Chi-Town Daily News editor Geoff Dougherty created a small uproar this week by throwing down the gauntlet to the Chicago metro print media by saying that, for $2 million, he could build a newsroom that could provide equal, if not better, coverage of Chicago than the Tribune or Sun-Times.

His cost breakdown is here. Granted, the figures seem to be based on the assumptions that no one will read the Chi-Town Daily News for sports or features, and the regional average salary he uses will attract the type of talent you may find at the mainstream metros. But it is a challenge worth noting.

Dougherty notes his plan doesn’t include an “advice columnist, a suburban bureau, an auto writer, or a fashion critic” which the metros have on their payrolls. I should add it doesn’t include any columnists, like a John Kass or Mary Mitchell. Folks that can give personality and perspective to the news.

Yes, columnists drive the payroll up, much in the way a star athlete skews up the team’s payroll. But yet they both serve a purpose, to do their job extremely well and become a face of the franchise.

If the Trib and Sun-Times did unload their high-priced talent, then, yes, they could probably be much closer to Dougherty’s $2 million cap. Would they be any better? Probably not.

Dougherty’s plan would work for his franchise. It’s built itself a good base, and a $2 million infusion would certainly help it accomplish its mission. The metros, however, carry a broader mission and rely in its talent to draw in readers. I still believe readers come to the Tribune to read the likes of Kass, Zorn, Schmich, etc. Readers still like personality, attitude, authority that these folks provide.

And unfortunately, $2 million doesn’t buy as much of that as it used to.

* Speaking of personality, Eric Zorn offers an alternative to the paid/free content dilemma facing news organizations. His proposal is to use the cable TV model, that is, paying for a “bundle” of news sites. The more you pay, the more sites you can get.

I like this plan because it gets into three of the basic tenets of my new world plan last year:

1. Content is the core product, but not the revenue maker. It’s the way its packaged and delivered to the customer that makes money.
2. As a news site, you will need to rely on your competition to help you survive.
3. Readers don’t care who produced the content. They want it given to them on their terms, and whoever does that best will earn their trust.

Zorn’s bundling proposal is probably one of the more logical plans presented so far. But can it work in a climate where competing publishers are still so protective of their products that they’re afraid or unwilling to share? That is the wall the needs to be broken and new alliances created before any move can be made to a truly innovative and potentially profitable venture.

Until we can get more forward-thinking people in positions of power in the industry, I’m afraid guys like Zorn and me are going to think about finding a second job.


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