Saturday, July 26, 2008

Whither Tribune? Withered ...

Did the dinosaurs disappear so quickly? Did they roam the earth for all those eras and then, in the span of a few months, just suddenly start dropping like flies?

And what, exactly, spells extinction to a dinosaur? Something cataclysmic, like an asteroid, or something microscopic, like the virus behind the common cold?

It's been more than a decade since I walked the halls of the Chicago Tribune but once you're part of the Tribune, it is part of you forever. I used to quip that the Trib was the Hotel California of journalism: you could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.

Turns out, I wasn't joking.

I, like many, was intrigued by the notion of a real-estate mogul taking the paper private. I, like many, waited to see what he would bring to the waning fête, waited to see what libation he would hoist over his head as he walked through the door at 3 a.m. to rouse the party back to life.

It was an idea that seemed so crazy, it just might work. The old model was broken, so why not smash it entirely and build something new? Really rethink the status quo, not just turn in another redesign. Actually write a good report, as it were, not try to distract the teacher with a fancy cover on a rehashed effort.

Maybe newspaper people were too entrenched to innovate their way out of their outmoded thinking. Maybe the foul-mouthed maverick was a shot of adrenaline into the heart of a dying estate.

Or maybe not.

The man who said he would not cut his way to innovation started announcing cuts. He blamed worse-than-expected ad revenue. But a toddler with a Magic 8 Ball could have predicted this downturn. Hadn't he been reading the paper?

Maybe not.

When I received an e-mail alert that the editor of the paper was resigning, my jaw momentarily hit the floor, allowing the escape of an "Oh my God!" And then I realized that I wasn't actually surprised. When your professional life is built on ethics and then your new boss starts heaving the establishment out the window, you see the writing on the bathroom wall and you get out. You don't stick around to be sullied.

When I heard Maury Possley on NPR, I got a little misty. That a Pulitzer Prize winner feels the need to walk away from his long-standing professional home makes me sad. But he's smart enough to know that you can't cut your way to innovation. Innovation requires morale.

One of my friends who remains employed – for now, anyway – told me today that through the doom and gloom, he's seeing more innovation than he's ever seen, that crises have a way of focusing minds. Maybe. When times are tough, someone always figures out a way to feed a family with whatever's in the cupboard.

But shouldn't one of the most venerable newspapers in the world be able to do more than find a way to simply survive?

My brain continues to grapple with how all of this could unravel so quickly. When I was there, the paper celebrated its sesquicentennial, 150 years of history. Now, 11 years later, I wonder how much longer it will last. Surely, a newspaper as renowned, as storied as the Chicago Tribune will weather this economic climate, this revenue drought, right?

Maybe. Then again, the Titanic was an unsinkable ship.

I know that the only constant is change. Innovate or die. What worked in 1847 or 1937 or even 1987 doesn't necessarily work today. Cars and people need new parts. Nothing lasts forever.

But at the end of the day, no amount of young blood can fully take the place of the intelligence and integrity that is seeping out of that gothic tower. Some have the opportunity to walk out the door, others are being kicked down the stairs, but they all leave gaping voids.

For many, it is simply time to go while others wonder when their moment will come. The pain and sadness brought on by a long-time lover who one day reveals a side you thought you'd never see. And it breaks your heart. Because it's more than ink on paper.

To selectively quote Nelson Algren from Chicago: City on the Make:

"You'll know at last that ... something went wrong ...
and divided your heart.
Leaving you loving the joint for keeps.
Yet knowing it can never love you."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Within a year there will be a number of newspapers we have taken for granted for our entire lives, which will no longer exist. And many will be big-city papers. At the same time, cities like Chicago, which once supported four daily newspapers, will shockingly barely support one. I was a newspaper reporter and editor for 18 years (including some years at the Trib). Ten years ago, concerned about mergers and buyouts and other ominous moves, I jumped to TV. I have many colleagues who are former newspaper people, too. Now, my colleagues and friends who still work at papers, including the Trib, mainly discuss which ones will survive. I can imagine that must be frustrating for newspaper people who know about the amazing, innovative work going on. I read the New York Times, Boston Globe and Hartford Courant every day, along with USA Today and the Washington Post. I'm blown away by some of the reporting and writing I see. Your friend is right ... there is some amazing work being done out there. I just wish more people would see it.

And I rue the day newspapers go away.

6:59 PM  

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