When DNAinfo Chicago, a neighborhood news site, announced it was closing its doors in October, many Chicago residents were upset. Former DNAinfo staffers Shamus Toomey, Jen Sabella, and Stephanie Lulay are bringing back hyperlocal coverage and connecting residents to local government by launching Block Club Chicago, a new nonprofit news site dedicated to covering Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Q&A with the founders of Block Club Chicago
Madeleine Doubek: I’m Madeleine Doubek director of policy and civic engagement at the BGA and I’m joined by Shamus Toomey, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Block Club Chicago. Shamus was DNAinfo-Chicago’s managing editor. I’m also joined by Stephanie Lulay, co-founder and managing editor of Block Club Chicago, and Jen Sabella, director of strategy and co-founder of Block Club Chicago. All of you worked that DNAinfo Chicago and you have come back with a vengeance to start a new nonprofit news organization covering local news kind of safe to say a reincarnation of DNAinfo Chicago but new and improved?
Shamus Toomey: From the ashes we’ve been saying. Yes, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to what we covered and how we did it. We thought we were pretty popular with the way we covered Chicago’s neighborhoods on an extremely local level. What is different is that we are a nonprofit. We think it better fits our mission of telling people what’s going on in their neighborhoods and we are also going to be a subscription-based website. So they’ll be some stories available for free, particularly the ones that we’re going to share on social media and breaking news, but at some point you’re going to hit a limit in a month and we ask you to make what we feel to be a reasonable contribution to the site to keep us going.
Madeleine Doubek: In the intro I talked about the past present and future so let me make sure we cover the past. Jen what happened with DNAinfo Chicago. Did you get any notice whatsoever about what was coming?
Jen Sabella: We didn’t know it was coming. We did know that the business wasn’t profitable for our founder, who is Joe Ricketts, and that was always in the back of our minds and I think at any news organization right now. I mean when I was at the Sun-Times, there were major cuts. When I was at Huff Post, I left just in time for them to cut the entire local staff there. I think it’s one of those things with being in this industry, you kind of always worry, especially just the size of our newsroom and how robust it was, we had seven editors, copy editor, reporters and all these neighborhoods.
Madeleine Doubek: How many employees total did you have DNAinfo Chicago, Stephanie?
Stephanie Lulay: Quite a few. You know we’re talking about an ad staff there. I know on the editorial side, like Jen said, it was seven editors, a copy editor, 15 to 17 reporters when we shut down. So a pretty big staff that was covering most of the city on this micro level. Add to that an ad staff.
Jen Sabella: It was about 60 people in Chicago.
Madeleine Doubek: And so Stephanie that was not a subscription model.
Stephanie Lulay: It was not. All of our content was free like so many other news sites. We do think that now that this very local content, this coverage of the neighborhoods, has been taken away and the response that we’ve received, now is the right time to ask our readers. We heard after DNAinfo shut down from so many readers if you would have just asked me to pay for it, I would have been happy to chip in and I think with the Kickstarter we’re now seen that on a very real level.
Madeleine Doubek: What’s the number on Kickstarter now?
Jen Sabella: I checked this morning we were at $136,000. We actually created some stretch goals so, like at $150,00, we said we would do some podcasting of our own which will be really exciting. And then at $225,000, if we hit that, which would be beyond our wildest dreams, we’ll hire another reporter. So when we hit a $100,000, we told everyone we’d hire a reporter and we saw so much enthusiasm. People were just saying like, “Share this! They need to hire another reporter. We want more reporters.” That’s like a journalist’s dream right. It was wild.
Madeleine Doubek: So for people who may want to donate and contribute and sign up for a subscription, where should they go?
Jen Sabella: They can go to blockclubchicago.org or blockclubchi.org or, basically, any variation of that that we bought through GoDaddy.
Madeleine Doubek: So you guys have to get into the business end of things, now. Has that been an adjustment for you Shamus?
Shamus Toomey: Absolutely. I say this now and it’s February. I can only imagine come next April what it’s going to be like. I mean as we try to sort through everything and all the donations. But yes, it’s a steep learning curve. I’m not sure exactly where on the curve I am now but it’s fascinating, it’s really expanding our horizons, not just journalism, we are also trying to figure out how to make this last long term.
Madeleine Doubek: How do you go about doing that?
Shamus Toomey: The subscription model is going to be a key component, a key part of the revenue stream. But it’s not the only revenue stream. One less-reliable stream would be charitable organizations. We’re going to make the rounds, hopefully, find some support among the folks that either support local journalism or just local businesses, civic engagement. We’re going to ask as many people as possible. If this is something that they find value in, they want to support, they have specific ideas for expansion in some neighborhoods that they think deserve more coverage. We’re also partnered with an organization in New York called “Civil” which is essentially a platform. They’re going to put us on their platform and they’re helping us with all the technology side as well. Their aim is to launch a global network of sustainable local journalism.
Madeleine Doubek: So Stephanie, Shamus mentioned community meetings, local school councils, CAPS meetings, all of those things are government. Are people really craving —please say yes— local government information these days?
Stephanie Lulay: I think they’re craving accountability on a local level. One thing that I can say at DNAinfo. I started my career there as actually a reporter covering Pilsen and the West Loop. There were meetings when DNAinfo started, and Jen can talk to this too, there were aldermen who had never really been covered by the press. Sure there are the city hall reporters that are focused on that big issue of the day, but aldermen in the neighborhood might not be tied to that big issue. So there were even questions about whether we could cover CAPS meetings and there was some pushback on that, or if we could cover development meetings because these were aldermen that, on some level, weren’t used to interacting with the press.
Jen Sabella: We got a call. I remember Chloe Riley and Stephanie were kicked out of meetings between like an LSC meeting and then a CAPS meeting and we were like, “This is the law ya’ll. You have to let these reporters cover this meeting.” No one had ever tried. And that is something that I think DNAinfo brought Chicago that no one else was doing and the people, once they realized what we were offering to them … For example, a development in the neighborhood. In the past, an alderman would say, “I want this development.” And the alderman would tell whoever he wanted to tell about this development meeting that he was required to have. Now, you have this media outlet come into play and we’re actually able to make these local issues palatable and interesting to a wider audience. And they show up at these meetings. They didn’t know about them before and we’re popping up on their Twitter and their Facebook and we’re like, “Hey, there’s a 16-story tower going up across the street from you.” And they’re showing up to meetings and it’s just kind of instant accountability to residents and residents were very grateful to us.
Madeleine Doubek: So Block Club Chicago is sort of the middleman between government and the people.
Stephanie Lulay: I think in some cases we definitely are. And if nothing else we’re giving neighbors a voice in the process. In cases that they do not have a direct line to the alderman, or they might not feel like they have a direct line to the alderman.
Madeleine Doubek: So what are some more examples of the kinds of things that you’ll cover and the kinds of things that you probably are not going to be able to get to?
Shamus Toomey: Well back to Jen’s point about just being there for the meetings and how important that is. One thing that we definitely noticed and, Madeleine you and I learned this at the Daily Herald a lot, you show up for the meetings and these public officials, these police officers, these bosses have to answer the questions when they’re posed by the residents because that is their constituency. It’s not a reporter on the other line asking the developer, “How many affordable apartments are going to be in this?” “Well, we’re still trying to figure that out.” This is 50 community members standing up and demanding answers from the developers and the developers have to win those people over because the alderman is sitting there seeing, “Oh no, this is not going well. I’m not going to vote for this.” So that developer is obligated, at least he really should answer that question truthfully, and we’re there to document that. So when this plan flips in six months and all of a sudden it’s ten times taller than residents we’re told, we can also report on that. I mean that’s the sort of thing we hope to keep doing because, frankly, we’re looking for exclusive stories, we’re looking for scoops. We’re looking for stuff that the Tribune, the Sun-Times and Crain’s and the Daily Herald and everyone else isn’t doing because we don’t want to chase everybody else. We want to let people know for the first time, it’s coming from us. We’re going to be out at those meetings looking for the scoops. What’s going to be different than DNAinfo? Honestly, we’re going to be a little bit smaller to begin with. That’s just a numbers issue. we don’t have the funding at this point that we did six months ago.
Madeleine Doubek: So how do you choose which neighborhoods get covered and which don’t from the start. Do you have a geographic plan?
Shamus Toomey: We sort of have a formula here that’s a little bit art and a little bit of science. We know the neighborhoods that really followed DNAinfo well. We’re trying our best to make sure that we’re there for them. We’re going to try to get around Chicago as much as possible. We’ve got a reporter assigned to the Chatham, Auburn, Gresham, and Englewood neighborhoods. We’ve got a reporter assigned to Little Village, Pilsen, Back of the Yards. We’ve got the great Alisa Hauser covering the Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Town area. So some of it was neighborhoods that did well. But we also have reporters who are somewhat linked to those neighborhoods like Alise has been covering that neighborhood for a long time. Twelve years.
Madeleine Doubek: They’ve become identified with those communities.
Shamus Toomey: Exactly, she’s the reporter. You see her walking down the street and you stop her and give her a tip. The art of it is knowing that that’s her neighborhood and we really need her to cover those. We’re going to try to hit as much as we can from the beginning because a lot of people are counting on us. We have a group of freelancers, some of the former DNA reporters are going to contribute as best they can, as well as former DNA contributors we’ve reached out to. They said, “Hey, I want in on this.”
Madeleine Doubek: So, for instance, will you have a City Hall/Cook County government reporter?
Jen Sabella: We won’t go out the gate with a City Hall reporter. We loved being able to do that DNA but the neighborhoods are really where we need to serve our audience. So I think all of our neighborhood reporters have relationships with the alderman and so they’ll probably cover city issues on a more granular scale. Eventually, we’d love to have somebody covering City Hall. For now, we’ll be doing it on a local level and if there’s something that kind of impacts all of our neighborhoods we would send somebody to City Hall for that meeting and we definitely need somebody there. We have a girl, Kelly Bauer, she did a lot of our general assignment work at DNAinfo and she’ll be covering a little bit of downtown so she’ll be able to float around and pick up stories when we really need them in City Hall or anywhere else.
Madeleine Doubek: And Jen you’re going to be doing social media strategy?
Jen Sabella: I do a little of everything but DNA I oversaw our social strategy I also designed the beats. When we started and did a lot of the hiring and just our expansion strategies and partnership strategies. When we decide to work with another outlet on a story working on those partnerships, story development and things like that. And I’ll be working with our partners in foundation world and trying to raise money, fun things like that.
Madeleine Doubek: Okay Shamus and Stephanie are you guys going to hit the street at all yourselves? Will I see bylines from the two of you?
Stephanie Lulay: Yes. When I started DNA I was a reporter and I think it’s hard to shake me out of that world sometimes. One of our strengths at DNAinfo I can say is that editors were willing to chip in from the desk and get stories, especially breaking stories, up fast and get them to our readers.
Jen Sabella: We would do everything at DNA. Half the time I’m taking calls and writing the story for the reporter on the scene. I mean it’s a lot of that. And we’re scrappy and we’re all glad to pitch in and do it all.
Madeleine Doubek: Why do you suppose there’s been this sort of resurgence there is this company in New York who responded to Joe Ricketts in New York pulling the plug and wants to invest worldwide in this global enterprise of local newsrooms. Why is that type of journalism making a comeback?
Jen Sabella: I think you have like these big media conglomerates kind of taking over their small town papers and the local newspapers and TV stations, frankly. And people are sad and they miss their neighborhood and their local news and having something that to turn to that is not just national politics coverage or is not just the big story of the day. I mean I can read about what happened in the White House on 9,000–and that’s being conservative–different outlets at a time. Whereas I cannot go anywhere and find what is that karate studio that’s opening on the corner across the street from Schurz High School. We were offering that and providing that and I think that everyone is honestly pissed off that there’s the Michael Ferros of the world and these other big media conglomerates that are just taking over and firing reporters and not focusing on the “boots on the ground journalism” that we want to focus on.
Madeleine Doubek: I sometimes wonder if there’s any oxygen left in the room after Donald Trump finishes tweeting in a day and everyone responds to Donald Trump tweeting in a day. But you’re seeing the evidence out there that people are truly clamoring for this in enough numbers that you think you can make this go obviously or you wouldn’t be doing it.
Stephanie Lulay: Yeah what we know is not only do these stories matter to people, we know that there is an audience out there for this kind of journalism. When DNAinfo shut down I think we had–I’m trying to think of the numbers right off the top of my head…
Jen Sabella: 2.6 Million unique visitors a month which for a site that only covered the city of Chicago which is like two and a half million people that’s pretty significant in five years.
Stephanie Lulay: So we know that there is an audience out there and we can’t wait to get back to serving them.
Madeleine Doubek: So what’s the specifics on the model? How do you decide what the price-point is and at what point you start charging people?
Shamus Toomey: A little bit is we’re checking out sort of what other people charge. The Washington Post charges $9.99 a month. We feel like we need to come in a little bit lower than that because we’re going to be just offering Chicago news. But who knows. We’ll see how it goes. We want to make it as reasonable as possible. We don’t want to turn people off and say thanks but no thanks I’ll wait till someone aggregates you guys. But a lot of it is sort of the feel of it. We want people to feel like they’re part of the team, part of the club. For 50 bucks a year we hope to be a small price to pay to support local journalism and to find out what the heck is going on in your own neighborhood and something you can rely on. It is going to be in your e-mail box every morning on your Twitter feed on Facebook and Instagram we’re going to be everywhere and towards the end of DNAinfo people would write to us like, “What the heck just happened there? I would have expected you guys would have covered this.” And we’re like, “how did we miss that? Hurry! Go out there and get an answer for this person because they’re counting on us!” Yeah so I mean we’re trying to figure out the right spots, what’s the right number for the metered system is five is it ten. I think we’ve gotten into the problem over the last couple of decades of giving news away. I mean everyone gave news away. It used to be that TV was free and the news costs money and now TV costs money and the news is free. We’re trying to get away from that where we hope people find value for it.
Madeleine Doubek: You referenced that you and I are learned some things at the Daily Herald and we should be very clear that you and I work together at the Daily Herald, a suburban newspaper based in Arlington Heights, for a few years. That model which you are in a sense replicating for the neighborhoods of Chicago is very expensive to produce because you need lots of people to cover all those different communities. How do you make sure you’ve got enough and you’re gonna have to tell people, “we missed that we can’t get to that.”
Shamus Toomey: We’re trying to be as lean as possible. We’re not going to have a print side of the operation so that takes a huge chunk of the overhead off it also takes off a huge chunk of the potential ad revenue. We’re not going to in fact have an ad model. This is partially user experience partially just being realistic. It is expensive. It is not necessarily money that you get back from banner ads and pop-up ads fractions of cents on the dollar. We’re going to try to price it so that users support it via their subscriptions as opposed to supporting the advertisers who might not be seeing the return on investment they get from a right rail banner ad that people don’t click on.
Madeleine Doubek: Stephanie, the journalism industry for decades and decades now has been trying to figure out a way to make things work in the digital age. Advertising on websites is only getting pennies on the dollar. Why are you guys optimistic that this is going to work given all of that? Lots and lots of people who have gone before you tried and failed.
Stephanie Lulay: In listening to our readers and watching what’s going on in the rest of the industry I do think that we are going to see a huge shift back to a subscription model online with websites like The Information and The Athletic you are seeing them have some success right now specifically with some niche coverage and I do consider neighborhood news to be niche.
Madeleine Doubek: So you mentioned podcasts, you might start one of those. You have an introductory video on the website. And in that video you have some Chicagoans talking about Block Club Chicago being needed in order to give voice to the voiceless and that they want you to be tenacious and investigative. Are you going to be able to live up to those expectations?
Jen Sabella: I think we will. We have a budget right now for a lot of freelance work. And right now we have some months before we go live when we launched DNA, we worked on the project that covered 500 murders. We knocked on the doors of everyone who was killed in Chicago in 2012 which was an enormous undertaking. But it allowed us to go out the gate and be like hey we’re serious we have this project that no one else has done and we want to come out the gate with some of these big stories too. We have some time. Our reporters have a lot of ideas. Now we’re nonprofit we partner with other outlets and really dig in on some investigations. I think that makes it easier when you can partner with the BGA or the Sun-Times or The Reader or the City Bureau, who are former DNAinfo folks. We’re excited about the possibilities and we’ve heard from so many people just saying, “hey let’s work together” and the spirit of collaboration is really cool. We all want the same thing which is to bring better coverage to Chicago.
Madeleine Doubek: Given all of that, how do you convince the people who are still out there who have never heard of DNAinfo-Chicago, don’t know what Block Club-Chicago is and who think that journalism is not anything they need to pay attention to?
Shamus Toomey: Those people we’re going to have to reach from social media. We’re going to hit those people and maybe get someone’s mom to read a Facebook story about something that connects with her. I mean I think that’s what this is really about is finding stuff that people connect with: that bar that you grew up in that closed out of the blue. You see a story and you read it and you don’t even know where you’re reading it from. But at the end, you’re like, “wow that was pretty good.” And then maybe you go back and you look at the URL, “hey that was Block Club Chicago. What’s that?” You share it with your daughter and she’s like, “Duh mom! They’re the coolest thing in town!” You know that sort of thing–one by one. We don’t have a huge marketing campaign to wallpaper every bus and train in Chicago. But we’re going to do community events. We’re just going to have to build up the audience as best we can.
Madeleine Doubek: Always when I’m out talking to people trying to find ways to help them understand that government and the institutions around us, in our neighborhoods, in our communities touch us every single day in a multitude of ways. Stephanie, you have a great story about a broken sidewalk.
Stephanie Lulay: Yeah the crack in the sidewalk and really hats off to Lisa Hauser. That’s really her story and she actually wrote about it this week and it touched a lot of our former readers. To hear how a story so small can make a big impact. In that case, there was a literal crack in the sidewalk in Wicker Park. It was one man’s crusade to get that fixed. People were tripping on it and the man was in a wheelchair so it obviously impacted him. It sounds sort of silly to say we went out and covered that and got that crack fixed but it mattered to people it might be a pothole it might be that crack in the sidewalk. But if you live in Wicker Park you knew that crack in the sidewalk and it mattered to people in that neighborhood.
Madeleine Doubek: Government touching people’s lives and you making the connection between people and their government.
Shamus Toomey: Well let’s be honest, politicians don’t want to be annoyed for things that they can fix. They may not have known about it but all of a sudden like, “oh boy. This story has been shared all around the internet about this man in a wheelchair can’t get over this crack to get to work.” And all of a sudden they said, “OK that’s today’s headache that needs to get fixed.” We’re going to solve all the headaches but if you shine a little spotlight on things and all of a sudden it’s a heck of a lot more powerful than just a simple call to the ward superintendent or to the alderman’s office that gets blown off. And all of a sudden like I got an election coming up and maybe I should.
Madeleine Doubek: A crack in the sidewalk is not something I’m on a trip over and lose my election over.
Shamus Toomey: It was a really big crack by the way. We have a picture of it. I forget the guy’s name. Leroy, I think. It’s one of our favorite stories because we talk about it like no story is too small. Now we can’t spend too long on a small story but we want people to know that you can call us with really with anything and if we find it interesting something that we think is worth chasing we’re going to go out and chase it as best we can.
Madeleine Doubek: Let’s assume that this is going to just go gangbusters and be the best thing ever. What does the future look like, Jen?
Jen Sabella: One thing I wanted to bring up is a little bit of math we did beforehand. We talked to some people who are smart knew these things and he said look at your audience and you get 3 percent of those people to subscribe and you’d be sustainable. So that is something that made us think, “OK we can do this. This is doable.” We built an audience at DNA with zero marketing budget for the first few years. That was just like one thing that we thought, “3 percent? That’s nothing. We can get 3 percent of people.” So if we get that 3 percent and hopefully a little bit more than that and we get some support from everybody else we hope to cover more of the city and we cover the city completely we hope to cover the suburbs. I mean we’d love to do it all. We want local journalism to thrive. We want to keep doing his work. Mom lives in the suburbs and I know she would love to have a Block Club Chicago out there. So that’s why we want to be a nonprofit. We wanted it to be really clear to everyone that all of the money we got out of this is going to go right back into reporting go right back into neighborhood and community coverage. That’s our mission. We don’t have like a take over the world mission. We have a, “let’s do more local news” mission. So maybe that small and nerdy but that’s us.
Madeleine Doubek: All right small and nerdy it is. The address for people who may want to donate and contribute and sign up for a subscription?
Stephanie Lulay: They can go to BlockClubChicago.org or BlockClubChi.org.
Madeleine Doubek: Well thank you very much, Shamus, Stephanie and Jen. We appreciate your time and thanks for being with me on Ready Set Gov.
Shamus Toomey: Thanks for having us.
Jen Sabella: Thanks!
Stephanie Lulay: Thanks!