the same time, have one of his signature projects be unwieldy and a work in progress — after some two years in operation.

Which is it?

(It sounds like you like Bill Adee on a personal level — hey, he *was* at the Sun-Times for many years, and he has a great reputation for being a nice guy. And, it sounds like you see that he has his followers in the Tower, but that it’s not really obvious what he’s added to the Tribune’s digital initiative. Let me ask it another way: what exactly *has* Bill Adee added to Tribune’s digital effort? How is the Tribune monetizing its digital presence (and drawing large numbers of eyeballs) in ways that other traditional media companies aren’t? That’s the question that you (and Brett Schwartz) should be asking…………

8.Just An Average Joe Like Yourself
May 25, 2011 at 6:30 pm
So the future of journalism is once again going to be explained to us by Steve Rhodes, who sits around, producing nothing himself, while carping and whining and complaining about anything that actual journalists produce, with periodic breaks to kiss John Kass’s behind and beg his readers to come give him tips when he tends bar? I’ll have to miss that one.

9.Linda S
May 25, 2011 at 7:44 pm
It is all very interesting. Here is my take: as long as we still have Robert Feder, all is right with the world/Chicago

10.Matt Lauer's skinny ass
May 26, 2011 at 7:06 am
Wasn’t Adee Jay Mariotti’s editor at the Sun-Times? I could Google it but I’m too lazy to fact-check. Mariotti was permitted to write hysterical column after hysterical column and no one really had any recourse. He wasn’t subjected to a comment section that his column would have had to slide into like a clown into a dunking booth. Telander barely touched him because to do so would have been to break ranks with the Commander Burge of sportswriting. So fuck Adee. And fuck the Sun-Times. And Kass is better than Royko was, so fuck Royko, too. And fuck Slats Grobnik.

11.Terry Salad
May 26, 2011 at 8:26 am
I find the comments by Blubalz amusing as he wonders whether any media bloggers have J-school degrees. One of those media bloggers, Steve Rhodes, is constantly criticizing old school media (television, newspaper, and to a lesser extent radio) pros for phoning it in, printing press releases, and otherwise acting as stenographers instead of journalists. Who is the real Fauxer here?

May 26, 2011 at 9:11 am
Unfortunately, what the desperate Trib & Sun-Times are doing right now smacks of serving two masters, online & print, to their detriment IMO. The opinion pieces, notably by columnists like Carol Marin & Mark Brown, have steadfastly kept to journalistic tenets for the most part & I enjoy reading them much as I have for the last 20 years. But where they’ve really gone off the deep end is in sports coverage. Mariotti may have been an obnoxious boor, but at least he could write, and besides, he’s gone. I would venture to say that ONLY Rick Telander has not changed his ethics to serve the online ‘new journalism’, if it can be called that. I’d call the rest of the writers & columnists that cover sports in this town pretty much worthless. ‘Talking Smack’? Please…

13.Howard Miller's Ghost
May 26, 2011 at 9:11 am
The problem with “new media” journalism is it’s being weighted down by crap like The Examiner, UPI, Patch and other news recyclers that don’t dig deeper than a press release and “citizen journalism” pieces that pose as news. And lets not even discuss the psychotic readers that comment on these sites, with their childish, mud-slinging comments cloaked by a fake name and a phony email address. The cream of the crop is still “old school,” doing it right online. The Tribune could certainly add some credibility online (and in print) by hiring a few more proofreaders and turning on its spell check software full-time.

May 26, 2011 at 9:20 am
Interesting article and I’ll definitely watch the documentary. Felt compelled to weigh in on this as the topic has been of interest to me since I worked for the Tribune Company back in 2000-ish and I started to see the digital transformation happening and started wondering how “we” would make a profit off it since all content was free. I don’t think anyone has really figured this piece out, which cuts into circulation, hence why print journalism is “dying”. I had hoped even back then that someone smarter than me could figure it out!  

Anyway, two points…first off, I agree with some of the other posters here that Chicago Now isn’t quite the success it’s branded to be. Reason to me is the bloggers haven’t followed through on their end in keeping fresh content and making it a destination site. I bookmarked a few writers I wanted to follow and they just don’t write much now. For instance, David Kaplan’s blog hasn’t been updated since March 15th.

Secondly, to the j-school/professional journalist point. Many bloggers ARE grads, at least “trained” in journalistm, but without the experience or perspective to truly practice it. They did the blog career track when they couldn’t break into a mainstream medium. Not their fault that people read them and ASSUME that the writer has done their homework, fact-checked, and truly written an unbiased story. Bloggers came about as “real” media started to make cuts. Granted that some bloggers are NOT professionals in ANY sense, but I think bloggers were the next step in the evolution of writing as newspapers started to downturn.

Thanks for reading. And Robert, thanks for the continued diligence…

15.Stan Schmenge
May 26, 2011 at 9:33 am
Bravo Alan Solomon (#6)! Your observation rings true. “Moreover, ignore the “business-model/sustainability” element for a moment; is there any evidence that the new media has made today’s techno-sophisticated young people more worldly or better informed about anything beyond techno itself?” I have a 22 year-old, techno-savvy, facebook/ twitter/ cell phone permanently-attached-to-the-ear/ texting niece who thinks all the cardinals in Chicagoland migrate from St. Louis! By being be tuned-into their gadgets, they’re obliviously tuning-out their surroundings and common sense! Anyone for cabbage rolls and coffee?—mmm-mmm good.



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