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July 18, 2016, 10:37 a.m.
Business Models

The Daily Line used reader input to develop its niche subscription business covering Chicago politics

“In the news business there’s often this idea that you have to go out and affect tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or more people with your publication. That’s not our mission.”

Mike Fourcher, cofounder and publisher of Chicago’s The Daily Line knows his media business isn’t sexy. And he says he’s okay with that — at least as long as it’s making money.

The Daily Line, known until last week as Aldertrack, is a Chicago-focused newsletter and website aimed at a particularly narrow sliver of political news junkies: the few thousand land developers, contractors, lobbyists, attorneys, and members of labor organizations heavily invested in the Chicago political system.

Trading breadth for depth, the site goes to extreme lengths to cover even the smallest movements in Chicago politics: The site reported on Tuesday, for example, the news that city council’s public safety committee appointed a new director for the office of emergency management and communications. Another story reported the non-movement of a paid sick-leave ordinance in Cook County.

To most Chicago residents, such granular reporting would be excessive, but to The Daily Line’s small, core group of readers, the site’s output offers the kind of information that could mean the difference between winning and losing business. “In the news business there’s often this idea that you have to go out and affect tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or more people with your publication,” Fourcher said. “That’s not our mission.”

The Daily Line is a small, unassuming operation by most standards. The site, with a staff of five, usually publishes just one or two stories a day. Around 5,000 people have signed up to read its daily newsletter, and it currently has a paid subscriber base in the “mid hundreds,” said Fourcher, who added that the site’s ambitions don’t go too far beyond that scale. “We aspire to no more than a few thousand subscribers,” he said. Subscriptions run for $39 a month or $395 a year, with group subscriptions available for organizations.

That doesn’t mean the site wants to remain static, however. The Daily Line’s previous name, Aldertrack, was named after the 50 elected aldermen that help legislate Chicago ordinances and resolutions. It’s a name whose relevance “stops at the border of Chicago,” Fourcher said, which is why it had to change if the company ever hoped to expand beyond the city to Illinois as a whole, or cites in other states entirely.

For a media industry often obsessed with scale, The Daily Line’s relatively small numbers don’t compare to the big guys. The nature of digital ad-driven business models usually pushes publishers to attract the largest possible number of readers. The Daily Line, on the other hand, has made building a close relationship with readers core to both its value proposition and the development of its business model. The site, initially created by Jimm Dispensa in 2007, has relaunched a few times in different forms over the past decade. Its most recent iteration was formed in late 2014, designed around a daily PDF that tracked the movements of the 252 people running for alderman. A few months later, after consulting with roughly its 900-or-so subscribers on what they wanted and were willing to pay for, The Daily Line expanded its mission with the goal of creating content year-round. Subscriber input also drove its decision to expand its coverage to Cook County government and to relaunch the website, adding archive search and the ability to share articles with nonsubscribers.

Fourcher said that The Daily Line’s ability to listen and respond to the needs of its readers is a function of its niche focus and would be much harder to pull off for a site aiming for a much broader audience. “We’ve been very fortunate in that everything that we’ve done has been paid for and encouraged by the people who are reading us,” he said. “We’ve been able to incrementally make changes and experiment as we go along by playing close attention to what our readers want. We spent a lot of time just asking them questions.”

As Fourcher sees it, “mass media lacks a real connection with audience, and even with all kinds of metrics, they are ultimately guessing at what should be covered. Always skating to where the puck is, rather than where it will be. In Chicago terms, it’s the difference between getting burger at Au Cheval and McDonald’s.”

Photo of Chicago city hall by jwkron used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 18, 2016, 10:37 a.m.
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