If your school kills your student newspaper—or you’re laid off—you can keep going. Cheap.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017
[Headline revised July 15, 2020, to include “or you’re laid off.” Because, well, you know.]

If you were asked to lecture 600 high school journalists and their teachers on the state of journalism, what would you tell them? When the Northern Illinois Scholastic Press Association (NISPA) invited me to deliver the keynote address at its annual conference, we agreed to title the talk “Journalism on a (Really Cheap) Shoestring.”

But the underlying message was more subversive: If your school kills your student newspaper, you can continue the mission on your own. Cheap.

You can see the presentation as a YouTube video here. Or hear it as a podcast at the bottom of this page.

Or you can read this essay based on those remarks, delivered at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., April 21, 2017:

If you love journalism—learning stuff and sharing it with other people—odds are good that one of these days you’ll find yourself in a position where you’re not getting a regular paycheck for that work and you don’t have much to do. Maybe you’re on break from classes; maybe you’re a graduate looking for your first job; or maybe you’ll find yourself laid off or otherwise underutilized.

And if you’re one of those people who love journalism so much you just can’t quit, those are times you’ll want to know how to do it on a shoestring.

I’ve found myself in one or another of those categories a number of times since I graduated from college about 40 years ago. Including just a few months ago.

Yes, I’m vice president of a news startup, Rivet Radio. But here’s how being a vice president of a startup sometimes can feel: While you’re waiting to find out if a company’s going to become profitable and become an ongoing concern, the pay’s not always so great—and you can wind up with a lot of free time.

In January, as a new U.S. president took office, I was getting, let’s say, restless.

And so were some of my friends. One of them, a working mother I’d known since she—like you—was in high school, sent me a message on Facebook:

“Every time I looked at Facebook or Twitter today, terrible things were happening in our government. Is there any news source that is keeping track of things that are happening day by day? Just in a bullet-point form? … I need to stay informed, but I need to work, too. If there is a resource you have found or you are doing one, please let me know.”

Well, that’s basically a newscast, right?

I’ve always been something of a newscaster. For instance, here’s something I created at the age of 7.

It was delivered from my living room to another part of my living room by Beany Copter.

I went on to work for my high school newspaper, the Carl Sandburg High School Aquila.

For the first 20 years or so of my adult career after graduating from the University of Illinois, I was a radio newscaster—at an AM/FM combination in Aurora, not far from here; at legendary rock station WXRT in Chicago and later at WNUA, a now-defunct “smooth jazz” station in Chicago.

And in 1998, I made the leap from radio to the internet, with the then-new thing called “chicagotribune.com,” where I launched and produced a daily email newsletter called Daywatch—revolutionary in its time because (1) it was conversational (it read like a radio newscast, surprise, surprise) and (2) it dared to link to websites that weren’t part of the Tribune family.

For the last more-than-a-decade, across several jobs, I’ve continued that tradition of learning things and then linking to them on Facebook and Twitter.

So when my friend—one of several friends with the same concern, in fact—asked after a “news source that is keeping track of things,” I had two thoughts:
  1. Hey, I know how to do that.
  2. What have I been telling job-seekers and others with too much time on their hands to do?
And the answer to that question for more than a decade almost always takes this form: Don’t wait for someone to pay you to do what you love doing. Start a blog and Just Do It.

So, I just did it. I’m going to take you step-by-step through what I did, and how I did it. And as you’ll see, there’s nothing here you can’t do, too. We’ll keep a running tally of what it cost.
  1. I created a blog with a working title of Chicago Public Square on Blogger.com and on Wordpress.com; I wanted to compare the two, both of which are free. (The hard part is picking and tweaking a design—a process that offers near-infinite possibilities and can be hard to quit.) I picked Blogger because I liked the interface better and was able to tweak the design at almost no cost. (I bought a private design, but I could have used one of Blogger’s free designs, too.) Cost of that design: $10. (But it could have been $0.)

  2. I registered the name. ChicagoPublicSquare.com cost $12 a year from Google Domains.

  3. I plugged my Blogger blog into that domain. Cost: $0.

  4. I signed up for a MailChimp service that lets you send up to 12,000 emails a month to 2,000 or fewer subscribers for free. (You can manually create your email in MailChimp, or you can have MailChimp “scrape” your website each day at the same time and automatically send whatever it finds.) Cost: $0.

  5. I made sure a MailChimp “subscribe” box pops up when people visit ChicagoPublicSquare.com. Cost: $0.

  6. I printed up 1,000 business cards—because why not? Cost: $28.65.

  7. I began publicizing it. Basically, this meant telling friends and asking them to tell friends. In my case, some of my friends happen to be in the media biz: Justin Kaufmann on WGN Radio (to my right in the photo), media blogger Robert Feder and Larz, the mystery man who runs the Chicagoland Radio and Media website. But the principle is the same: Your friends can be—and can grow—your audience. Cost: $0.

  8. Actually, I left out a Step 0: Get a lot of friends. If you’re not now building a huge list of connections on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest or wherever your friends are hanging these days, get to work on it.

    There’s a reason I’ve given my journalism students extra credit for every 20 Twitter followers they gain. Those connections are golden when you apply for a job or launch a new project. Employers look at your followings and see dollar signs: “10,000 people this person could bring us? Cool.” And in my case, my thousands of Facebook and Twitter friends provided the core audience for my startup. Cost: $0.
OK, so where are we? Total expenditures to launch Square: $50.65. That’s lawnmowing or babysitting money. And, as you’ll remember, even those expenses were optional.

And that’s it. Oh, one more thing: Sending to that many people every weekday has pushed me into MailChimp’s tier for paid customers. So that’s $15 a month. Total costs so far, as of April: $65.65 (plus another $15 a month to come). Still: Allowance money.

But here’s the good news: At least a few of my friends get it. They see the value in advertising in Chicago Public Square, because they know it reaches smart and involved people who care about Chicago and the world. And so I have a few advertisers and potential advertisers. They don’t pay much yet, but they’ve paid enough that I can say Square has turned a profit—if you discount the value of my work to $0.

And that work isn’t easy. I decided to make Square a five-days-a-week newsletter, beamed up and blasted out by MailChimp each morning at 10. I begin around 7:30 or 8 and work until MailChimp sucks up the website and sends it out. It’s an intense couple of hours because there’s so much news to share in this Era of Trump. But one advantage of having MailChimp sweep the site precisely at 10 is that I have to stop.

One of the downsides of working on the web is that it makes real one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous quotes: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” If I didn’t have that deadline, I’d have a hard time moving on.

What is the work?

I’ve created some original content—like the first video tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s newly renovated landmark Unity Temple in Oak Park (conducted with just an iPhone, a microphone and a friend to hold the camera), a piece on how to get hired in the media business, and broken news of a Chicago celebrity’s guest shot in the Dick Tracy comic strip.

But Square is primarily a newscast by email—need-to-know items from the nation and the world and the region, important or interesting for Chicago-area readers.

And how I find those items is something you can do for any subject—whether it’s a sports team, a local school, or your favorite element on the periodic table:

I follow smart and knowledgeable people on Twitter and Facebook. In my case, that includes many of the Chicago- and Washington-based journalists I know personally. But it also includes many I don’t know, but whose work I respect—like David Fahrenthold, who, as Harvard’s Neiman Journalism Lab put it, went from tweeting pictures of his notepad to winning a Pulitzer Prize.

For you, that could be experts in Ultimate Frisbee. Or reporters covering your local school board or your high school sports teams.

Whatever your specialty, follow the experts. Then let the app Nuzzel know who you follow on Twitter and Facebook, and it serves up the articles they’re sharing. And then you get to look smart by sharing them and commenting on them and eventually becoming more of an expert yourself in the process. And then, you have a blog that people who care about your subject matter will want to follow.

Side note: Nuzzel also lets you generate a free email newsletter, but you don’t have as much control over graphics and content as you do if you use Blogger or WordPress.

So, back to Chicago Public Square:

If the number of subscribers keeps growing steadily, the value of the ads I might sell—and the work I do to justify them—will grow.

So: What have I done that you can’t do yourself?


I’m guessing most of you are here because your schools value journalism; they have a student newspaper and teachers who advise you.

But I’m here to share a radical notion, students. The wonderful thing about this era of communication is this: If your schools cut those programs—and, sadly, that’s happening in a lot of places—or if you just find yourself not fitting in with the programs that exist, or just impatient to strike out on your own, you can keep going without them:

Start a blog, tie it to an email list, and keep reporting. (And you don’t have to do it daily; you can do it whenever the news dictates, or whenever you feel like it.)

You can do that … on a shoestring.
• • •

But before I sign off, a few words on how to do all of this well.

Writing counts. People know good writing from bad writing, even if they’re not writers themselves. Be a good writer—the most important skill of all.

Style counts. Even if most people don’t know AP style, they have an innate sense of what looks professional and what doesn’t. To anyone who’s ever read a book, newspaper or magazine, randomly capitalized words and commas and periods outside quotation marks just look weird. Develop your sense of style and stick to it. In doubt? Can’t afford an AP Stylebook? Go to AP’s website, search for a word or phrase and see how AP handles it.

Metrics count. (This is another whole speech.) Your subject line determines whether anyone opens your email; learn about your audience from those headlines that work best. And study what readers click on when they open your email; if the thing at the bottom gets the most clicks, your readers are suggesting maybe it should have been at the top, and in the subject line—or that the things higher up in the issue didn’t have the best hooks.

Remember: The sky’s the limit. Your blog and email services can link anywhere: To the competition, to your own work. To text, to video, to audio, to photo galleries you create. The hard part, as da Vinci might agree, is deciding what not to do.

Thanks for listening. Go out there, have fun and do good.

Hear this presentation as a podcast.

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