The Chi-Town Daily News is a web-only newspaper focussed on local coverage through citizen journalism. That means they depend on people from the neighborhoods to report on stories from the neighborhoods. Or, to put it another way, they’re hoping they can get people to write for them for free.
Since I’ve been writing for free on Windypundit anyway, I thought I’d give it a shot. Ever since I got comfortable writing online, I’ve been wanting to try some real journalism. I’ve done some original reporting here—that is, not just commentary on somebody else’s story—but it was still written in the style of a blog, not a regular news story.
The Chi-Town Daily News just ran my first-ever real news story, under the gripping headline “NW Side businesses hit by graffiti vandal.”
It’s not much of a story. The Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) includes monthly meetings between police and residents in every one of the city’s 279 police beats. Also called “beat meetings,” these are a chance for police and residents to exchange information. They’re also a chance for curious reporters to find out what’s happening in the neighborhood.
Last week I was at the meeting for Beat 1624 (Irving Park to Montrose, Cicero to Narragansett) and the big topic was graffiti. I took some notes and wrote a story about it.
It’s not terribly well-written as news stories go. I didn’t manage to find telling details or record any great quotes. It’s just a straight summary of what people were talking about. The paper’s editor removed some unnecessary details and then re-wrote a little to flow around the missing pieces, but the posted story is still mostly what I wrote.
Why bother? Well, meeting stories are the bread-and-butter of news coverage. Not very exciting, but a good way to start. I may be an unpaid volunteer (I’m trying not to think of myself as the world’s oldest newspaper intern) but I’m planning to get something out of this.
The Daily News may be small and online (and cheap) but it’s not just a multi-author blog. It was founded by a fellow named Geoff Dougherty, who has 14 years in the new business, including stints at the Miami Herald and the Chicago Tribune. It’s not the most formal of news environments—we have beer and pizza at the meetings—but it’s the real thing. I can learn something from it, and there are several things I want to learn.
First of all, I want to learn how to write for an edited publication. Here on Windypundit I can say whatever I want because I’m my own editor and publisher. It’s great fun, and I think I’m getting better at it, but it’s a different kind of skill than writing to fill someone else’s needs. Among other things, when you write what someone else needs, they’re more likely to pay you.
Second, I want to learn the basic process of journalism: Preparing for an interview, asking questions, taking notes, spotting quotable phrases.
Third, I want to learn the careful writing process of a journalist. Despite all the blogger triumphalism about the mistakes of mainstream media, real journalists have an admirable technique for keeping track of the details of a story.
Fourth, I want to learn some investigative skills. I want to learn how to negotiate the maze of government offices and find the one that will tell me what I need to know. I want to develop sources who will tell me interesting things.
During one episode of the 70’s television show Lou Grant, investigative reporter Joe Rossi (played by Robert Walden) was explaining why he had become a journalist, and part of what he said stuck with me. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like “I like to find out interesting things and tell people about them.”
I can completely understand that. It’s part of what I’m trying to do here at Windypundit. Although the objective reporting style of contemporary mainstream journalism is probably not the the best way for me to say the things I want to say, I expect the Daily News to teach me a lot of skills I’ll be able to use here.
And maybe I’ll write a few interesting stories.