CN April 17, 2014


The Sun-Times made some news this week as it announced that it was, for the time being, shutting off its comment boards. Editor Craig Newman said that the boards at his own newspaper  “too often turn into a morass of negativity, racism, hate speech and general trollish behaviors that detract from the content.” Community Media Workshop’s Thom Clark agrees with Newman. There are, he says, “a lot of comments about that socialist, Muslim Kenyan thrown in for good measure even if the story had nothing to do with the President.”

Clark points out that the Sun-Times is struggling without many resources and, as he sees it, “the problem is they don’t have someone to moderate the discussion. And because it’s so off-the-wall, they’ve decided to take the discussion down.”

NPR’s Cheryl Corley dismisses the public criticism that the Sun-Times is stifling free speech. “There’s nothing that says that the Sun-Times, which is a private enterprise, has to have this forum for people to say whatever they want to say. So the argument about free speech is like, well, it’s not a public entity.”

But BGA investigative journalist Andrew Schroedter says comments also serve an important journalistic purpose. “I think as a journalist, it can be very difficult sometimes to gauge how much of an impact your story may have. And often I’ll find myself referring to the comment board. It’s interesting to see how people react. It can be very rewarding – it can be very humbling. But nonetheless, I think it’s important.”

Schroedter also takes us through the report he wrote in a BGA/Sun-Times collaboration about the surprising bottom-line cost of police officers breaking the law. “What we found is that over the last decade police misconduct has cost over a half-billion dollars,” he explains.

“For a cash-strapped city, what could you do with that money? We came up with 30 libraries, 5 new high schools, 500 miles of roads, this kind of thing.”

It’s entirely reasonable to expect that policing will raise charges of misconduct, and that some charges will be sustained. But the last decade has been far out of proportion with what should be expected, Schroedter says.

“New York, their spending on these cases outdistances Chicago, But basically they have three times the police force and three times the population,” he tells us. Los Angeles has a similar-sized police force. And their spending in the most recent year was a fraction of ours. Twenty million as opposed to eighty-some million dollars we had last year.”

What makes the situation more serious is that there are still about 5oo cases in the pipeline, so this won’t end quickly. Many of these are “legacy cases and they’ve been slowly snaking their way through the system,” he says.

Mayor Emanuel has made the disposal of these cases, some many years old, a priority.  So that accounts for some of the expenditure. But this is still far more money than was expected, according to Schroedter.

“What a lot of the experts told us was that it seemed to be this small core of (officers) -names that keep popping up,” he explains. “They call them repeat abusers, and they think the City needs to do a better job of rooting those guys out and identifying these problems.”

If your house gets ripped off its foundation by a tornado or inundated in a flood, there are two ways that FEMA can help, according to Corley. There’s an individual payment for your specific losses that aren’t covered by other means, but there’s also a general payment to the community for all of its expenses, such as trash pickup, damage to municipal equipment and facilities, etc. When the devastating tornadoes hit Washington, Illinois and the region last fall, three people died and a thousand houses were destroyed. most residents got individual payments, but the community got pretty much nothing.

“One of the biggest factors is this formula that FEMA uses that says you have to meet a threshold of damage costs. It’s based on your population, and it’s based on what they think a state can handle,” she explains. “And the rate they’ve fixed is $1.39 a resident for cleanup. “So then you take the population and you multiply it. Illinois has nearly 13 million people. Multiply it by a buck thirty-nine, and you get a threshold of 17.8 million dollars. So if the collective damage doesn’t reach that, then more than likely, you’re not gonna get assistance from FEMA.”  Illinois’ problem, she explains, is that the vast majority of its population is in the Chicago area, so that urban population skews the figure for downstate. “Now if you lived in Nebraska, with the same amount of damage, the threshold is much lower because there are fewer people.”

In her NPR report, Cheryl points out that Sens. Durbin and Kirk have introduced legislation to address the “disparity”.

Crain’s reported this week that hyper-local news sites, such as AOL’s Patch and DNAInfo with its Chicago branch, are losing lots and lots of money. And that nobody has really figured out how to monetize this type of local news.

Thom Clark says that after all the handwringing over funding local news, “The new news model seems to be find a guy who made millions somewhere else and let him invest his money into a news operation.”

It’s a reference to the ownership of DNAInfo, which is owned by the wealthy Ricketts family, and while their finances may be wobbly, there was general agreement around the table that the company is producing an excellent product.

“Patch is a shadow of its former self,” he continues. “That was AOL throwing a whole bunch of money in.  They probably lost, or burned through, over a hundred million dollars trying to make that thing happen.”

It was an interesting idea, he says. Each community has its own editor, equipped with a laptop and a digital camera, but it probably wasn’t sustainable.

“It was a gruesome pace, for a single editor to file three stories a day, at least one of which had to be video. There just aren’t that many school board meetings in Burr Ridge.”



About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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