Report on Last Night’s Community Meeting

By Mike Fourcher | Friday, February 1, 2013

The crowd gathering for last night’s community meeting on CSJ’s future. Credit: Teresa Fourcher

I started to write this as a straight news piece, but I’m too closely tied to everything here. So let’s just recognize that I’ve got some personal feelings at stake here and get talking about what happened.

About sixty people came to the DANK Haus’ second floor yesterday evening to hear a presentation from me on the history and state of Center Square Journal and Roscoe View Journal and then to participate in a discussion on what comes next. The audience was tremendously varied, from folks in their early twenties to a few longtime neighborhood stalwarts, leaders from local chambers of commerce and neighborhood organizations as well as journalism professors from Columbia College and Northwestern University.

The meeting lasted about two hours.

Following my presentation, [there's a copy below] neighborhood-local Ryan Blitstein led a Q&A on the mechanics of Center Square Journal. Attendees got down to brass tacks quickly, as attendees wanted to know where potential new revenue might be to keep the publication going.

To put that issue in context: I figure that to keep CSJ’s operations rolling, we’ll need about $60,000 a year to pay for original reporting and other operations.

It was clear at this point that nobody in the room wanted CSJ to close. To drive the point home, Blitstein asked the group if anyone thought a shut down was the right option for the community. Nobody raised their hand.

However, the discussion really got rolling once Blitstein asked the group to suggest possible outcomes for CSJ. They were:

  1. Keep everything the same, but some group of private donors write checks to sustain the operations.
  2. Ally with an existing local not-for-profit to operate the publication.
  3. Create a new neighborhood not-for-profit to operate the publication.
  4. Join up with an existing news organization and operate as a “North Side bureau.”
  5. Stop producing original news and aggregate news from other publications.
  6. Become a social cause business to attract advertising (e.g. Tom’s Shoes, buy an ad and we’ll pay for three soup kitchen meals at Common Pantry)
  7. Pull together a consortium of neighborhood organizations to sponsor the operations.
  8. Obtain micro-donations and run a Kickstarter for annual operations.
  9. Pull together an army of neighborhood volunteers to run fundraisers and write contributions for the site.
  10. Shift focus to high school sports, which should attract more advertising

After about twenty minutes of group brainstorming, Blitstein then asked me to choose three suggestions that I really liked. I chose numbers 4, 7 and 8 because to me, they had the strongest potential to be carried out.

Then, Blitstein asked people to start volunteering to do things, which from my perspective was the most exciting. One person offered to run marketing. One person offered to put together a benefit music concert at Old Town. Another offered to run a neighborhood restaurant crawl benefit. Others volunteered to lobby their chambers of commerce and neighborhood organizations to financially support CSJ. Students from Northwestern’s journalism program offered to provide original reporting. About a dozen people volunteered to help in some way or another.

Here, Blitstein ended the meeting, asking attendees to think about how they would want to help, and to get in touch. And please do. Email me at mike@centersquarejournal.com

Thinking back on the evening, it is clear to me that a significant portion of the community wants to support Center Square Journal, and an even larger portion of the community wants to keep reading. Considering that I started CSJ in 2010 without a clue about a news business really works, and no real journalism experience, the audience response was gratifying.

What comes next?

The truth is, I can’t work on CSJ full time any more, it has to become a side project, as I work to earn a real income for my family. So, if we’re going to move forward, CSJ is going to have to gain a lot more volunteers, and more importantly, one or two or three more people who want to make CSJ into their personal project and convert it into a new kind of, never-seen-before news entity.

I think operations can be sustained through a mix of relationships and sponsorships with other not-for-profits, news organizations and neighborhood groups, then gathering local donations from community members. But, a lot more neighbors and community leaders need to come forward and make specific time and funding commitments before I can be sure CSJ will keep moving forward.

If you want to make CSJ into your personal project, if you want to see neighborhood-based community journalism continue in Chicago, please speak up. Start by saying something in the comments below about what you want to do. (If you mentioned something to me at or after the meeting, please do it here again.) Then, email me and tell me what you want to do. We’ll need volunteer coordinators, people to solicit local businesses and neighborhood groups and of course, more ideas on how to reach the community. You can also email me if you want to talk directly.

I’ll collect the best ideas from the comments along with the most enthusiastic volunteers and make another report back to you here in a week. But if I don’t hear from enough people, or the response is tepid, I’ll report that back too. If CSJ is going to move forward, it’s going to need a community effort.

Thank you for being a part of this process. It’s wonderful to see so much community spirit in my hometown.

CSJ Transition Presentation

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=45707069 Marcus Gilmer

    I am deeply intrigued by all of this and definitely want to see what I can help do to keep this going

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.salgado.75 Brian Salgado

    I echo Marcus’ sentiments. Please let me know how I can help.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelson.fagan Kelson Fagan

    I am interested in helping with web design/programming as needed and I’d also love to help flush out content. There is only so much “news” happening in Roscoe Village at one time, I think there needs to be new content elements – reviews, interviews with local businesses, perhaps even dynamic content like video. Let me know what I can do to help!

    • Michelle Sinkovits

      I am definitely interested in helping with this. I recently joined the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce. I don’t have an office in LS, but I live here. I think the interviews with local businesses is a great idea and great way to get businesses involved – and it is mutually beneficial for them as they get some advertising, which could possibly lead to paid advertisements. We could ask the local businesses advertise at their business (or website, or blog, if they don’t have a technical store front) about being featured in the newsletter, and hopefully that would also garner more interest.

  • http://twitter.com/EMILYyoung321 Emily Young

    I am very interested to see what comes from yesterday’s discussion. I live and work in Lincoln Square/ Ravenswood and I would be crushed if we lost this publication. I would love to assist with any marketing, promotions or writing volunteer work as needed. Let me know what I can do to help.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thesleeperhit Meryl Williams

    I am committed to providing content as well as being a constant advocate for the sites. I will engage neighborhood organizations and chamber leaders and make sure they know how important it is to support CSJ and RVJ now and in the future.

  • http://twitter.com/kstanlew Kyle S. Lewis

    There were a lot of good ideas last night and
    I really think quite a few of them could be incorporated into a CHIRPradio-like,
    volunteer-based, non-profit model. I envision the publisher at the top (perhaps Mike, or perhaps someone new) who
    may need to be a part-time employee. There could be a vast number of
    committees each run by a director (a volunteer) and each designed to
    manage a specific aspect of the publication. Happy to help in anyway I can to keep it going!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Skosey Peter Skosey

    eestablish a way for interested parties to pay $5 a month. that would be 60/year. if 1,000 people in the community did that, you’d be funded. Not too crazy an idea.

    • Matthew

      I pay less than that for Pandora… make it tax deductible and it is possible to raise some revenue but don’t expect 1,000 people

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2416937 Anne Johnsos

    I’m interested in helping. Let me know what I can do!

  • http://www.facebook.com/rghanania Ray Hanania

    What we need in Chicago is an online site that brings together writers from across the political and geographic spectrum, willing to write in order to help make the site popular — and then maybe make some money. It also needs a place where the community can push-back on the news media and where the news media can be the story itself, too. The public doesn’t have confidence in the news media and has been losing it steadily. But the news media wants us to think it’s about the encroaching online cyber bloggers who are undermining their business. If you build it (a great story) they (the readers) will come. And so will advertisers. But you have to make the site “the talk of the town” which is still the measure between success and failure in journalism and commentary writing. RAY HANANIA

  • vouchey

    Thank you all for your support and comments. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into this myself and hearing from you has given me a lot of great ideas. I plan to be in touch with each of you soon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lisa.riley.1656854 Lisa Riley

    I am very interested in the hyperlocal news trend generally and the fate of CSJ specifically as I have found the focus of CSJ’s content relevant and of good quality, and I have liked the delivery method. That said, I am not inclined to be a paying subscriber, so I am glad to see other alternatives being evaluated to keep CSJ going. Does the abrupt closure of EveryBlock provide CSJ with a unique opportunity to step in and fill this gap (which I think is pretty well liked and in demand)? I commend your openness about the business model challenges and investment in such a community-participatory process to develop a solution going forward. It;s helped me learn more about the business of journalism and media and its often competing, conflicting and self-destructive forces. Thank you and good luck to you and those who are volunteering to take it on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vanessa.c.herman Vanessa Caleb Herman

    Hi Mike, I would be willing to pay a nominal fee to subscribe to CSJ, as Peter Skosey suggested.

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