Why Chicago News Cooperative is flying the coop

No matter how noble the effort nor how worthy the product, journalism can’t succeed as a charity case.

At least that’s the lesson I take away from the collapse of the Chicago News Cooperative, the nonprofit news operation launched in October 2009 as a bulwark for serious public-affairs reporting. As of February 26, its eight paid employees and 12 other contributors will no longer be turning out their four weekly pages for local editions of The New York Times.

Despite the grandiose way the Reader and others portrayed it, the CNC always struck me as a more of a haven for Chicago Tribune expatriates than the “fresh, innovative approach” to journalism it claimed to be. Founded and headed by Jim O’Shea, the CNC drew its initial staff almost entirely from the ranks of former editors and reporters who’d worked with O’Shea at the Tribune and were allied with the regime of former top editor Ann Marie Lipinski (who also was a member of the CNC's advisory board).

I never bought into the shaky business plan O’Shea touted to the Reader's Michael Miner, predicting that within five years the CNC would “wean itself off philanthropy and sustain itself through client fees, Web site ads, ‘service fees off news groups we want to form,’ and sponsorships.” And I never was entirely clear on what Window to the World Communications, parent company of WTTW-Channel 11, got out of the deal in acting as the CNC’s fiscal agent and providing office space and other services.

Some cynics saw it all as a vengeance move, including Gawker, which famously headlined: New York Times Hires Gang Who Killed Chicago Tribune to Kill Tribune. Wrote former Tribune TV reporter John Cook: “In other words, the Times is taking a whack at the Trib by hiring the people whose complacency and abject failure to create a newspaper worth reading made the Trib vulnerable to a whack-taking in the first place.”

In the end, the CNC achieved little more than producing a couple of pages for the Friday and Sunday zoned editions of the New York Times. But when the newspaper didn’t accomplish the circulation and advertising results it had projected and the pages no longer were going to be as economical to produce, the Times opted out.

That’s not to say some of the work it did wasn’t impressive. In particular, I admired the writing of columnists Jim Warren and Dan McGrath and City Hall reporter Dan Mihalopoulos. I also found the CNC’s Palm Card, a daily collection of links compiled by Mihalopoulos and political reporter Hunter Clauss, helpful at times. But would I have paid to read any of it? Probably not.

The death knell came Friday when O’Shea announced to his staff and confirmed to the Reader that the MacArthur Foundation, which had sunk a million dollars into the enterprise, would be cutting its support after the CNC had failed to secure not-for-profit status as a 501(c)(3) organization from the Internal Revenue Service.

Trouble signs were present all along: First there were repeated delays in launching the website. Editorial partnerships with other outlets faltered. Last February, managing editor Jim Kirk left after nine months on the job to join Crain’s Chicago Business as chief of editorial operations. More recently, news editor Ben Goldberger’s name turned up on the masthead of The Chicagoan as executive editor. Rumors of other high-level departures persisted.

A few remnants of the CNC may be salvaged by the Chicago Sun-Times, O’Shea told Crain’s Lynne Marek. But that could be little more than an old boy network maneuver, considering that Michael Ferro, chairman of Sun-Times owner Wrapports, is on the CNC board, and John Canning Jr., one of Wrapports main backers, is chairman of the CNC board.

“The Sun-Times is the sort of place where you have to be able to start a fire without any kindling or a match,” one of my longtime colleagues there told me. “I find it hard to believe those mostly former Trib types would want to come to our understaffed paper.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)