Former L.A. Times Editor Blasts Coverage of His News Non-Profit

Former Times and Chicago Tribune editor James O’Shea calls early reporting “inaccurate” and “sloppy”

James O’Shea, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, blasted his fellow journalists on Monday in a letter about the future of his current project, the Chicago News Cooperative.

The CNC is a non-profit news organization that covers the Chicago area, but O’Shea confirmed to the New York Times over the weekend that it would be suspending its website and its contributions to the Times’ Chicago edition as of Feb. 26.

News of the suspension broke on Friday, and O’Shea was none too pleased with how it was handled.

“Early stories and Twitter posts on our problems were inaccurate,” O’Shea wrote in a letter. “The reporting was sloppy and simply reinforced in my mind the need for solidly reported, well-edited journalism, the kind that professional CNC journalists have been doing on our website and in the New York Times since November 2009. I can assure you that most of the people involved worked incredibly hard and in good faith to come up with some solutions to the cash shortage that threatens our future.”

Also Read: Can Tablets and Paywalls Save the Troubled L.A. Times?

O’Shea also explained why the CNC was suspending its operations. It failed to attract sufficient funding as compared to other non-profit outfits like ProPublica or the Bay Citizen.

“We never recruited the kind of seven figure donations from people of means concerned about the declining quality of news coverage around the country,” O’Shea wrote. “As a result, CNC never raised the resources to make investments in the business side of our operation that would have generated the revenue we needed to achieve our original goal – a self-sustaining news operation within 5 years.”

While ProPublica continues to expand – as well as win national awards – The Bay Citizen is planning to merge with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Though the merger may still fall through, reports have suggested it is necessary to alleviate a contentious environment at the non-profit, where executives and reporters are at odds.

The long-term future of the CNC remains unclear as O'Shea has not responded to a request for comment. Thus far, the letter and his quotes to the Times are all he has said publicly.

Here is the full text of the letter:

February 20, 2012

To our readers:

As you might have heard or read by now, the Chicago News Cooperative is suspending its contributions to the Midwest pages of the New York Times and its website effective February 26 so we can reassess our operations and determine if there is a more sustainable path to the future.

Effective next Sunday, the Times pages produced by the CNC will no longer appear in the Friday and Sunday editions of the newspaper and its website. Obviously I’ve taken this step with much pride and regret – pride in the excellent journalism produced by the CNC staff over the past two and one-half years and regret that I could not raise the resources we needed to continue our current level of operations. As the CNC’s editor and CEO, I take full responsibility for this situation.

Unlike similar start-up efforts like the Texas Tribune in Austin, the Bay Citizen in San Francisco and ProPublica in New York, we never recruited the kind of seven figure donations from people of means concerned about the declining quality of news coverage around the country. As a result, CNC never raised the resources to make investments in the business side of our operation that would have generated the revenue we needed to achieve our original goal – a self-sustaining news operation within 5 years.

CNC always has been an experiment in trying to figure out a way to finance accountability journalism, the kind of reporting that many news organizations are abandoning as they struggle with a deteriorating business model and financial problems. This is a very difficult problem especially in major cities and carries ominous implications for a democracy.  An organization dedicated to public service journalism is an indispensible civic asset, and we remain committed to finding some possible answers.

In the coming days and weeks, we will be examining our potential to see if we can identify an alternative path and preserve some of the journalistic assets we have developed. Continued support is welcome and would help us figure out the best path for CNC.
 
The decision to suspend operations was motivated by some complex factors and unresolved questions regarding our tax status and a change in circumstances that triggered questions about the economic wisdom of commitments between the CNC and the New York Times. Frankly, the situation is too complex to discuss in any detail in a note like this. Unfortunately, reports riddled with errors still get wide circulation on the Internet, and the reporting on our problems was no exception.

Early stories and Twitter posts on our problems were inaccurate.  The reporting was sloppy and simply reinforced in my mind the need for solidly reported, well-edited journalism, the kind that professional CNC journalists have been doing on our website and in the New York Times since November, 2009.  I can assure you that most of the people involved worked incredibly hard and in good faith to come up with some solutions to the cash shortage that threatens our future

I promise to keep you posted on our plans as we wrestle with these issues in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, I would like to deeply thank all of you who have supported us over the past two and one-half years, particularly the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, our largest donor; The New York Times, our second largest supporter; the CNC board, especially its chairman, John Canning; everyone who has donated individually both large and small and the staff of the CNC, whose work is simply heroic.

Thanks and regards,

James O’Shea
Editor and CEO
Chicago News Cooperative.