Saturday, May 02, 2009

Turns Out, You Can ...

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I worked for the Chicago Tribune. (Most of my readers know that, but I mention it for the benefit of those finding this blog for the first time, who need context for the title of this post and the ensuing rambling. Cue the rambling ... .)

I used to call the Tribune "The Hotel California of Journalism," as in "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

I "checked out" in 1997 but the Trib stayed with me. For years afterward, I would refer to "we" when talking about the paper, as though it was still part of my life. Because, really, it was. Not actively, of course, but nearly five years in those storied halls had soaked into my psyche. All experiences become a part of the fabric of our being, but the Tribune was more than just a job.

And when I would return to meet up with friends or to bid a retiree farewell, I would walk through the 5th-floor features department and feel as though I'd never left. I still recognized most of the faces at most of the desks and those faces recognized me.

But last night, I arrived at the Tower to drop off chocolate chip cookies for some friends in sports (and the newsroom in general) and it felt familiar and foreign at the same time.

The 4th-floor newsroom was remodeled years ago, made more camera-ready for its regular appearances on CLTV and the WGN news. (Synergy, don't you know?)

When I worked there, the newsroom, the heart of which is a very high-ceilinged two-story space, was a dingy white with large black desks and carpet that would be vacuumed by very nice Polish ladies, though often at the most inopportune times, like when we were on deadline and trying to communicate with each other.

Now, the newsroom is decidedly more beige. Walls have been torn down. Sports is located where graphics used to be. I don't know where graphics has gone. Small desktop TV sets have been replaced by a bank of flat-panels on the wall. It's the same newsroom (the bathrooms are still in the same place), but it's different.

Of course, the paper itself is different. The staff is heartbreakingly smaller. Heartbreaking because I really adored the people I worked with, and it's sad that circumstances have led to the hemorrhage of so much knowledge and talent.

Newspapers, as we are all too well aware, are experiencing excruciating growing pains. The business model that made so much sense for so long has vanished and papers need to find their bearings in a world where news is disseminated, non-stop, in a variety of ways. My friend Steff recently said that this is the awkward teen phase for newspapers. I love that analogy. Newspapers will figure out their place in the world again. But for now, awkward rules the day.

I had no reason to visit the 5th floor, nor any reason to expect that anyone would still be working at that hour on a Friday. Then again, almost everyone I knew on that floor has left the newspaper business for a new career, or retired, or taken a buyout, or been let go.

So I made my way to the lobby to turn in my guest badge and paused by the door to text Doreen about the next phase of the evening.

I heard the revolving door begin to turn and looked up to see one of my former friends. He paused briefly, registering that he was in fact seeing me, stepped into the lobby and said, "Hi, sweetie." And then went on his way. No follow-up "What brings you by?"

But I told him anyway: "I brought baked goods. They're at the sports desk."

Which is no longer the sports desk. It's the sports area, a sea of beige cubicles in which the employees could just as easily be selling insurance.

Almost everything about the place has changed.

But it surely doesn't feel like progress.


Blogger Mercurie said...

It really does pain me to see what newspapers are going through these days. And I am so afraid that more of the giants in the business are going to disappear. I grew up reading papers. And while I can read a lot of them online these days, I still prefer the feel of newsprint in my hands.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Rick Hamrick said...

I know that the day will come, probably less than 15 years from now, when I will tell my so-far-unconceived grandchildren, sitting on my lap, the story of how we used to all get a pile of cheap paper with easily smeared print on it delivered to our doors. No, not once in awhile, but every single morning of the year.

The eldest of the kids will laugh and claim grandpa is being silly again, but the smartest of them will furrow their brows and wonder what the heck we were thinking, to so-inefficiently deliver news to the populace.

Both will be right: grandpa is innately silly even prior to becoming 'grandpa', and newspapers were inefficient as they died, and also the best we had when they were in their prime. I'll miss them when newspapers are gone, along with Mercurie and many millions of others.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Chas Hartman said...

Hi Beth,

What a great blog post! You really sum up what it's like to be a former newspaper reporter looking back at a job/environment we loved and seeing it go through so many changes. I'm now five years removed from being a newspaper reporter, and many of your thoughts really hit close to home for me.

I look forward to seeing what else you've blogged about. I'm glad we just so happen to have a mutual friend who recommended I check out this blog entry. It's always nice to discover well-written blogs that explore subjects that are of great interest to me!

9:40 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Merc and Rick: Indeed. There's just something about settling in with the paper on a Sunday morning (or any other day of the week, for that matter, but Sunday is a different animal).

And thanks, Chas. Good to "meet" you. Who's our mutual friend?

10:19 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Ah, Anna is our mutual friend. I just saw her Twitter feed.

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your friend Steff is in fantasy land. Newspapers most certainly did have teenage growing pains, but they were many, many decades ago.

They have, in truth, had a great run.

But this is not teenage angst any more. This is the nursing home.

And they are such sad places because everyone knows what happens next.

2:57 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Steff's point, which I agree with, is that newspapers – let's call them news-gathering organizations for the purposes of this comment – will transform into something new.

I agree that newspapers themselves, as physical objects, are going to go away. But the need for people to gather and disseminate news will not.

No matter how many hits TMZ receives on stories about Britney not wearing panties, there will still be people in the world who want actual information. And the people who know how to gather it now are the same people who will know how to gather it later.

I'm OK with reading my news online. But I will be one of the last adopters of a Kindle. I still want actual books in my hands. We'll see how long those last, too.

8:15 AM  

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