News & Politics » Michael Miner on Media

Defining 'newsworthy'

At the Tribune, the news is whatever it reports, whenever it feels like it

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The old reasons for not liking the Tribune were legion: it was too gray and fat and rich and powerful and conservative, and its heritage was dominated by a madman, the colonel, Robert R. McCormick. Besides, its coverage of the nation and world didn't measure up to the New York Times and Washington Post. Then Sam Zell and Randy Michaels took over, and most of the top editors and a lot of very good writers flew the coop. The foreign staff disappeared; the list of first-rate journeymen laid off was as long as your arm. In addition to the Times and Post, the Tribune no longer measured up to itself.

Yet even if the daily report now heavily favors local news, it's a good report. This is Chicago after all, home of more human muck and drama than any one newspaper can hope to rake or chronicle. Just the other morning my wife, who usually sticks with the Times, was exploring the Friday Tribune at the kitchen table. She exclaimed, "The Tribune entertainment section is really good!"

A lot of the Tribune is consistently really good. Here's its little problem. Every time the Tribune plows up the middle for seven yards it struts like a rookie who ran a punt back 80 yards into the end zone. It should leave self-celebration to Walt Whitman. The Trib Nation conceit—it's a blog site name that leaches into the printed Tribune—is silly; and so is the way in which the paper, which after slashing its news hole restored some of it, keeps milking the gesture. As my wife admired the entertainment section I was wincing at a story on the risk run by Iraq's immature democracy as American troops depart; it was a solid piece of journalism but it was neither a Tribune exclusive nor even a Tribune Company (i.e. LA Times) exclusive—it was a wire story from Reuters. Yet the Tribune insisted on my gratitude. The top left of the page was pretentiously labeled "FOCUS Leaving Iraq," and the top right announced "A new page added to the Chicago Tribune Nation & World report." Not to get all metaphysical on you, but isn't a new page a new page only when it's new? That page was added five months ago.

The November 30 Tribune reported that Hans Peterson had been convicted on the French island of Saint Martin of the notorious 2006 murder of dermatologist David Cornbleet in the doctor's Michigan Avenue office. The story ran under the rubric "BREAKING NEWS." Does the Tribune really want to use that breathless rubic—which implies all the other news in the paper is warmed over? And if it does, shouldn't it be more careful about when? Cornbleet had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison five days earlier, something I'd read four days earlier on the blog of Chicago crime writer Kevin Guilfoile.

Almost nothing in a newspaper these days is actually "breaking." Besides, no one pays attention to this kind of empty crowing but other journalists keeping score, and what it does to them is make them mad.

Dan Mihalopoulos used to cover City Hall for the Tribune. Now he covers it for the Chicago News Cooperative, and the attitude of his old employer sticks in his craw. On November 30, shortly after midnight, the CNC posted a story by him that began:

"Chicago taxpayers have lost more than $1.1 million because of a shortfall in hotel tax dollars dedicated to the city-state agency that runs U.S. Cellular Field and financed the Soldier Field renovation, according to documents obtained this week by the Chicago News Cooperative."

Several hours later the Tribune posted its version of the same story. A longer Tribune story, which made no mention of the CNC scoop, ran on page one December 1 under the rubric "Tribune Watchdog." Mihalopoulos e-mailed a friend complaining that the Tribune had acted as if it broke the story. "Sad, but far from the first time. And Miner or anybody can quote me on that."

As it happens, a spokesman for the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority tells me the Tribune submitted a Freedom of Information Act request days before the CNC did. "I don't think that changes the reality that we broke the story and they proceeded to label their later version as a 'Tribune Watchdog' story, suggesting that they had the story first," Mihalopoulos e-mailed me. I'm not so sure the Tribune needed to take down its "watchdog" shingle just because a competitor got in the first bark, or even to acknowledge someone else barked first. Back in the day, a daily that trailed on a story by an edition didn't announce the fact. Butas Mihalopoulos said—this wasn't the first time. When I asked him what the other times were, he mentioned more stories than there's room to cover here.

On November 8 the Tribune wrote about the trials and tribulations it's faced getting information out of Rahm Emanuel's office. It gave this example:

"The Emanuel administration last month released a district-by-district accounting of police staffing levels following a yearlong legal battle with the Tribune. It argued the records containing the information were secret on grounds that public disclosure of how many police work in each district would make neighborhoods less safe.

"The attorney general's office disagreed, as did a Cook County judge who ruled the Police Department must release the records.

"'These are public documents under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and our requests for them are legitimate,' Tribune editor Gerould Kern said. 'As citizens, we are entitled to know how our government works.'"

What this self-serving passage didn't even hint at was that the story of police staffing levels had been broken almost three weeks earlier by Mihalopoulos and his CNC colleague Hunter Clauss. On October 21 they'd posted "In High-Crime Areas, Still Too Few Police," a study complete with numbers of cops assigned by districts and units. They posted follow-up stories on October 27 and 29.

"Maybe all's fair in the news business," says Mihalopoulos—but he doesn't actually think that. "You keep trying to do stories before other people do them," he muses; but he likes to think that when you don't, you give credit where it's due.

The Tribune might have a special reason for pretending the CNC doesn't exist: it was founded and is largely staffed by Tribune refugees, and the loss of Mihalopoulos, their City Hall reporter, must have been particularly galling. But the CNC isn't the only news shop with reason to complain about Tribune solipsism. On November 8 the Tribune carried "Emanuel's schedule a who's who of business leaders," a report on who has access to the new mayor during his workdays. The schedule, the Tribune told us, was "requested by the Tribune under the state's Freedom of Information Act." More watch-doggerel. The Reader's Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke filed their own FOIA request, and their longer and much fuller examination of the mayor's schedule, "The mayor's millionaire club," had run in the Reader almost two weeks earlier.

"I'm glad the Trib is on the transparency beat," says Dumke, staying above the fray. He points out that he and Joravsky have been cited by name for their stories by the Tribune's editorial page and by columnists such as Mary Schmich and Eric Zorn. It's only the paper's metro desk that seems to define news as whatever the Tribune reports whenever it gets around to reporting it.

(I wanted Tribune metro editor Peter Kendall to comment on the metro desk's philosophy of giving and denying credit. But he didn't respond to my phone calls and e-mail. I believe he got them, however: Mihalopoulos tells me he was at a Starbucks when he ran into an editor who works under Kendall; the editor told Mihalopoulos he objected to his talking to me.)

Here are a couple of other examples of the Tribune trailing Mihalopoulos and not acknowledging it. On September 12, 2010, he posted a story that had Gery Chico, board chairman of City Colleges, telling him that "we're still taking a very serious look" at a run for mayor. Two days later the Tribune website reported that Chico "told the Tribune that he is 'seriously leaning toward running' for mayor." Last April Mihalopoulos posted a story about how anyone giving $50,000 or more to Emanuel's inaugural committee would be rewarded with "co-chair" status for the various inaugural goings-on. The same offer showed up on the Tribune's front page two days later.

Trying to be helpful, I suggested at the time that the Tribune sell itself as the Chicago daily that chooses page one stories pretested for newsworthiness. Instead, it's apparently decided to pretend nothing is newsworthy until the Tribune waves its wand.

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