Making no little plans: The Windy Citizen’s Brad Flora

Combine many sleepless nights, a killer open source platform, and one very ambitious young journalist, and you just might get a kick-ass news site like The Windy Citizen. Brad Flora took the leap from graduate student to publisher when he started the acclaimed Chicago news site The Methods Reporter while still in school. Now he’s going beyond the straight news format and is building a community to foster “A conversation about Chicago.”

His efforts have been written about in the Chicago Tribune, blogged on by McGuire on Media, and picked up on Romenesko. Brad and I sat down for a beer this Monday and talked about his plans.

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Boyer: Chicago’s got a a mess of web sites, from those put up by newspapers and television stations, to indie web outlets and arty zines. The founder, coder and editor in chief of The Windy Citizen, Chicago’s newest news source, is a fella named Brad Flora. Flora’s concept is different. He is creating the sort of democratic, open news organization that could only exist online. He joined me for a beer on a fine and sunny afternoon in Old Town to talk shop.

Flora: The idea is to kind of run the Windy Citizen as a blog network with a news organization resting on top of it. And so the idea is to reach out to and recruit and gather together as many interesting, thoughtful voices here in Chicago — people who want to write about local issues, local ideas, local stuff, and to kind of gather them together in one place, writing on our site, and then to use them to kind of provide interesting, colorful coverage of local news events, by also kind of feeding in freelancers in kind of a distributed news network on top of it.

Boyer: In his vision, the Citizen is much more than an aggregator of blogs, it’s a place for news gatherers to, well, gather and do what they do best, to write stories about their city.

Flora: And we’re building a platform, rather than a newspaper, or rather than a magazine. You know, for instance, on Thursday, I got an email out of the blue with a pretty, a pretty hot tip. And I made some phone calls, to kind of look into it, and verify that this might be an interesting story. I kind of went through my rolodex of underemployed, hungry journalists in Chicago, and I assembled a strike team of people who are each now working on a piece of the story, for free, but in the hopes of, and in the interest, and in the love of reporting out a really awesome story. And it’s the kind of thing that, at the jobs that they’re able to get right now they might not get a crack at this kind of story, because it would go to the old guys, or the old women in the news room.

Boyer: There’s no shortage of young, hungry journalists in Chicago, and among them, Flora’s idea is catching on.

Flora: We have the benefit of it being kind of a contageous concept: This idea of you know, hey, if you want to write, now there is a place for you to go and write about local stuff, and you’ll be in a conversation with other people who are writing about local stuff. And you know, so far, people have responded really well to that.

Boyer: Beyond his rolodex, Flora’s trying to reach a new set of news gatherers, to borrow Dan Gillmor’s term, the former audience. He envisions the community writing the news outside of the newsroom — in groups and forums made available to Chicagoans so that they may organize themselves, and gather and spread the word — a sort of open source journalism. The experiment is how to make that work.

Flora: Yes. Yeah. There’s now, there’s an element of this that I still don’t understand, and don’t have a firm grasp on is, you know, what do you do when you get that tip? You know, if we were really open source, I’d publish that tip, and then I’d say, hey, you guys do what you want with it. And so, we’re still kind of feeling that out. And there may, you know, we’ve been talking with this story, we’re gonna, our plan is to have a couple days of coverage on it, and the first day is gonna be the story. Day two is gonna be video interviews with the main characters in the story. And then, day three is gonna be kind of looking at one of the side issues of the story, and how it impacts people here in Chicago. But then after that, I think, you know, we’re probably gonna toss up a blog post and say here’s what we don’t know. And then promote that pretty heavily to local bloggers and local writers and journalists even, and just see what people do with it.

UPDATE: I botched the spelling of Romenesko.  Also, in the interest of full disclosure — I am not affiliated with the Windy Citizen, though they have published my writing via the Medill News Service, and I have on occasion given Brad technical help, without compensation, since we’re both newsy nerds from Northwestern.