Chicago Public Square: I built it for free, and you can do the same

Saturday, September 24, 2022
On Sept. 22, 2022, I was invited to talk to members of the Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion congregation via Zoom about the story behind the story of the creation of Chicago Public Square. The thrust of my message was this: Virtually for free, I created this email newsletter for people who live in and care about the Chicago region, and you—or anyone you know—can do the same for any subject matter about which you’re passionate.

You can see edited video excerpts here or read the rough transcript below.

Charlie Meyerson 0:00
All right, I want to take you back to early 2017. Donald Trump was just taking office and I had some time on my hands. I was then, as I am still, vice president of editorial and development at Rivet, which is a smartphone app that aspired to reinvent radio news. But it had become mainly a job in which I was of counsel. I like to refer to myself at Rivet as the complainer-in-chief or nagger-in-chief. Anyway, early in 2017, I was getting restless. And I had some time on my hands. As it turns out, some of my friends were getting restless, too—one of them, a working mother I’d known since she was in high school. She sent me a message on Facebook with some measure of desperation: “Every time I looked at Facebook or Twitter, terrible things were happening in our government. Is there any news source that’s keeping track of things that are happening day by day, just in bullet form? And if there’s a resource you found or you’re doing one, please let me know.”

Well, that’s basically a newscast, rounding up the news. And that’s something I’ve always kind of been—a newscaster. This is something I created when I was 7 years old, delivered to my living room from another part of my living room—by Beany Copter. Some of you may remember this ad … [ad plays]

I still have my Beany Copter—although it’s cracked. There, in the middle of the propellers, was a little tiny compartment you could fold up and put a piece of paper in, and I delivered that thing you saw from one part of the room to another part of the room. My mom no doubt read it.

So I went on to work at my high school newspaper, the Sandburg Aquila. And for the first 20 years or so of my adult career, after graduating from the University of Illinois, I went on to be a radio newscaster—first at an AM/FM combination in Aurora. And then it was on to WXRT. 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, where I launched and produced a daily email newsletter called Daywatch, which was revolutionary in its time because it was conversational—read like a radio newscast, surprise, surprise—and it dared to link to the websites that weren’t part of the Tribune family. It was a comprehensive news roundup. That’s a practice that stopped shortly after I left the Tribune family.

For more than a decade now, since then, across several jobs, I’ve continued that tradition of learning things and then sharing them—not via Beany Copter, but now on Facebook and Twitter.

And 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 a couple of thoughts: One was, “Hey, I know how to do that.” And the other was, “What have I been telling job seekers and others with too much time on their hands to do when they come to me asking for job advice?” 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.”

And so, I just did it.

And because, as much as anything, Chicago Public Square was designed as a demonstration project to show others how they can launch a media brand or regular coverage of any subject, I’m going to take you step-by-step through what I did and how I did it. As you’ll see, there’s nothing here anyone can’t do. And maybe it’ll inspire you—or inspire you to inspire someone you know—to do something very much like this. As a bonus, we’ll keep a running tally of what it cost me to launch Chicago Public Square—which as you’ll see, is virtually nothing.

Step one, I created a blog with a working title of Chicago Public Square on and on These are two of the most venerable blogging sites on the internet. And I wanted to compare the two, both of which are free to start. The hard part is picking and tweaking a design. That’s a process that offers near-infinite possibilities. And it can be hard to walk away from that. I picked Blogger in the end because I liked the interface better and I was able to tweak the design at almost no cost.

I bought a private design. But I could’ve used one of Blogger’s free designs. The cost of that design was $10. But it could have been $0.

I came up with and registered the name Chicago Public Square. You can buy from Google domains for $12. (I did not buy That’s purely for demonstration purposes.) Okay, I’m up to $22.

So I plugged my Blogger blog into that domain. Cost: Zero. Still $22. Which I really didn’t have to pay.

Then I signed up for a free Mailchimp service that at that point let you send about 12,000 emails a month to 2,000 or fewer subscribers for free. Now, that’s since changed; you get 500 contacts with 2,500 email sends a month and a limit of 500 per day. But even that would have been good enough to get me going.

You manually can 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 on your website. And if it finds nothing, it doesn’t send anything. Again, additional cost of this: Zero. Still at 22 bucks.

I made sure a Mailchimp subscribe box pops up when people visit So, as I told people, “Come see what I’ve done at,” they’d get a little reminder: “Hey, sign up to get still no additional cost.” Still at 22 bucks, which I didn’t have to pay.

OK, here I got extravagant: I printed up 1,000 business cards because why not? Cost of that? 28 bucks and 65 cents. So now I’m up to $51. Again, all optional expenses.

Here’s where, you know, I had an advantage that others might not have: I began publicizing it. Basically, that meant telling my friends and asking them to tell their friends. Now in my case, some of my friends happened to be in the media business. Media blogger Robert Feder, who’s most recently retired—but back then, and still to this day, has a big following if he chooses to use it. He was kind enough to write about Square. Lars, the mystery man who ran the Chicagoland Radio and Media website and email newsletter that has since gone away. And Justin Kaufman, who at that point was working at WGN Radio, and now he’s working for Axios Chicago. Justin had me on, I talked about it and got a few dozen new subscribers—after being on WGN Radio, where I used to work. You might not have friends in the media—or, you know, someone else who’s launching an email newsletter might not have friends in the media—but the principle is the same: Your friends can be and can help grow your audience. Cost of this kind of publicity: $0.

I left out Step Zero: Get a lot of friends. If you aspire to follow my lead—or if someone you know is aspiring to follow my lead, and that person is not now building a huge list of connections on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Instagram and Snapchat, Pinterest or wherever friends are hanging out—they should get to work on it. There’s a reason that, when I teach journalism, I give my students extra credit for every 20 Twitter followers they gain over the course of a semester. Those connections—people who follow you—are golden in undertaking any new communications venture, or when you’re hired by someone else at a more established organization. And in my case, my thousands of connections on Facebook and Twitter made up the core audience for my startup. And they helped drive circulation from zero at the end of January to almost 800 in a few weeks—early April. Cost: Zero.

So where are we? Total expenditures to launch Chicago Public Square: $50.65, rounding up to $51. And as you remember, even those expenses were optional. And that’s it. Except for one more thing: Sending to that many people every weekday in the course of a couple of months pushed me into Mailchimp’s tier for paid customers. So that was $15 a month. Total cost two months in: 66 bucks or so. But that’s a good problem to have, more people signing up. And you begin to see, well, OK, if I reach this many people, there may be ways to monetize this. In the years since launch, circulation has grown a bit. I now pay Mailchimp, partly because it’s raised its rates to almost 70 bucks a month. But more on that in a bit.

Once I’d assembled a growing audience, a few advertisers stepped forward—friends in some cases. And that wasn’t coming close to compensating me for my work—about three or four hours a day—but it was something and I loved it. And, as my family knows, it’s compulsive behavior, money be damned. So I did it for about a year for free, virtually, with a few ads along the way. But after about a year, in February 2018, I launched a program modeled more or less after public broadcasting. “Do you like this? Is it worth anything to you?” Subtext: What would you pay me to keep me from quitting?

And I didn’t launch a paywall. In my consulting work, I tell content creators that building an audience is Job No. 1 and paywalls cripple that mission.

So, actually to my surprise over the last five and a half years, even as circulation has grown steadily, a pretty dependable 15 or 16% of the audience has chipped in $5 to $7 a month per person to keep me doing this work. That covers the costs and gives me enough lunch money to not have to beg my wife on occasion for an infusion of cash. And it’s a nice little part-time job.

But the work isn’t easy, and it is intense.

I decided to make Square a five-days-a-week newsletter, beamed up and blasted out by Mailchimp every morning at 10 a.m. I begin around 7:30 or 8 and I work until Mailchimp sucks up the website and sends it out. And those hours are jam-packed because there’s so much news in the eras of Trump and a pandemic and so much more everything-everywhere-all-at-once for the last few years. But one advantage of having Mailchimp sweep the site precisely at 10 is that I have to stop. At least, there’s not much point in working after 10 because the email’s already gone out.

One of the downsides of working in digital media is it makes real one of my favorite quotes: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” If I didn’t have that deadline. I’d have a hard time moving on from the work—because, “Oh wait! Something just happened! I can tweak the newsletter, hang on just another 5 or 10 minutes.” And I’d be working on it all day and it might never go out.

So what is the work? The lovely thing about an email newsletter and a blog/website is that it’s a platform that can support virtually all kinds of creative media including original reporting like this, early on: The first video tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s then newly renovated landmark Unity Temple in Oak Park, which was conducted with just an iPhone, a microphone and a friend who held the phone as I did this:

[Video excerpt plays] 13:41

CM: 14:00
… a podcast series

… and even a short-lived award-winning newscast series.

I loved that. It was a return to my broadcasting roots, but I abandoned it after 60 episodes—enough to win an award. It demanded a lot of time, and the audience wasn’t growing anywhere near as fast as the email newsletter’s was.

One of the greatest joys of my now 5 1/2 years doing Chicago Public Square has been my all-too-brief partnership with Oak Parker—and for a time, long before Square was born, my fellow hockey dad—Keith J. Taylor. Keith was our relentless, insightful and hilarious breaking-news cartoonist whose work for Square won him a 2020 Chicago Headline Club Peter Lisagor Award for best illustration, and—not long after his death in December 2021—Chicago Reader readers’ Best of Chicago Award for Best Comics Illustrator. Brilliant, hilarious, funny, insightful, unrelenting, he’d send me a dozen cartoons in a day. The hardest part of working with him was deciding which of his breaking-news cartoons to run.

For the most part, Square’s an email news roundup: Need-to-know items from the nation and the world and the region, important or interesting or significant for Chicago-area readers. And how I find those items is something that you can do for any subject—whether it’s a sports team, a local community, your favorite element on the periodic table—even if you don’t have an email newsletter, or a blog or a media presence of any sort.

A lot of my friends are quick to poo-poo Twitter and Facebook. I find them both very rewarding experiences, although I use them differently than a lot of people do. I follow smart and knowledgeable people on Twitter and Facebook. On Twitter in particular, I don’t necessarily follow friends or relatives. In my case, the focus is on many of the Chicago and Washington and national journalists I know personally, or whose work I know and respect. Like, for instance, David Farenthold—who, as Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab put it, went from tweeting pictures of his notepad to winning a Pulitzer Prize.

For you, the lineup of people you follow could be experts in nuclear physics, or knitting or pickleball, or whatever interests you. But follow smart people. And then whatever the field, wherever the experts or wherever your social cluster is, you let apps like TweetShelf, or know. You give them your Twitter account and who you follow on Twitter. And it serves up the articles that they are sharing. In my case, I get to see what some of the smartest journalists in the world are sharing. And then I get to look smart by sharing what they’re sharing and commenting on them. And eventually, if I actually read them, become more of an expert myself in the things that they are sharing. It’s a great way to take advantage of the collective intelligence of social media without getting too deep in the weeds yourself. And the nice thing is, you can see at a glance, as you can see here, how many people are tweeting something. It gives you a gauge of just how appealing, engaging, interesting or significant a piece of news is.

So all of this work—the gathering, the information, creating media, sending out a daily email news blast—has paid off in a number of ways since 2017, with honors and recognition. And in the years since its launch, Square has evolved a bit: New typography and a reader support program.

But it’s basically the same idea I had at the start—and by start, I mean 1998 at the Tribune. It’s Chicago’s new front page, and I hope you have a chance to check it out. Subscribe for free. If you like it, tell your friends, tell your enemies, tell people about whom you’re ambivalent. And that’s where we are. That’s the end of my presentation.

Now questions, complaints, criticism?

Alan Hoffstadter 19:51
I’m more disconnected than most. I don’t use Twitter. I’m not particularly happy with Facebook.

CM 20:04
Why? Why? Why not?

AH 20:06
Too much information. TMI.

Yeah, once upon a time, I prided myself—I’m looking back to 2016 and before that—on not unfriending anybody on Facebook. And, as 2017 dawned, it was pretty clear that a lot of those people were going to be more trouble than they were worth. So I unfriended them. And the result has been, for me, a consistently enlightening experience on Facebook, I actually do spend time on Facebook looking at what people share—much more so than on Twitter, where, as I explained, I let these other apps filter. I think if you’re not on Twitter, you should be on Twitter, even if it’s just to follow a few people you respect—you know, whether they are academic experts or politicians or journalists or communicators or authors. And then again, if even that experience on Twitter is too much for you, these other services are great at just saying, “Hey, the people you respect are sharing them.”

AH 21:17
Anybody who can give me capsules of what’s happening every day is a delight. And you’re only going to be one of two that I follow. And Eric Zorn is the other one.

CM 21:27
Eric and I are old friends going back to the Tribune, and he and I actually—we feed on one another. I mean, I often will link to his blog, and he will link to mine, and Eric does a great job. I helped Eric launch his first blog at the Tribune, because that was one of my jobs back at the Tribune. Yeah, you know, it’s one of the subtexts of what I do. And there are others like it, including Axios Chicago and City Cast Chicago: “We read the news, so you don’t have to” …

AH 22:06
Thank you.

CM 22:08
… sort of the subtitle for what I do. Well, the great feedback is certainly welcome. You know, good, bad, indifferent. One of the things I didn’t talk about—and one of the things I tell people who are concerned about fake news or their news sources—is: Look for sites that accept and make corrections. That’s a fundamental distinction in my mind between the good guys and gals, and the bad ones. And one of the salient features of Chicago Public Square is, “Did we make a mistake? Send us corrections.” Some of my journalist friends think I go overboard in taking corrections on punctuation and spelling, but, you know, for me, it’s a reward to know that people are paying that much attention to what I do, and then taking time to tell me that I made a mistake. Corrections are, perversely, a way of sort of encouraging me to keep doing it.

Doug Fager 23:08
How do we avoid being in a self-reflective echo chamber? How can your site ensure that it’s bringing a diversity of opinion?

CM 23:25
Well, I gotta tell you, it’s a challenge in this age. You know, I like to say that I will follow anyone who is authoritative and rational. And there ain’t a lot of rationality on what some of us might consider to be the other side. And yet, there are some reliable, rational conservatives out there. And I follow them, and I’m happy to link to them when they say something that is relevant or engaging for Chicago. And I encourage everyone … to be proactive in seeking people who might have different perspectives, but who argue rationally and intelligently about those other perspectives. It’s getting harder and harder to find Republicans—to be precise, you know, rational Republicans. The party has boiled down to a seething mass of hatred. So it’s very difficult.

DF 24:46
You’re not getting pushback from readers—at least not much pushback from a large portion of readers—because they’re kind of in sync with your view of the world and that’s partly why they’re there?

CM 24:56
Every once in a while, I get an unsubscribe note. And one I got recently inspired me to have some T-shirts made. Imagine I’m holding it up: On the front, it has the Chicago Public Square logo; on the back, it says “Leftist claptrap.” So every once in a while, I get one. Most people will just unsubscribe and say No reason given. But every once in a while, someone will type in a reason and, you know, people who find what I do to be less than subservient to the former president and his followers will object and let me know in no uncertain terms. And I think these T-shirts will be very popular. The box just arrived yesterday. So … some but not much. I mean, that’s the joy of email. It’s free. If you don’t like it, unsubscribe. I’d rather have people keep reading; I’d rather have people write in. When people write back with rational objections or counterpoints, I’m happy to, you know, publish letters to the Chicago Public Square mailbag—often at the bottom of our email. But I don’t get a lot of emails.

DF 26:18
When I’m reading The New York Times, some of the most interesting reading is what people have to say about the story—what they might like, or what they disagree with in this story.

CM 26:29
If you go to—and there’s a link at the top of every email that says, see today’s edition on the web, or read it in your browser—there is at the bottom of every post, “Comment on this story. It’s a Facebook widget, so I think you need to be a Facebook user to comment. So you can certainly comment on Chicago Public Square there. Or you can just reply to any edition of Square in your email, and I will get that. It won’t let the world see it, but the stories that I linked to can be commented on if the websites that are hosting those stories allow comments. Sadly, Chicago’s main news websites—the Tribune, the Sun-Times, the TV stations—don’t allow comments anymore. When I was at the Tribune we did. But it’s a lot of work to manage those message boards and to keep hate and ignorance at bay. So, especially as the economy has become tough for newspapers—and radio stations and increasingly TV stations—they’re not staffing that kind of service anymore. That’s where the Facebook plugin becomes a little of a labor-saver—in that you have to play within Facebook’s borders, which are still pretty liberal. But at least you generally have to have an account, and so, if you do something truly reprehensible, you can be blocked or shut down.

But again, in Chicago Public Square, frankly, I had hoped at the beginning that there would be a lot more input from readers and I had hoped that there would be a more robust discussion within the pages of Chicago Public Square, within the email of Chicago Public Square, that we’d have a letter section regularly, but I don’t get that many comments. Which is okay. I mean, it’s as much as anything a utility. People are reading it and opening it and getting their news and coming back the next day. If that makes them happy, and they don’t need to comment, I’m okay with that.

AH 28:41
That’s an interesting point, Charlie. I read the Tribune, electronically, daily. And, when I like something that a columnist—well, used to be a lot more columnists …—I’ve written them on a number of occasions. I’ve even written the photographers and I have to tell you, nobody’s writing them. If you feel uncomfortable that you’re not getting anything, I can tell you that some very important people at the Tribune don’t often get things either and are delighted to hear from us. Because it means somebody who doesn’t necessarily have newsprint on their fingers is looking at their stuff and saying, “Oh, that was great” and encouraging them to do it again. I get such nice, you know, comments back from people. The last one I wrote was Nina Metz and then I got a lovely— That was the last one I can remember. So don’t feel bad that you’re not getting any response.

CM 29:54
I absolutely understand that. And, you know, people have lives. You know, people don’t write fan letters to TV shows that they watch religiously, they don’t write letters to radio hosts that they listen to, or even podcasts they listen to. So I’m fine with that. I’m delighted when somebody tells me, as somebody did today, “You left a period off at the end of the sentence.” Because that tells me this is someone who is paying rapt attention to what I’m doing. And that’s excellent feedback.

DF 30:30
So I was wondering how much your traffic drives what you decide to link to. It’s a chicken-and-egg question. You know, who’s driving whom?

CM 30:43

It’s a little bit of each. Because I don’t know that everybody’s aware of this, and you should probably know it, and I wish I could turn off this information: When somebody clicks on a link in one of my emails—almost any email newsletter you get, certainly those sent by Mailchimp—Mailchimp makes available to the creators of that email a list of people who clicked on that link. OK, I would prefer not to know which individuals clicked on like; I’d prefer just to know 27 people clicked on this link, 300 people clicked on this link, that would be much better for me. I wish Mailchimp didn’t give me that information. If you’re at all squeamish about having somebody know that you clicked the link—and, on the one hand, I don’t think you should be; I mean, if you’re the sort of person who is willing to write a letter, it’s like sending a little note, “Hey, I thought that was interesting.” … But if you’re all squeamish about it, there are services you can use to avoid that.

But to get back to your point, one of the joys of creating this, going back to my days at the Tribune when this was brand-new stuff, was to be able to say—and I’ve done consulting on this—OK, in an email newsletter, we have 30, links. And in a perfect world, where every link is as interesting as the others—can’t miss, gotta click, gotta read this—if they were all equally interesting, which would be the most clicked?

DF 32:36

The one easiest to reach up front, I suppose.

CM 32:42
Number one, the first one. Which would be the least clicked?

DF 32:45
I suppose the last.

CM 32:48
Yeah. People get called away, you know, the baby’s crying, gotta make breakfast, you know, you gotta do something else. But you know, if every one was can’t resist, you gotta click this—and that’s, of course, what I and anyone who creates email aspire to do—the interesting thing is, when the click patterns diverge from that, when the most-clicked link is at the bottom, that’s a revelatory moment for content creators. It says, you know, “Hey, Charlie, you thought this was among the least interesting, or at least significant, but, you know, your audience is telling you they’re really, really interested in this. And so next time, Charlie, and consider putting it higher, where even more people will see it, or maybe lead with it next time.”

An example this week: Chris Redd, who’s a longtime, five-year member of the Saturday Night Live cast, is retiring. (I misspelled his name; a number of people wrote to tell me I had Rudd. I’m gonna blame autocorrect for that.) It was at the bottom, or very close to the bottom It was the most clicked link, or one of the most clicked links, in the issue. And this is a pattern I’ve seen: Saturday Night Live is one of those things that—for my audience, at least—is of widespread interest. Should I have led with that? I don’t think so. Because my mission, in my mind, is news that’s going to have some significant long-term impact on society. I, you know, have slightly loftier aims than that. Had I led with it, it probably still would have been the most clicked link in the issue, and it probably would have been clicked on by even more readers. But it’s a reminder to me: Hey, next time there’s Saturday Night Live news, do include it.

I’m not alone in this. This is an industry-wide trend: News engagement overall—whether it’s The New York Times, The Washington Post or Chicago Public Square—has dropped since Joe Biden became president. Everything is just a little less intense. There’s still plenty of intensity. But even so, when I link to—let’s say blunt—content about President Trump, those often are among or are the most-clicked links in the issue. There is still for my audience, at least—in Chicago, frankly, probably more traditionally liberal—a lot of interest in seeing Donald Trump get his comeuppance, or maybe get his comeuppance, or be threatened with his comeuppance. So that kind of thing also bounces to the top. And so it’d be very easy to do nothing but Donald Trump news. But today’s edition—let me call it back—actually, I’ll look at my metrics from today …

The most-clicked link in today’s issue was indeed a link that is like the fourth or fifth link down in the issue. You know, it’s even further down than that. The phrasing was “Politico: Five juicy takeaways from the suit,” of the lawsuit against Donald Trump. Words like juicy—that’s a quote from Politico—will drive traffic. And Donald Trump drives traffic. So that’s the most-clicked link in the issue, but it is, let’s see, probably about the 10th link in the issue. And what I led with instead was something that got clicked about 30% less—about Governor Pritzker calling for the resignation of two Democratic state lawmakers accused of wrongdoing—which just happened this morning, I led with that because it was new, a relatively fresh news release that came out around 7 or 7:30. Chicago Public Square came out around 10. I figured a lot of my readers hadn’t seen that. And then the follow-up was State Sen. Emil Jones, who a Sun-Times editorial says sold himself way too cheaply in bribery. And then a story about pink slime—you may have heard about these bogus news organizations that are pretending to be newspapers or websites, but that are sharing bogus information. I thought those were more significant in the long term and relevant to Chicago and Illinois politics than yet another—a big turn of the screw, but yet another turn of the screw—in the ongoing saga of Donald Trump, even though I knew that Trump would be the big appeal. … It’s a little bit like a chef: You know, “People like sugar, how much sugar should I put in here? Should it be on top? Should it be in the middle? Should it be infused?” (I know nothing about cooking. So that metaphor might not be very good.)

Janet Kelenson 38:21
This morning on one of the networks, I was listening to the news, and they featured something about a squirrel invading someone’s home office. And I changed the channel because I wanted to hear real news. So with that Chris Redd piece, I understand that that makes sense to have that in. And I hope that cultural content that’s worthwhile makes it in.

CM 38:57
I’m willing to keep talking. I’ve talked too long. I mean, we’ve been at this about an hour. I’m at your disposal, but I also don’t want people to feel obligated to stick around as I blather on.

JK 39:09
Are there further questions for Charlie? Usually, our guests speak for about an hour or so I think we’re right in the ballpark on that. And we want to thank you for your presentation and your willingness to talk candidly with us. It’s been wonderful. Thank you so much.

CM 39:33
It’s been my honor. Again, I hope you all check it out. And I hope you all let me know when I leave a period off at the end of the sentence.

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