‘Robust agenda’ for suburban websites: Guest editors, podcast network

HP NewsTake a look at this week’s edition of the Highland Park News and you’ll see Billy Corgan on the cover: “Musician, Businessman, Editor: Smashing Pumpkins founder Billy Corgan takes over his hometown paper,” reads the headline.

The entrepreneurial rocker is the first “guest editor” in a series of local celebrities taking on weeklong editorships at the Pioneer Press publications in the coming months. Others on tap include author Scott Turow at the Evanston Review, author Elizabeth Berg at the Oak Leaves in Oak Park and chef Norman Van Aken at the Mundelein Review.

“I think the big thing in Highland Park right now is: Why we don’t see the upside from having Ravinia here in the community in terms of how it integrates back into local business? Highland Park is a little bit stuck in 1974 culturally,” opines Corgan, who owns a local tea shop. “My whole rap is we should treat this like a beach town. If you know the tourists are coming in on a weekend, why don’t we have free valet parking over here for nights after a Ravinia show?”

In addition to gracing the covers and celebrating their hometowns, the guest editors suggest stories to be covered. Each also champions a local charity, which gets a full-page ad in the paper. (Corgan chose PAWS, which is opening a location at the Highland Park Petco.)

Robert K. Elder

Robert K. Elder

It’s all part of an effort led by Robert K. Elder, editor-in-chief of Sun-Times Media Local, to rejuvenate the 32 Pioneer Press websites and weeklies and the four suburban dailies he oversees — Aurora Beacon-News, Elgin Courier-News, Naperville Sun and Lake County News-Sun in Waukegan. Though decimated by editorial cutbacks and consolidation under the ownership of Wrapports LLC (parent company of Sun-Times Media), the group is still alive and kicking. “We’re bringing startup energy and innovation to all of our products,” Elder said in an interview Wednesday.

Elder, who joined the company in January 2013 and recently was promoted to the additional role of vice president of digital content, also is launching Sun-Times Media Local Podcast Network, a series of podcasts available on iTunes, SoundCloud and YouTube. “I have a very robust agenda in pushing our digital properties,” he said. “I would love to find talent in the suburbs to host their podcasts on our network.”

Starting Thursday, the network’s initial offerings include:

  • “The Big Questions,” billed as “a show about ideas” featuring interviews with authors, academics, artists and others, hosted twice a month by Elder.
  • “Over the Barrel,” all about craft beers, microbreweries and the beer culture in the suburbs, hosted twice a month by Charles Berman, Ben Meyerson and Rich Bird.
  • “The Advice Show,” conversations about the best and worst advice people have been given, hosted monthly by Elder.

Also on Elder’s agenda is a partnership with Chicago Public Media WBEZ FM 91.5. Sun-Times Media Local reporters will file news stories from the field, starting later this summer.

Elder already has begun what he calls his 80-town “listening tour,” meeting with readers and community leaders from Aurora to Zion to hear what they want from their papers and websites. “Being on the ground and having people interact with you not only improves brand loyalty, but brings people closer to the product and makes them feel invested in it,” he said. “The suburbs don’t get the attention they deserve, but they have this robust, dynamic, engaged readership that’s eager for more.

“As editors or reporters, I don’t think you can sit in an ivory tower and just dictate what news is. That’s part of our strategy of having reporters in the field all the time. It’s a digital-first strategy, but it’s also a practical one. When people are out and about talking to community leaders and readers and police chiefs and mayors — which is exactly what I’m doing — it’s only going to make a better product.”