ChicagoNow is a new media venture by the Tribune Co. that is taking established bloggers in the Chicago area and bringing them in under one umbrella.Russo’s work will be appearing on both Catalyst, his sponsor for about two years and ChicagoNow. ChicagoNow has been doing non-exclusive deals with bloggers as a way to keep costs down.
By being non-exclusive, ChicagoNow pays bloggers less, but this also gives bloggers the freedom to repost their work on other networks or on their own personal blogs. ChicagoNow is bringing together established bloggers under one umbrella with the hope of being able to deliver more visitors and a bigger community.
For now, Russo is trying to keep the content the same between the two sites, but he is not ruling out unique content appearing on either ChicagoNow or Catalyst. In many ways this is new territory for Russo. Catalyst is a non-profit and their expectations for District 299 are much different than the for-profit ChicagoNow.
Russo will be spending more time thinking about SEO and ROI. His work will not only have to have educational value but also monetary value.
ChicagoNow is an aggressive, HuffingtonPost-esque network of bloggers. So, what would they want with an education blogger? ChicagoNow is moving into some more news-oriented territory to augment their entertainment-focused blogs.
“I think the second-wave of ChicagoNow blogs is going to be more serious,” Russo said. “I think they are moving to balance things out. They are trying to balance both what needs talking about with what people want to talk about.”
District 299, however, would appear a better fit for ChicagoNow than Catalyst anyway. Russo has always been an aggressive, opinionated, fast moving blogger. Russo’s approach has always seemed at odds with Catalyst’s staid mission, “To improve the education of all children through authoritative journalism and leadership of a constructive dialogue among students, parents, educators, community leaders and policy makers.”
“Catalyst and District 299 have always been — stylistically and substantively — very different,” Russo said. “It was a big stretch for them to take me on in the first place.”
But Russo, a Spencer Fellow at Columbia University, is very passionate about education reform and is very good at fostering conversations about education. So while stylistically, Russo’s work is much different than the rest of what appears in Catalyst’s publications, what he is trying to accomplish fits right in with Catalyst’s mission.
So while it may seem paradoxical that Russo’s work would fit in on a both a serious education site and an aggressive new media site, it’s really more a testament to how Russo is able to take a serious topic and make it interesting and conversational. Ultimately, ChicagoNow wants to be “an online town square for the Chicago of right now.”
The one thing that Russo’s District 299 has always excelled at is being a place for people to have conversations.
We also discuss in this week’s podcast:
- Will District 299 change now that it has a new backer?
- Why will Russo be doing more link journalism and curation now? Why do readers like curation?
- How will District 299 become more hyperlocal, focusing on individual schools?
Alexander Russo is not a journalist by trade and doesn’t work for a traditional news organization.
He’s just runs two independent blogs. So, forgive him if he seems to break some of the conventions of journalism. He does things the way he does because that’s what he thinks his readers want, not what he learned in j-school years ago.
He originally had a national blog, This Week in Education, that he began using to report on Chicago school news. Eventually he realized, however, that national readers didn’t care about Chicago school issues and Chicago readers didn’t care about national issues. The most logical solution was to split the blog in two.
Thus, District 299 was born. Like many bloggers, Russo started the blog because there was a niche to be filled. Specifically, he thought coverage and conversation about the Chicago Public Schools was sorely lacking.
“I was in in Chicago, and I thought the Chicago schools were an interesting, if dysfunctional world, that wasn’t getting much attention,” he said. “Basically, I was trying to create a place to track what was going on in CPS — Chicago Public Schools — and other people who were in the system or who were curious about the system could add their two cents or share what was going on their school.”
Neither blog is independent anymore. Russo’s District 299 blog was brought under the umbrella of Catalyst-Chicago, which is dedicated to school reform. This Week in Education is now sponsored by Scholastic.
Russo is also a Spencer Fellow at Columbia University, studying education reporting. He understands his beat better than most journalists, because, in many ways, he is an expert on education. Russo has crafted a popular meeting place — a virtual water cooler — where people come to discuss issues.
Russo doesn’t say District 299 is his blog where he owns the conversation or that he is the No. 1 source for news on the Chicago school district. Rather, he says his blog is “hosted by journalist Alexander Russo, District 299: The Chicago Schools Blog is a 24/7 gathering place for Chicago education news, official and otherwise.”
The concept of his blog centers around him as a host for conversation and ideas. He puts ideas out there and lets others run with them.
“I feel like the gym teacher from back in the day whose idea of gym class was to roll out the basketballs and let people play,” he said. “I feel like I provide the space, I provide some of the equipment or the content and I sit and read the newspapers and look up when someone starts crying or asking for my attention.”
He said he has learned as much, if not more, about Chicago Public Schools from his blog than he did when he covered the schools as a freelance journalist, because now he has people within the district regularly sharing their thoughts and knowledge.
“There are so many people out there with so many interesting, first-hand experiences,” he said. “They don’t want to run a blog; they don’t have the time; they are leading their lives but they want to say, ‘here is what happened today at school.’ I love reading that stuff.”
The vast majority of what is on the District 299 blog is not what Russo’s thinks or knows, he said. It’s about what other people think and know. That’s the concept of “hosted by.”
“The blog is very much focused outwards, towards readers,” he said. “It’s not all about Alexander. It’s not all about much of my opinions. I’m just trying to create this nice, convenient place for people to vent or share their thoughts or break news.”