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Ask me if Jim O'Shea's Chicago News Cooperative has a chance to succeed and I'll say yes — not because the concept is mesmerizing but because David Greising did his due diligence and then decided to sign on.
I guess I respect Greising about as much as anyone in Chicago journalism. In 2003 O'Shea, then the Tribune's managing editor, took away the column Greising had been writing on page one of the business section since 1998 — when O'Shea gave it to him. I described the column as "smart, witty, and fair" and, in the view of Greising's Tribune colleagues, "as good as columns get." They regarded the decision to drop it as "perverse and self-defeating."
O'Shea said surveys showed that what readers wanted on page one was a "quick read on the day's events." So he proposed moving the column inside the section. But Greising knew the difference. A column on page one says, this is our best. The same column inside says, if you come across this, you might find it interesting. So Greising stopped writing the column altogether. "Jim was surprised," Greising recalls. "He couldn't imagine anybody giving up a column." He was assigned to special projects, an outcome Greising says he felt at the time was "perfectly acceptable" and over time came to appreciate even more.
In the punched-up, Sam Zell era, Greising went back to doing a column, but Zell's reborn Tribune wasn't Greising's idea of a terrific newspaper. Last Monday he resigned and went to work for O'Shea. So there were no hard feelings? I ask Greising. "There were hard feelings," he says. "We worked it out. It was never personal."
Greising tells me, "This is not about my leaving because I'm unhappy or have a grudge over the years. That's not what's going on here. What's going on is that I'm just about 50 years old and I see what's going on in print journalism. Beginning some months ago, I personally started to do some research — if you're going to move beyond newspapers at this stage of journalism, how can you do it? More to the point, can you do it in a way that's sustainable and commercially viable? The press barons have made buckets of money. Why in this age can't people who do the same thing build a sustainable business?"
Greising set up a series of lunches with people whose brains he could pick. It turned out O'Shea was talking to some of these same people, and O'Shea, who'd gone from ME of the Tribune to editor of the Los Angeles Times to — on being fired from the Times — martyr to the cause of righteous journalism, was now working up his idea of a journalism cooperative that could produce across media platforms — radio, TV, print, online. "I started researching cooperatives," says Greising.
"As this got legs, and the New York Times kind of showed up [to contract with the CNC for four pages of Chicago news a week], I kept in touch with Jim, and when the deal started coming together he asked if I was really serious and I said I was. The other thing, that was a matter of happenstance, was that in the last year I've written a book of profiles of private equity and capital players. This involved interviewing about a dozen of the leading lights of those businesses during the midst of this crisis, talking to people on the private equity side who fix broken companies and start up companies. I felt I was getting really useful operational insights into the way these people think and build their businesses, and for me personally that was kind of a wild card that made me more willing to take a risk than maybe I otherwise would have been."
And staying at the Tribune was hardly risk-free. "I said, 'What's the upside?'" Greising continues. "This thing could be successful, it could be great. What's the downside? This thing could fail. [But] you put two years into starting up something, you have that experience, that new media experience. You can still do journalism. These are acceptable risks in my view. And if you don't go, and this thing succeeds, then what do you think? You're still at the paper, still worrying about the next round of layoffs. You still have questions about its editorial direction. When I added it up along with my wife — when we added it up — several times, I told Cindy, 'Are you comfortable with this?' [Cindy Greising is an editor with the American Hospital Association.] And she was behind me 100 percent. She said, 'You can't pass this up.'"
What's Greising's title at the CNC? He has no idea. What will he be doing? "A lot of everything." He'll write and report, but he'll also help build the business. He's a familiar face at WTTW, where CNC is located, and a familiar voice at WBEZ, with which O'Shea wants an ongoing relationship, and he thinks of himself as a "pretty good collaborator," someone who can find common ground for CNC to share with organizations around town "doing the sort of programming that might benefit from association with a news organization." Greising wouldn't be specific, but it's easy to see what he personally brings to the table. He did a lot of overseas reporting back in the day when the Tribune's business coverage didn't end at the water's edge, and there is surely still a Chicago market for that skill, even if it's not the Tribune. "Jim talks about communities of interest aligning around the news," says Greising. "Maybe there's a group of people interested in foreign affairs."
Greising wishes the Tribune well; but he believes the opportunity he's now taking with CNC is one his old paper is largely responsible for letting happen. When Zell brought in a new crop of managers, the target audience became "frenzied families" and "carefree couples" — yuppies perceived as having a greater desire to be understood and indulged than informed. The dishing up of hard, complicated news — as Greising puts it, this was no longer the Tribune's "sweet spot."
The result, says Greising, "was a certain section of the readership that wasn't being served to its satisfaction, people who are interested in substantive public service news, who are interested in policy, who believe politics affects their lives, who don't get bored by the guts of the story." This underserved readership in Chicago is what the New York Times decided to go after with its four pages a week of CNC-generated news. Without that contract from the Times, CNC wouldn't have gotten off the ground.