The way I heard it, Rick Kogan had sent a strong message to the barbarians at the gate—his job be damned if they didn't like it. But when I called Kogan at the Tribune, he didn't know what I was talking about. He thought he remembered using the word "nutty" to describe some of the memos raining down on the staff of the Tribune from the new owners. But nothing he could imagine them making a fuss about—and in fact no one at the Tribune had said a word to him about it.
What I'd been told was that when Kogan spoke at an awards ceremony earlier this spring he sounded like someone trying to get himself fired.
The son of legendary Daily News and Sun-Times editor Herman Kogan, Kogan's a Chicago press lifer who wears his heart on his sleeve, and it's a heart that could have been minted in about 1930, when the only alternatives to daily newspapers were other daily newspapers. Kogan had been asked to introduce Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice when she received a Studs Terkel Media Award April 9 from the Community Media Workshop. Kogan, currently assigned to the Tribune's Sunday magazine, had won the same award, given for using community voices to cover social issues, in 2003.
A few days ago I saw a video of the event. Kogan's performance was less provocative than I'd heard, but also less innocuous than he seemed to think.
"These are precarious times for that creature known as a newspaper columnist," Kogan said. "These are precarious times for that thing so many of us love and know as a newspaper. Those of us at the Tribune a couple of weeks ago watched hundreds of years of experience walk out the door in a buyout. My friends at the Sun-Times:beleaguered by an impending sale. Those of us at the Tribune, besieged by these kind of deranged memos from the new bosses that we have"—this brought tittering from Kogan's audience—"that as I read them seem to be telling us, reimagine, reinvent, reinvent.
"That's fine. That's fine. Communication has to change. What troubles me is that these people, these new owners and the people at the Tribune who are sort of shamelessly taking off their coats and ties and wearing sweaters to cotton up to the iconoclastic, motorcycle-riding crowd"—more laughter—"they seem to have forgotten, and I have not heard anything about it from these guys, that the soul of a newspaper and the soul of a city is in the word."
Kogan had offered the sort of "lights are going out all over Europe" remarks that have become standard issue whenever newspaper people celebrate traditional values. He'd simply turned his anxious eye to his own employer. After Kogan's intro, Trice spoke in the same spirit. "Our newspapers work harder and harder to fight extinction," she said. "But there's an even bigger danger that has less to do with how we consume our news. The far greater threat is the quality of the content and the supply-and-demand market pressure that are being placed on all of us. Here's what I mean. If you did a Nexis search you'll find that over the last couple of weeks we've had far more stories about Barack Obama's abysmal bowling record than we've had about the release of a Justice Department memo that authorized torture.... Over the last couple of weeks we've had far more stories about Barack and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright than stories on the U.S. attorney general appearing to have fabricated a key event leading up to the 9/11 attacks.... Young people often ask me if it's worth going into journalism these days and I tell them yes, even though these are weird and unsettling times, when job cuts and buyouts and shrinking news space loom large, when tycoons and, yes, buffoons are buying up newspapers unaware and unconcerned of their mission."
On journalism's Richter scale of maledictory disgruntlement, Kogan and Trice barely register. "In the old days," says Kogan, "there were 10,000 things worse said in the Billy Goat about every editor and owner in the world. If these comments are worthy of reprimand and rebuke, then this business is in worse shape than I thought." Trice wants her remarks to speak for themselves—"I said what I said," she told me—but she added that she, like Kogan, had heard nothing about them from her bosses.
Even so, the comments are compelling for the picture they publicly conveyed—of a grim, preoccupied Tribune news staff scratching a line in the sand and telling the new bosses, "Beyond this line we'll fight you every step of the way." The truly romantic might even imagine the Tower as an Alamo or Masada where the virtuous await martyrdom and the watchword is death before dishonor. "I think it's the mood of the troops," says Jon Anderson, a retired Tribune writer who attended the Terkel ceremony. "I was a little startled, but it wasn't like shouting at the pope. It had a 'fire me' kind of thing, but that's Rick's stance."
Anderson, who's known Kogan since Kogan was a teenager, left the paper a year and a half ago but stays in touch. "I feel about my friends at the Tribune the same way I feel about the troops in Iraq," he says. "I wish they'd get out of there and get safely home and into different jobs. It's a really depressing place. The editors have always been kind of depressed anyway—they rarely make eye contact when you pass them in the corridor. So when you cut down on the number of reporters and you just have the core of editors it makes it more depressing, and they're worried about their jobs and everything else. But Rick's always been the defiant one."
There have been plenty of memos since Sam Zell bought the company, but Anderson says Kogan would have been talking about the one that Lee Abrams, the new "innovation officer," wrote in early April to "get some thinking on the table," as Abrams put it, "and see where it takes us." You can read the whole memo on my blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com, but here's a taste:
DEPTH—If you are about depth... people need to be able to find it when hrey need it. Not as easy as we may think. This probably seems like "well..of course"! But, I'm thinking that we may:
*Be on cruise, accepting that the look and POV are fine, when historically they might be, but the history may hold us back from competing and winning in today's vastly changed and intense new environment.
*Be TOO generic in image in an era where generic can be dangerous. And generic being a perception more than the truth. . . but a perception that may be holding us back.*Be required to re-think about how people FIND the incredible depth that's in our products.
My point here is to think about/address/invent the new versions by dealing with the obvious first. . . . once that's attacked, the other points will fall in line. A creative domino effect.
"It was beyond goofy," says Anderson.
Yet Kogan defends it.
"There's an intellectual exuberance," he says. "He's trying to initiate a dialogue. These guys aren't writers. Would I dare judge a businessperson [by his writing]? I don't know if Bill Gates can write his own name. I don't know if Warren Buffett can sit down and write a coherent letter. I don't care. There are different ways of communicating, and one is unfiltered and straight from the source. I could care less if every other word is misspelled. Unfiltered is better than by committee."
This is generous of Kogan, but I question his reasoning. The Gateses and Buffetts of this world usually turn out to be clear thinkers and strong writers. When Sam Zell speaks no one doubts what he's saying. A memo writer who can't get to the point doesn't have one. Exuberance isn't a point.
Abrams's memo wasn't the only text from the new regime that circulated in the Tower in the days just prior to the Terkel awards. Another was a news release announcing a new president of Tribune Interactive. The headline: "Surely You Can't Be Serious?" Sample copy: "Marc Chase obviously blackmailed his way into a position he is not remotely qualified to hold. . . . EDUCASHION—Nearly Graduated with Honers School of Alabama in Atlanta Georgia 1985. COMMUNITY SERVICE—400 Hours (reduced from 600) Judge gave time off for good behavior." The announcement was signed "Hugh Jass," and it ended with a footnote that explained that the Tribune Company "is also becoming known for its sense of humor and for not taking itself or the industries in which it operates too seriously." It was the sort of exercise anyone would laugh at who suspects laughter is now in his job description. Dawn Turner Trice refused to comment when I asked whether it influenced her choice of the word buffoons.
Kogan says, "If indeed the new owners—as they say they'd like to—want to transform the newspaper and the ways in which the company does business, many in this building are eager to see the wheels start to turn. When what is basically the notion of a newspaper in this business is a kind of sinking ship—circulation falling, ad revenue falling, all these dire pronouncements—you want change and the faster the better. Many people here feel a sense of urgency."
He allows that "I don't know anything about video or the Internet"—which is to say he doesn't have any idea how to lead the Tribune into the future and he's not about to slam any new people who may. He simply has a message for them: "Whatever way you guys go, don't forget it's all about the word."
"It's hard not to be seduced by the new," Kogan says. "But I will argue forever that to think of words as the old is crazy. Do I think these people don't get that? I don't know. I don't know these guys."v
For more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.