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“He’s all the things you look for,” says Gilbert. “He has integrity, courage, enterprise, intelligence.” He says the appointment sends a message, both within the Reader and to the city, that “this newspaper continues to be very serious about its journalism and its content.”
Warren has been a newspaperman since he graduated from Amherst in the mid-70s; he moved to the Tribune from the Sun-Times in 1984, covered labor, law, and media, and was a surprise choice to edit the old Tempo feature section, where writers told me he was the best editor they’d ever had. In 1993 editor Howard Tyner sent him to Washington to work the same magic there. Warren quickly made a name for himself in the capital by writing a Sunday column in which he mocked the city’s media stars by name for their preoccupation with self-promotion and fat personal-appearance fees.
When he returned to Chicago in 2001, Warren took over the Tribune’s huge features department and became an obvious candidate to succeed Ann Marie Lipinski as editor. That didn’t happen. Sam Zell acquired the paper two years ago, and when Lipinski resigned last year Gerould Kern was moved over from the corporate position of editorial director to succeed her. Warren, no fan of Kern’s, followed Lipinski out the door. Since then, he’s mostly been writing magazine articles for the Atlantic and blogging for the Huffington Post.
Just the other day James O’Shea, talking about the Chicago News Cooperative he’s just launched, told me Warren will be contributing a column to the four pages of exclusive weekly copy the co-op will start supplying to the New York Times next month. O’Shea is also a member of Gilbert’s Creative Loafing board, and it was he who suggested Warren to Gilbert as a possible publisher.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, what a great idea! What a great opportunity! Do you think we could get him?’” Gilbert tells me.
The Reader has been without a full-time publisher since Kirk McDonald resigned in the late stages of the Ben Eason era, before Atalaya Capital Management took over the six papers in a bankruptcy auction two months ago. After two months of talks, the answer to Gilbert’s question was yes. Warren starts November 2.
I’ve known Warren since we were both reporters at the Sun-Times in the mid-70s. I have great respect for him. But I think the message his appointment sends, to the Reader and to Chicago, is more ambiguous than Gilbert may realize. What we have is the appearance of one former Tribune managing editor, O’Shea, looking out for another. The Reader doesn’t think of itself as a place to land; and it does think of itself as a paper launched—38 years ago—as an alternative to staid dailies like the Tribune. “Are there people there [at the Reader] who think, there’s an alum of the almighty Tribune whom they might not particularly like overseeing them? Yeah, there might be,” Warren allows, and continues, “It’s a little bit weird for me. After all those years that I was seen as something of a Tribune iconoclast, to be seen now as a white-shirted Tribune managerial clone, or something.”
“The decision [to hire me] was not made by Jim O’Shea,” Warren lets me know. There was Gilbert, and above him Michael Bogdan, managing partner of Atalaya, with whom Warren says he spent hours talking, taking the measure of his commitment to serious journalism.
Gilbert and Warren stress the same thing: newspaper publishers usually come up through sales or marketing. Bogdan showed what’s important to him by naming a newsroom guy.
But this brings us to something touchy. The best newspapers maintain a wall between publishers and editors, and nothing crosses it but the budget. The Reader is no exception. It’s about to become one. Having been hired because of, not despite, an editorial background, Warren intends to put it to use. “I hope to be pretty involved, yeah,” he tells me. His appointment, he thinks, “is an implicit affirmation of the link between quality journalism and a successful business.” And he’s the link.
“It’s good to hear the board and Warren acknowledging how important journalism is to the success of the company,” says Reader editor Alison True. “Because we’re looking forward to getting the resources to support it. But if that wall disappears, so does our credibility.”