Streetsblog Chicago Is Going Into Hibernation – Here’s How You Can Revive It

Update: This post is getting shared a lot — if you’ve landed here, make sure to read John Greenfield’s follow-up post about his Streetsblog Chicago resurrection plan. You can contact John at greenfieldjohn[at]hotmail.com or 312-560-3966 to learn how you can help revive the site.

Just about two years ago, we ran the first post ever on Streetsblog Chicago. Since then, John Greenfield, Steven Vance, and a big roster of contributors have made this site a must-read for people interested in transportation, planning, and livable streets in Chicagoland.

So it’s painful to make this announcement: After coming up short on our Chicago fundraising needs in 2014, OpenPlans can no longer provide financial support for Streetsblog Chicago, and we are suspending publication as of today.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of what comes next, first let me say that John and Steven delivered the goods. From the earliest storylines about Ashland BRT and IDOT’s protected bike lane ban right up through Oboi Reed’s powerful piece yesterday about the need to provide better bike resources in the city’s black communities, Streetsblog Chicago made an impact on public policy and became a place where people who care about safe streets and effective transit can share ideas.

Where else could you read the inside scoop on the regional planning disaster known as the Illiana Tollway, or a thorough debunking of the Tribune’s vendetta against automated traffic enforcement, or fine-grained coverage of street safety hazards that immediately gets the attention of city officials?

There’s just as much need for Streetsblog Chicago today as there was two years ago, and I wish we could keep the current incarnation of the site up and running. But like many other media outlets, Streetsblog is still figuring out how to build a financially sustainable operating model. The way we were trying to do things in Chicago — with editorial guidance and a fundraising team based on the East Coast — wasn’t working.

The good news is that there’s more than one way to run a Streetsblog.

Four years ago, Streetsblog Los Angeles was in an identical position. After OpenPlans ceased to house the site, editor Damien Newton got to work raising funds for a new non-profit and pulled off a successful revival. Today Streetsblog LA is bigger and more widely read than ever.

Going forward, John Greenfield will be leading the effort to breathe Streetsblog Chicago back to life. This will be challenging and there are no guarantees. Reviving the site from hibernation depends on whether the Chicago community comes together to support it. I know that many people value the work Streetsblog Chicago has produced, and that the site yields tremendous bang for the buck. I’m optimistic that John will pull it off.

Speaking of which, OpenPlans will be channeling every donation we received for Streetsblog Chicago since the beginning of October to John’s new effort. Stay tuned for a message from him about how you can get involved.

Thanks for reading, Chicago. I’ll be rooting for you all the way.

Update

Thanks for everyone’s interest in keeping Streetsblog Chicago going and for the questions about what it takes to run a site like this. Here’s the deal…

Different Streetsblogs operate with different staffing sizes and budgets. A site like Streetsblog NYC with three full-time staff, office space, fundraising, tech/web development, and administrative support costs about $250,000 annually. We have run other city sites with one full-time staffer plus freelance help at an annual cost of about $75,000. With John and Steven plus several contributors and editorial guidance from Payton Chung and myself, Streetsblog Chicago was in between at about $125,000. The starting point for a city site where someone is creating original reporting and content every day is $60,000.

There are four main types of funding sources that Streetsblog draws from: foundation grants, a healthy smattering of large individual contributions, hundreds of small individual contributions, and advertising. You need all four to make it work in the long run.

We typically launch on the strength of foundation grants, primarily, and then as people get to know and value the site, we grow the funding from the other three types of sources while the foundation support levels off at a lower point than when we started. That’s the trajectory that unfolded in San Francisco, which has been publishing continuously since 2009, though there have certainly been some funding emergencies along the way.

In Chicago, we had to replace a lot of foundation support very rapidly. In addition to the online pledge drives, where Streetsblog collects most of its small contributions, we pursued new grants and large individual contributions throughout 2013 and 2014. While we had some success raising revenue from non-foundation sources (and that will serve the revival effort well), we couldn’t make the transition fast enough.

With foundation grants and major individual contributions in play, right up until the end of 2014 there was the possibility that we could continue publishing this year. But the way things played out, there’s still a significant gap — about $45,000 — to reach that $60,000 threshold where daily publication of original content becomes viable. It’s going to take contributions from all four types of Streetsblog supporters — big donors, small donors, foundations, and advertisers — to reach that goal and, hopefully, exceed it.

  • BlueFairlane

    Wow. I have no idea what the structure of Streetsblog might be, but this suggests a few interesting things about the size and strength of the sustainable transportation movement in Chicago.

    I wonder if Grid Chicago would still be running if you guys hadn’t followed the lure of national bucks. Here’s hoping you work it out.

    (Does somebody still win that bike?)

  • I wonder if Streetsblog Chi could get a Patreon? I bet some of us longtime commenters would be willing to pay a buck a month (or some other amount) to keep it going.

  • forensicgarlic

    without more info on the financials, it’s hard to know if it was a small miss or a giant one. It’s never been clear to me how that part of streetsblog works, and this post doesn’t make it any clearer.

  • This is a big part of my day and my daily news that I’ll sorrily miss. Count on a donation later this year (after graduation and my new job starts.)

    We should consider whether Streetsblog is the best format for a revival. Perhaps an edited community blog model along the line of Seattle Transit Blog would be able to reduce the work load of staff while maintaining high quality reporting.

    Meanwhile, for those of you needing your blog fix, don’t forget to check out other Chicago based blogs on the Streetsblog network or check out my new blog, Transport Notes.

  • pasco33

    Admittedly, I did not donate because I thought to myself – what the heck do they need money for? Web hosting? Flickr is free. These writers have cameras on their phones. A bunch of info is free on line or is taken from news articles from local media. As much as this site is a daily read for me, I guess I’ll just maybe show some ignorance here, where would that money go? Are these guys getting paid for this work? Not that I mind that, but it would be good to know where the money would go towards for what is essentially, a blog from my perspective. No hate here, just really confused what that dollar amount needs to be for these guys to just continue what they are going to do anyway and click a few more things to make that work show up on this site. Please educate us. Thanks, hope this gets sorted quickly as this site is very useful for me.

  • rohmen

    I like what you guys do, and enjoy the conversations that happen on here, so I put my money where my mouth is and just made a donation to be directed towards Chicago.

    That said, I second what some of the people have noted on here, which is that it would be nice for a little more transparency on what the actual fundraising goal is to make Streetsblog Chicago functional. Maybe John and Steven will follow up on that in more detail with specific fundraising requests/goals.

    Considering there is a fair amount of Chicago-based advertising on the site, and the requests for fundraising were fairly infrequent and seemed more nationally-focused in nature, I can say for myself that I never even realized the Chicago site potentially shutting down was a possibility.

  • jt1929

    Sorry to see this. I’ve donated two years running. Can donate more, but first would want to see more transparency in financials. Best as I can tell, you guys are the only ones covering this beat in the city in which I live. But perhaps the OpenPlans model wasn’t the best way to achieve this. Here’s hoping John and Steven can reemerge with a stronger, more independent and unique voice.

    And oh by the way Ben, I think John, Steven and the community deserved a little more notice about this possibility. If we knew that shutdown was possible, you might have found pockets are all of a sudden a little deeper or more fundraising avenues could open up.

  • mf

    sad

  • Andy

    Damn.

  • Glad to see the outpouring on Twitter and in the comments. I’ll update the post soon with some more specifics on how we reached this decision and the financial resources needed to run a fully-staffed Streetsblog.

  • BlueFairlane

    I don’t know the financials and have no idea whether Grid Chicago made any money at all. But from a reader standpoint I don’t see that John and Steven ever got anything out of the Streetsblog association, except maybe an easy way to link to the latest transit news from Ohio and a tutorial in how to produce misleading charts and graphs based on a baseless read of spurious statistics. The sudden shut-down seems about par for the course.

  • Which of my charts and graphs were misleading?

  • rohmen

    “Speaking of which, OpenPlans will be channeling every donation we received for Streetsblog Chicago since the beginning of October to John’s new effort.”

    Based on this quote, and before seeing John’s post which directed people to a new fund outside the streetsblog network, I made a donation through the national site to be directed to Chicago. Just clarifying for myself and others who may have acted similarly that the donations made today in response to this post–and properly identified as to be directed to Chicago–will also still be directed to John’s new effort, correct??

  • That is correct. Thanks so much for your support!

  • Grid Chicago was not financially sustainable — Steven and I were not making a living running it. If we had not been hired by Streetsblog, we would have had to stop writing GC in order to pursue other income. Becoming a full-time Streetsblog employee allowed me to roughly double my writing output and make a living wage. Steven worked part-time for Streetsblog, which gave him a solid income base, plus time for his many other projects. The arrangement worked great for us for two years. While it’s unfortunate that it has ended, I’m optimistic we can get Streetsblog Chicago running again as a financially sustainable endeavor.

  • Rohmen, thanks a lot for your donation! The current goal is to raise a total of $60,000, which will get the site up and running again as a daily publication. With our advertising support and initial commitments, we think we’re about 25% of the way there as of today.

  • I’m glad to hear the site has been useful for you. The money is to pay wages. Writing 5-7 original posts a week, plus the morning headline stack, plus doing various administrative tasks, has been a full-time job for me over the past two years, and this is the minimum amount of labor that will be needed to revive the site. Steven has been working part-time, writing 3-5 posts a week.

  • Thanks for the pledge! Sorry I didn’t know about Transport Notes earlier — I would have linked to your posts in Today’s Headlines. Assuming we get SBC running again, feel free to send links to your posts for possible inclusion in TH.

  • The bottom line is, we need at least $60K to get the site up and running again with daily publication. We are about 25% with our advertising support and initial commitments from donors.

  • I’m optimistic that we’ll see an outpouring of support that will speak well of the size and strength of Chicago’s sustainable transportation movement. See my response to your comment above about how GC was not financially sustainable. Yes, Open Plans will still be raffling off the bike to anyone who gave to any of the branches of Streetsblog last month, including SBC. Thanks for the good thoughts.

  • Fred

    What’s the biggest time-suck in running this site? Would it be possible to continue running at a greatly reduced rate until a full replacement is up and running? Maybe just 1-3 posts per week with no daily headlines.

  • Dan Korn

    You and Steven have done an excellent job, John, and I’m very glad that you’ve been able to do it full-time, and you deserve to be paid. Still, I have to wonder, if becoming a full-time employee allowed you to double your writing output, doesn’t it then follow that, without the full-time funding, your output would be cut in half? Why does it instead need to drop to zero?

    I guess what I’m missing is, can’t the site still survive even with less-frequent posting, or even guest posting? I suppose it never occurred to me that all the various posts I’ve made to email lists and comment thread and blogs over the years about transit and cycling were something that I could have been paid for. I mean, I remember the old days of Break the Gridlock and efforts like that, and while those did need some financial support for web hosting and such, they seemed to work without a lot of funding, even though their reach may not have been what Streetsblog’s is.

    If you really want support from the community, then asking for money is fine, but I’m sure there are plenty of gadflys like me who would also be able to contribute content, even though it might not be at quite the same level of professional journalism quality that we’ve come to expect from you and Steven. Why isn’t that an option, instead of just this seemingly binary “either we have enough funding for full-time writers or we shut down” condition?

  • Thanks for the kind words Dan. The Streetsblog model of providing the morning headline stack and at least one original post a day is useful for readers and effective for influencing public policy but, along with administrative tasks, it’s a full-time job. Our articles often require legwork and/or a lot of research, as well as experience with the issues, so they’re not something you can expect people to write on a volunteer basis, which is why we have paid our freelancers.

    Judging from the strong response we received to the news of the shutdown, it’s clear that many Chicagoans feel there’s a need for professionally run transportation news and advocacy website. The feedback also makes me optimistic that funding can be raised to resurrect the site as a robust media outlet that pays a living wage.

    That said, I wish there were more local transportation blogs being written on a volunteer basis, as these are a great addition to the conversation. That’s why Streetsblog promotes other blogs in Today’s Headlines and via social media.

  • forensicgarlic

    thanks for the update.

  • forensicgarlic

    I agree, unless this really was unforeseen, more notice could have made it easier to make room in my charity budget for streetsblog. Now that it’s in limbo I want to wait a bit to see how things shake out before donating.

  • forensicgarlic

    thanks for the details, John.

  • Please see the last graf of Ben’s post for info on the timeline. Donating is risk-free — if the site doesn’t relaunch by April 8, your money will be refunded. Thanks for your consideration.

  • neroden

    Yeah. Is a daily a lot more expensive than a weekly, or is it mostly fixed costs like hosting?

  • neroden

    I have to echo what Fbfree said. Frankly, though I hate to say it, the “daily” format has led to a fairly large number of “junk posts”.

    If you had $30,000/year, would you be able to work half time and publish half as many items per week? This would likely be enough to make sure the key news stories got reported…

  • neroden

    I said this elsewhere, but “at least one original post a day” leads to junk postings. One of the real advantages of the blog format over the daily newspaper is *not* having the “we have 20 pages to fill, write something” pressure to create junk.

    So what’s the point of posting daily? Is it really that much more effective for influencing public policy than weekly or biweekly postings?

    On the other hand, I also don’t know if it would be any cheaper to operate weekly or biweekly. Perhaps nearly all the effort is fixed regardless of how much you post. Maybe, for example, all the work goes into a few pieces of investigative journalism which take full-time work to research and are published only once every few months, and the daily postings are not the expensive part.

    So, what’s really going on here?

  • Thanks for the feedback. Sorry you feel that way about the quality of the writing, but I’ve heard from dozens and dozens of readers over the past 24 hours who disagree. Over 60 of them have already put their money where their mouth is by making a donation because they want to see the site return to daily publication.

    Cutting my hours in half would mean only about three posts a week and no morning headline stack. In that case, we definitely wouldn’t be able to rehire Steven. The supporters seem to agree that the site would be much less useful and influential with a skeleton publishing schedule.

  • Please see my response to your comment below.

  • BlueFairlane

    I’m don’t want to devote the time it would take to do a search, and everything I’ve commented on is buried way too far down my disqus comment stream (I know I talk too much on the internet … yes, I have a problem). But you can see it in virtually any chart that appeared on the national site. They have a tendency to indulge in every display tactic you can think of to shift perception of data. One of my bigger pet peeves, for instance, is not using 0 as the base for the y-axis so as to magnify the significance of any change in value. They do that all the time.

  • There are a range of other “cheaper” financial models that also exist, and many are on display across the Streetsblog Network. Many are all-volunteer (like Streets.mn), and a few have part-time staff (like Greater Greater Washington and UrbanCincy). As much as I do appreciate the volunteer efforts, the difference in quality — especially of editing! — as well as in impact (and readership) is really palpable when there’s paid staff.

  • BlueFairlane

    I just noticed the word “my” in your question. I was talking about the graphs and charts I frequently saw/see on the national Streetsblog, not your work. One of the things I’ve always admired about your work, Steven, is that I’ve never seen you do that sort of thing. You do honest research and let the numbers speak for themselves. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. Sorry if I did.

  • Researching and writing posts is the most time-consuming activity. I’m planning on focusing my efforts on fundraising until it’s possible to return to daily publication. Please see my response to neroden below for more info.

  • Fred

    What’s your estimated timeline on getting a site back up? I guess my assumption was a few (3-6) months, in which case a couple of posts a week would be nice in the interim. If your expectation is that it will a matter of days or weeks then I can see how you wouldn’t want to bother.

    Part-time may be less influential than full-time, but no-time is not influential at all.

  • If the site is not back to daily publication by April 8, donors’ money will be refunded. I hope to have it back sooner than that, but I plan to focus my efforts on fundraising at least until a good chunk of the necessary funding has been secured.

  • Nathanael

    *shrug* I find about half of your articles to be really, really, *really* good. And then there are slow news days and I read what feels like a rehash of an article from a few weeks ago.

    I’d love to have hard evidence as to whether publishing daily actually *is* more influential or not. I am guessing it isn’t. Weeklies with consistent publication schedules seem to be quite influential.

  • Aren’t you giving up to easily? I guess, you didn’t work on your financial model seriously or you neglected it. Just try to grab a new model and avoid this hibernation.

  • At this point, we’ve got a more than a third of the funding we need to relaunch and will be shooting for some major donations and grants in the near future, so I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll relaunch by early April.