The future of Chicago media: It’s audience, not numbers

One argument in the potential death of newspapers that never ceases to make me chuckle is  “as goes newspapers, so goes journalism.”  This stuck me again during a recent viewing a WTTW’s “Chicago Week in Review”  dedicated to the future of media in Chicago.

Watch it here:,8,73&vid=090809a

It was especially disappointing to see Marcus Gilmer, editor-in-chief of The Chicagoist unable to defend himself from the bombs thrown from the old media types, especially Daily Herald reporter Ted Cox. Cox tried to play the numbers game with Gilmer, questioning whether a 40,000-hit daily blog had the same popularity of  more than 100,000-circulation Daily Herald or the even larger circulation Chicago Tribune.

If Cox wants numbers, then don’t pick a spot in time,  but trend them over the past 10 years. I’m sure we’d see a down line for the newspapers, and an up line for the Chicagoist. If given the current trend, I would expect they’d meet somewhere in the near future.

But the argument is not about numbers. What was missed in the conversation is audience. Journalists tend to forget about audience (with the exception of the Tribune’s Steve Johnson, who did say he looks at reader comments because they can provide information he missed). While the blogosphere is still a wild west and credibility is suspect because anyone can post what they want,  blogs have led to the deconstruction of the mass audience – the very audience that used newspapers and traditional media.

Blogs – and the emerging social media as well – have developed microcommunities that still crave news, but prefer to sift the wheat from the chaff before digesting it. WBEZ’s Wally Podrazik came closest to the point by noting readers will be relying more on aggregators to “sift” that news for them.

But as the mass audience deconstructs, so too must the mass-appeal news product. There is still room for a Chicago Tribune or Daily Herald, but to survive it cannot be the only product offered to those who crave news. The Tribune Company is recognizing that and have begun building niche products to appeal to the microcommunities, everything from RedEye (targeted to young, urban professionals), to TheMash (focusing on high school teenagers, which is a great market to cultivate future readers of other products), to Chicago Now (a Huffington Post-type of blog aggregator, though limited in its initial scope). With the exception of RedEye, it’s too early to tell whether any of these products will become successful or profitable. But it’s a start in the right direction.

In terms of numbers, I don’t see any one of these products gaining the type of reader numbers the Tribune had in its heyday. But, if you build a number of smaller, targeted products that are a success, their cumulative numbers could eventually equal or surpass the circulation figures once enjoyed by the flagship.

The future of media in Chicago? It’s giving the readers what they want, when they want, and on the platform they want. This won’t change journalism…there is still a great need for great storytelling, uncovering injustice and exposing wrongs for the public good.

What will change is who controls what news readers get. And as technology expands readers’ ability to select what they want to read, the more traditional media must meet that demand.

It’s no longer about the masses.