Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Media Conglomerate That Couldn't? ...

How's this for a morale crusher?

The Columbia Journalism Review has published an editorial suggesting that it's time for Tribune to "sell itself out of the newspaper business."

I used to work for the Chicago Tribune. It's hard for me to fathom that I left the paper nearly 10 years ago, but I was there for nearly five. I never planned on staying that long, but, well, life happens.

The year I left the paper, the Tribune's slogan was "We mean the world to Chicago." Hubris? You betcha. Tribune was buying stakes in anything that would sit still, expanding its empire from print and broadcast television to cable and the Internet. The ostentatious Tower seemed as full of self-importance as ever. Most of the editorial operation was centered on the fourth floor. Some offices operated on the fifth floor, which looked like something out of a Mickey Spillane novel.

The fourth and fifth floors were remodeled. The editor's office was placed smack dab in the middle of the action, where the wire room once sat, a lovely wood and glass facade looking out on the bustling 4th-floor newsroom, made pretty for its television debut, complete with a camera in the corner for live interviews and commentary straight from the source. One of my friends, whose back was regularly seen in such shots, suggested he should sell advertising space on the back of his shirt.

My chronology may be fuzzy, but around that same time, I seem to remember that the paper was closing bureaus around the world. "Bureaus" might be a misnomer in today's news world. In more far-flung reaches, a bureau might be an apartment for one reporter. But if the Tribune meant the world to Chicago, how could it close foreign bureaus? One of the paper's selling points was its pride in gathering its own news, unlike its tabloid competitor on Wabash which relied heavily on wire copy.

When I made the decision to leave the company, my announcement was met with both bafflement and secret applause. Management was shocked that I was leaving, my colleagues all but carried me out on their shoulders. But when your job has you swigging cherry-flavored Mylanta straight out of the bottle you carry with you everywhere, it's time for a change.

I'd interned at Chicago magazine (now owned by Tribune) and worked two summers at the Chicago Sun-Times and realized that, for most, working in the media is a plain old job. For most, the hours suck and the work is thankless. You churn out content day after day that gets slightly more than a passing glance by the readership. And the digital age has made newspapers all but obsolete. News programs, too, for that matter. I watch World News with Charles Gibson and I usually know all the stories in the line-up. What I get from the nightly news is analysis, chunked up for me in easily digestible sound bites.

Analysis is what newspapers purport to offer in this immediate-news age. Context. Well, that's great. If people are going to take the time to read it. But who does? There's a reason RedEye exists: It can be scanned on a 20-minute L ride. And it's full of fluff, because, gosh, like, the world is just too serious, you know?

Still, some news orgs are doing things right. The New York Times, the successful older brother that the Tribune has always tried so hard to emulate, is moving into new digs. Its web site is my home page. I bristled at first at the debut of TimesSelect - paying for content?! - but hey, newspapers need to make money online, and advertsing isn't the end all, be all. Classified advertising is a revenue stream that's slowing to a trickle thanks to some guy named Craigslist.

So I've known for a long time that most of my Trib pals aren't in love with the hallowed halls anymore, but the suggestion that the Tribune "sell itself out of the newspaper business" makes my jaw drop. While I was there, the paper celebrated its sesquicentennial (that's 150 years). Ten years later, the stock is struggling and the company is putting assets up for sale.

As a former Tribunite and current friend just wrote:

"In search of a focus right now the Tribune is an entertainment/consumer rag. They play up the Bears, the Cubs (of course) and the hottest band in town or the best face cream. Articles are insipid. There is no vision or leadership.

But was there ever? The Tower will have great condo views."

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