Of the fervent wishes I've been privy to over the past many years, the most sympathetic was probably that of Scott Stantis, the Birmingham News editorial cartoonist who longed to draw for the Chicago Tribune. It's conservative and I'm conservative, he'd moan. We're a perfect match. And so it seemed to me.
But like the lothario in the second reel of a Hollywood sudser, the Tribune was blind to what was perfect for it. Now its eyes are wide open—last week it announced it was making Stantis its first staff cartoonist since Jeff MacNelly died in 2000—but today's Tribune is the flagship of a bankrupt company: it has shed dozens of journalists, no longer has a foreign desk to call its own, and has stopped trying to pretend it counts beyond Illinois. We're in the third reel now, when the hero comes back from the war missing an arm and half his face and the hometown honey is the only one waiting at the station.
For years Stantis read it faithfully from afar in Alabama (he's been at the Birmingham News since 1996), but when we spoke the other day I had to ask him: Now that the Tribune has hired you, is it still the paper you wanted to work at?
How do you think it's changed? he parried. It's much more narrowly focused, I said; it's now trying hard to ingratiate itself with Chicago as a feisty local paper.
"Well, frankly, I think newspapers are idiots that don't do that," Stantis said. "While it's nice to have a global viewpoint—and important—I think it's local news that's going to drive journalism in the foreseeable future." He thought twice about what he'd just said. "It always has," he continued. "It just didn't have to before." In other words, the public has always read local papers primarily for local news, but when those readers were easy to come by, newspapers could pretend that it was their global vision, their mastery of the world's complex and swirling currents, that made them rich and influential. Colonel Robert McCormick and the Tribune he published for much of the last century made a ton of money, Stantis observed, even though McCormick "was an isolationist right-wing Republican in a city that was none of those things." Stantis assumes—as he begins reading every book on Chicago he can get his hands on—that for all McCormick's eccentricities, his Tribune "had an affinity for its city and environment."
At the age of 50, with the newspaper business in total disarray and his specialty, editorial cartooning, approaching oblivion, Stantis finds himself in a wildly unlikely position: he just accepted his dream job. (He starts September 1.) It's a momentous change that has Stantis bidding his old life farewell while picking through it for reassurances that he's up to the challenge ahead. "I've been doing a lot of introspective thinking the last couple of weeks and going through my body of work," he says. The Tribune wants from him what it never wanted from MacNelly—sharp, pungent cartoons on local issues. Can he produce them? He thinks so. "My local stuff is so much better," he says. "If you look at a lot of my local work, you wouldn't know what the issue was, but my work carries a lot of weight locally and has a sizeable audience. I wake up here thinking, 'What's happened here? What's the local issue? What are people talking about?' Here in Alabama they had a survey, and 20 percent of the people of Alabama had never left the state! I think about that."
His reading of Chicago is that for all its global airs it is also "insular"—its people, like Alabama's, can and must be approached on their own terms. "I think now more than ever, papers are going to have to be sensitive to their readers," said Stantis. "I'm just now beginning to know the other editors of the Tribune, but after being in the business 30 years, I believe editors generally aren't very smart. I'm going to say editors have always had a sneering disdain for their readers. Reporters do too, journalists generally. If you're going to sell a car to someone, you're not going to say, 'Buy it and shut up.'"
No, I said, though after selling it you might snicker as the sap walks out the door with the keys.
"Yeah, and we don't dress a lot better either," Stantis joked. "I can't tell you the number of times I've thought editors had nothing but derision for readers."
He went on, "That's part of the problem, and that's one of the things that really excited me about the Tribune. Sitting down with Gerry Kern has been—I'm going to try not to sound like I'm in love with the guy, but here's a guy talking about creating a crusading paper, a paper with flavor and spice and passion. And most editors today seem to be putting their heads down and pretending it's still 1975 'and maybe no one will notice and I'll get to retire.'"
Kern is the editor lifted into place by the Sam Zell regime after Ann Marie Lipinski resigned. I don't often hear him praised, but then I don't often speak to people he's hired. Stantis, after having lunch with Kern, says, "Talking to him directly about his ideas and ideals, it was the first time I'd felt optimistic about journalism in two years, that's all I can say, and that's what closed the sale for me. I'm very happy here [in Birmingham], I'm very comfortable here, but I'm not ready to go to sleep yet. I got into this business to rattle cages and make a difference."
And to give me an idea of how stifling the thinking at newspapers can be, he went on: "You still cannot say the word butt in my newspaper. You cannot say the word sucks in the comic strips. Every time I try to put it in Prickly City [the strip he draws], they take it out. The syndicates are as concerned as anyone else that 'Oh my God, we may get a cancellation!' And that sucks." Santis laughed.
"Honest to God, Mike," he said, "after I came out of lunch I was on Cloud Nine. 'Oh my God, somebody who actually thinks there's a future in this business! Some who's actually excited and innovative.'"
The day Stantis had lunch with Kern he sat in on an editorial board meeting that happened to be attended by the president of the National Council of La Raza. Stantis was impressed. At the News, he told me, "We don't get the A list too often. We get the north Alabama regional director. For me it was interesting. I could discuss Latinos in southeast Alabama, a relatively new phenomenon they're dealing with in typical Alabama fashion, which is 'Get them out of here!'"
Stantis always maintained that the Tribune was nuts to turn its back on cartooning—as he says, "People love what cartoonists do." And because of the Tribune's prominence he felt its disdain set a particularly devastating example. (Just a few dozen newspaper cartoonists still have staff jobs, less than half the number when MacNelly died.) So for hiring him, said Stantis, editorial page editor Bruce Dold "is now a god in the cartooning community. If this is a success—and I'll do everything I can to make sure it is—you could see a new dawn, a new beginning."
That's mighty rich language. "You have to remember," said Stantis, "we haven't had good news in years."
The new focus on local affairs at the Tribune has made the paper's occasional foray into Afghanistanism seem vestigial as well as absurd.
Afghanistanism is the longstanding term in the newspaper biz for an earnestly considered position taken on a distant issue by an editorial page that hasn't the slightest influence on it or the least reason to believe readers care. At its best, Afghanistanism is deluded pomposity; at its worst, the cowardliness of bold assertion limited to irrelevant topics.
It is worth noting that since September 11, 2001, editorials that are actually about Afghanistan don't automatically qualify as Afghanistanism.
The Saturday Tribune carried an editorial headlined "The burquini ban." A burquini is modest swimwear worn by some Muslim women; a woman dressed in a burquini was recently turned away from a French swimming pool, and the Tribune chose to address the matter and view it as regrettable. "Choice should govern in a democracy," asserted the editorial. "The French ought to know better."
No reason was presented for believing that the same issue has come up in America, or will come up in America, or will no longer come up in France now that the French have been reminded they should know better.
"These guys are brilliant," Scott Stantis told me, after sitting in on a meeting of the Tribune editorial board. So brilliant, he admitted, that there's an "intimidation factor" he'll have to get past before he can settle in. Afghanistanism is oft associated with would-be philosopher-kings condemned to passing judgment on sewer system levies. v
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