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Chicagoist Helped Make the Media Landscape that Chance the Rapper Hates

If he wants to stop the eagle-eye coverage of his every move, the rapper will need a better model than hyperlocal news aggregator.

The latest millionaire to take an interest in local news media   Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Last week, Chance the Rapper surprised the city by announcing, in the lyrics to one of four new songs dropped Wednesday, that he had acquired the assets of Chicagoist. Thus the 25-year-old Chicago native, who appeared on Forbes’s 2017 list of the world’s top-earning entertainers, becomes the latest millionaire to take an interest in local news media.

Chance’s lyrics in “I Might Need Security” suggest that his resurrection of Chicagoist, the local news site that was shut down last fall  after a sibling site’s staff voted to unionize, is a reaction to other local outlets’ magnifying-glass coverage of him. Which means, I’d argue, that Chance bought a news aggregator to fight the news aggregating model.

Chance has frequently wielded his influence in the city for community-building—raising funds for CPS, promoting anti-violence initiatives, and even producing a festival for the Special Olympics’ 50th anniversary this past weekend. It’s tempting to think Chance will bring more sense of civic duty to Chicagoist than, say, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire owner who killed it and its sister sites in the Gothamist and DNA networks.

Yet many media types, myself included, immediately recalled an incident last summer in which Chance and his manager allegedly pressured MTV News into removing a critical concert review from its website (the rapper was scheduled to appear on the TV network’s show Wild ‘N Out later that week). It’s not a great sign for Chance’s view of editorial independence. But that review wasn’t the only media attention Chano was chafing against.

In the verse in which he announces his publishing endeavor, Chance also suggests that a Crain’s report on his purchase of a Streeterville condo earlier this year was payback for canceling an interview (“I missed a Crain’s interview, they tried leaking my addy”). He also references a column by the Sun-Times’ Mary Mitchell last year that put his since-resolved child-support dispute on the paper’s front page (“I donate to the schools next, they call me a deadbeat daddy”). But it’s hard to blame Crain’s or the Sun-Times for putting Chance in their headlines when you consider the ways the media landscape has evolved over the last 15 years.

In 2003, the year after Google News was introduced, Gothamist launched its first site covering New York City. That same year, I was one of a group of bloggers in Chicago who came together to launch a locally focused site called Gapers Block; in 2004, Chicagoist brought Gothamist’s model here.

Chicagoist and Gapers Block took different approaches, but much of what we were doing was aggregation: finding news items of interest to Chicagoans, gathering the links in a central feed, and repackaging them in our own voices. The summer that we launched Gapers Block, I was temping at a law firm downtown, and I spent about half of every day online seeking out new stories to turn into fresh content for GB.

Both Gapers Block and Chicagoist also produced plenty of original content over the years, and they were also solid sources of early clips for talented writers. My experience helped me jump to print at Time Out Chicago, and other colleagues from Gapers Block and Chicagoist had similar trajectories.

But the print media industry was already moving in the opposite direction. With print revenues falling, online traffic numbers gained new importance. Other aggregators like Digg (launched in 2004) and the Huffington Post (2005) got more aggressive, working SEO and social media to make their headlines juicier—and their rewrites more searchable—than the original publishers’.

As legacy news publishers groused about aggregators siphoning off ad revenue, the aggregators did a better job of anticipating mobile consumption; meanwhile, tech evangelists proclaimed that atomized content was the future and newspapers had better get used to it.

And eventually, the publishers gave in. With newsrooms shrinking, even big newspapers are feeling an urge to supplement their own original reporting with deskbound re-reporters, combing social media and press releases for stories they can rehash from behind a keyboard, like I did at my temp job 15 years ago.

That’s how, particularly on the entertainment beat, we got here: with hundreds of outlets writing the same stories, competing to frame them with the most clickable headline, with once-distinct publications flattening their identities amid pressure to perform. I think about this when I notice, for instance, that the Insecure episode recap I’ve clicked through to from Facebook was published by Paste, once an indie music magazine I subscribed to at home. Or when I’m reminded that storied print brands like Newsweek have been stripped and rebuilt as soulless SEO content machines. Or when I see a young reporter get fired and publicly dragged for insufficiently rephrasing stories she was tasked with aggregating in the first place.

That’s the landscape Chance the Rapper has emerged into as Chicago’s biggest celebrity. We simply don’t have anyone else on his level right now. In fact, Chicago may never have had anyone on his level who also remained so committed to this city. Winning three Grammys, hosting SNL, then coming back to lead the Bud Billiken Parade in the same year? Your fave could never.

It’s no wonder that Google News, as of Sunday night, showed 730,000 results for “chance the rapper chicagoist.” It’s no wonder that Crain’s chose to report on Chance’s real-estate transaction (which is very much in Crain’s wheelhouse and a matter of public record). It’s little wonder that Mitchell chose to use his name to make her dubious point, or that the Tribune has published no fewer than seven articles tagged “Chance the Rapper” in the last week alone.

After Time Out Chicago went all-digital, with a huge reduction in staff, back in 2013 — right around the time Chance released “Acid Rap” — we started writing about the rapper just about as often as we could. I joked to my colleagues that we had to stop rehashing his every move — the dude makes a lot of moves — or else we’d have to rename ourselves Time Out Chano. But dammit if all of those posts didn’t perform.

And that’s why I hope Chance recognizes that his Chicagoist, whatever form it takes, will have to do better than aggregation. There’s enough local coverage elsewhere of restaurant openings and viral videos and, indeed, Chance the Rapper.

One idea: His Chicagoist could follow the examples of so many other local news organizations by digging into Chicago’s underserved coverage areas (South Side Weekly, City Bureau, the TRiiBE, ProPublica, and Block Club Chicago come to mind). But those are goals that will require way more funding, long-term support, and, yes, editorial independence than rehashing Chicagoist’s aggregation model would.

Maybe, as suggested by my pal Scott Smith—a former Chicago magazine editor and a Chicagoist staffer before that—“Chicagoist has an opportunity to talk about why people stay here and build.” In other words, it could be Chano’s way to give the next Chances their chance.

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