Meet the model 21st-century journalist



  • On assignment in Arabia for Kurtis Productions
In its desperation, journalism has dusted off Renaissance values. Students are told that to earn their keep they'll need to know how to do everything. Prepare yourselves to create content, they're told: to create it fast and on every imaginable platform—the ones we have and the ones we might have in 20 years. And in your spare time, light up the sky with an unending burst of brilliant ideas on how to reinvent the business.

It's a preposterous job description. But the other day I realized I actually know someone like that: my old writing partner.

I certainly don't fit the bill. If I were playing Wheel of Fortune I wouldn't recognize the future if the only letters missing were the e's. I remember the time in the late 70s when the editorial staffs of the Sun-Times, where I worked, and its then sister Daily News were called into a rare joint meeting, and the editorial director for the two papers announced in tones of highest urgency that the company would be spending a couple million dollars to computerize the newsrooms.

I rarely spoke at staff meetings, but I knew a dumb idea when I heard one and I couldn't bite my tongue. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the current system, which involved clattering typewriters, copy clerks racing pages of half-written stories to the news desk, conveyor belts lofting copy to the composing room, and rumbling presses. If we're going to spend that kind of money, I sputtered, we should spend it on some new reporters and actually make the product better.

There are reasons the Sun-Times and I parted company in the late 70s.

Others saw tomorrow more clearly. And no one had more of a bead on it than my Sun-Times colleague Scott Jacobs, whom I now write to identify as the archetypal 21st-century journalist. Scott joined the Sun-Times after I did, left it sooner, and set up shop in the future while I was still honoring my vows to the No. 2 pencil.

In 1976 Scott roped me into a night class in video making. I went straight back to my pencil; but Scott soon turned to making, and marketing, documentaries. (In 1979 he shot the TV ads that elected Jane Byrne mayor of Chicago.) In 1988 he unveiled a new commercial venture—a telephone service that for 35 cents told you both the time and the weather. You ain't seen nothing yet, he told me then. "You're really looking at the telephone becoming a computer terminal. That's five years down the road."

The other day Scott e-mailed me a file: an early look at a PowerPoint presentation he'll be giving at the Apple store at North and Clybourn on the evening of February 5. "They like to bring in designers to talk about what they do and how they use Macs to do it," he explains.

His talk begins: "Thirty years ago, I ran a little video post house not far from here on Webster Street and in 1988, my editors persuaded me to buy a Mac SE. I couldn't figure out what we'd do with it. It came with two pieces of software called MacWrite and MacGraphics—this was before Word and Photoshop—and they said we could put out the Week Behind. At the time, our company printed two sheets of paper every week. On Mondays, management put out a schedule of clients and jobs called 'The Week Ahead.' On Fridays, the staff would put out its own newsletter about things that went wrong called 'The Week Behind.'

"So the first issue printed on the Mac came out in 1988. Our motto was a quote from Alice Roosevelt Longworth: 'If you don't have anything good to say, come sit next to me.' And we printed some pretty hard-hitting journalism . . . Like the boss bought a new can crusher for the kitchen . . ."

As his talk rolls on, his editing house prospers, the equipment gets fancier and fancier, and the Week Behind newsletter turns into a niftily written journal. Then technology begins to overtake him. For, as he says today, "You can't go building half-million-dollar editing rooms when everybody is editing on their laptops." His editing house lasted from 1982 to 2000, when it disappeared in a merger with another house. That house closed three years ago.

But the Week Behind survives, now as a website where you can never be sure what you'll find. It's particularly valued by a generation of Chicago writers who enjoy making submissions to someone who is not incomprehensibly young, and who not only publishes the stories they tell but values their ability to tell them. That he doesn't pay anything for these stories is neither here nor there, for no one else pays for anything either.

"People want to be creative," explains Scott. "And you kind of respect their creativity and you bring some of your own to it."

For instance, the latest edition of the Week Behind contains a touching meditation on matters mortal and mystical called "Woodpeckers." It's by Leonard Aronson, a retired WTTW producer who's a Week Behind regular. It concerns the time a tiny downy woodpecker landed on Aronson's palm during a visit to the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwa reservation in northern Wisconsin. "What happened to you is very significant. The woodpecker is Nature's drummer," a friend advises, and Aronson asks a tribal elder to interpret the moment. The elder, Mike Chosa, does some beating around the bush, but finally he comes out with it: "When a bird approaches a human being in that way, it usually means that someone close to you is going to die."

"Is it me?" Aronson asks. "Am I going to die?"

"It's very complicated," Chosa replies delphically. And as I read this I'm thinking back some 40 years to a time when Chosa led American Indians in a sit-in at what was then a Nike missile base in Lincoln Park. I went over there one night to deliver some blankets to Chosa, and he invited himself home with me and slept on the floor of my warm apartment. I lay in bed and wondered, "How in the hell did he pull this off?"

That is youthful cynicism talking. Aronson takes his story in a very different direction, and "Woodpeckers" turns out to be a meditation on the death of his wife.

Scott brings out the Week Behind every week, and he never wants for material. A lot of it is his own. Under the nom de guerre Stump Connolly, he's published three collections from the pages of TWB of his reporting on past presidential campaigns: 1996's Stump, a Campaign Journal, 2004's Talk's Cheap, Let's Race, and 2008's The Long Slog. Last fall, under his own name, he came out with Never Leave Your Block, stories about the neighborhood he lives in, Bucktown. (He held his publication party in a storefront grocery on Western.) His PowerPoint presentation ends with mention of his next book, which he's designing for iPads, using Apple's iAuthor.

What I'm trying to get at here is that Scott Jacobs can report and write with the best ink-stained wretches, but he has also mastered video and digital design and electronic-multimedia publication. If he can accomplish all that in 60 years, surely hunger will drive tomorrow's journalists to do as much in 20. What's more, Scott has the knack without which no other knack is sufficient is this day and age: in the best tradition of Arianna Huffington, he's master of the art of attracting talented people willing not to be paid. "A lot of people say, 'He's great! He writes. He edits,'" Scott muses. "In fact, in most cases I don't. I know some great shooters, great editors . . . I get them to work on my stuff. I'm who everybody wants to be because I get them to work for free."

How do you do it? I ask.

"I don't know," he says. "Ask Lennie."

Scott has what he calls a "day job," shooting documentaries for Kurtis Productions in Chicago. It's a long-standing relationship, and it's made possible a life in which "I've tried a lot of stuff and had fun doing it" and making a lot of money was never the point. He and I have been involved in a couple of projects that didn't make either of us a cent. Back in the 80s we were fans of the network newspaper drama Lou Grant, even though we thought some of the plots were pretty unrealistic. So we drew on our Sun-Times years to write an episode that put its finger on what we were certain mattered most to Lou Grant's star reporter, Joe Rossi. That, of course, would be leveraging his celebrity to get a raise. We called it Rossi Crosses the Street. But the show didn't buy it.

And then we decided to write a TV show celebrating the life and times of young Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in Chicago. Stuart Gordon of the Organic Theater took an interest so it turned into a play, and the only problem was that the project found Scott feeling generous and romantic about his characters, that being who he is, while it caught me in a Contempt for All Humanity phase. The result was he'd write one scene and I'd write the next and despite a common plot, his scenes and mine belonged in different plays. Gordon, who might have imposed his will, instead moved to Hollywood to make movies, and his successor couldn't have cared less. So there was a quick workshop production of Kiss It Goodbye (a name we both liked), and then I rewrote the entire play to my liking and he rewrote it to his.

Absolutely no one in the world of theater has ever shown the slightest interest in either version. When that sank in, we became friends again.

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