Sunday, February 23, 2020
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Closure of DNAinfo Chicago is hard to swallow

The hyperlocal news site DNAinfo Chicago was shut down abruptly on Thursday after journalists at another location decided to unionize, Crain’s Chicago Business reports.

DNAinfo delivered news rooted in communities throughout the Chicago area, especially in the city, and employed, I believe, about a hundred journalists. But whatever the number, the stories they wrote could most accurately be described as “hyperlocal,” meaning they were of interest only to the people in the stories.

School news, as reported by Voxitatis, is also hyperlocal in that regard. If I write about a marching band, it’s about that one specific marching band and not marching bands in general. If I write about a musical production at a school, a lesson in a calculus class, a science fair project, or whatever, it’s hyperlocal.

DNAinfo would send journalists to cover community news, and those journalists were, of course, paid. I certainly have paid my fair share of writers and photographers over the 15 years I’ve been operating Voxitatis, and I spend thousands of dollars every year in licensing fees to use content created by others. But when journalists decided to unionize in New York, DNAinfo’s founder, billionaire Joe Ricketts, decided to just close up shop in Chicago as well.

This is a big loss to the news community. I can’t count how many times I have relied on DNAinfo’s coverage from Chicago communities in my own writing, and I’m sure journalists at papers like the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and others have had similar experiences with DNAinfo. Those papers have also had to make adjustments for subscriptions in a digital age, but it was pretty clear that DNAinfo, like this organization, operates in the red.

“I’m hopeful that in time, someone will crack the code on a business that can support exceptional neighborhood storytelling, for I believe telling those stories remains essential,” Mr Ricketts wrote on one of the site’s final posts. I hope so too, from the other side of that equation, because it would be nice to make money while telling the stories that move us. But even without profit, Voxitatis will continue, unlike DNAinfo.

Hyperlocal news bureaus require more of a grant from foundations than an investment from capitalists. Nobody who knows how news works expected a hyperlocal news bureau to make a profit, but like school news, the body of work created by DNAinfo was newsworthy in its own right in that reporting from local neighborhoods serves the public interest. Each individual story may have been hyperlocal, but collectively, those stories painted a mural of life in our communities. Who cares if people only read the stories that they’re in?

Well, business people care, but newshounds like me find that all the really interesting stories, those that inspire us in our lives, are intimately connected to individual communities—our schools, our town councils, our police departments. DNAinfo’s shuttering will have a deep effect on news coverage from Chicago for a long time to come.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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