Remember the good old days in Chicago journalism, when the dailies could afford to act ridiculous? At the turn of the millennium that era was coming to a close—but not just yet. I’ve been rereading a column I wrote in 2000, which concerned the Sun-Times's Jay Mariotti—alas, long gone from these precincts—doing his damnedest to lay bare a shameless conspiracy.
"Because you don't want to pay $100 million to Sammy Sosa," Mariotti was saying, "you are using every resource in your domain—a manager with four-year security, a sports columnist who knows how to stay in corporate favor—to shred him up and make him look bad."
Who is the you Marriotti is addressing? Not merely the Cubs. Not merely the Tribune. Oh, no. The way Mariotti saw it, the mighty Tribune Company, which had bought the ball team in 1981, was siccing its local daily on its fading local slugger to harry him out of town. "It is a vicious, pathetic campaign," thundered Mariotti.
Mariotti wrote a lot of nonsense, and this was some of it. But the point I’m making here is that everybody knew about the Trib-Cubs connection and whenever they felt like it jumped merrily to a conclusion. When the Trib broke a Cubs story first it was because of the paper’s inside pipeline. When the Trib was late to a story it was because the corporate czars were keeping a lid on.
"The Cubs," wrote Mariotti's vastly more lucid colleague Rick Telander, "are an incestuous mix of media, sports, big business and entertainment. . . . The future decision to keep or reject Sammy Sosa, like the past decisions to lose Greg Maddux or not to pursue Randy Johnson, will be made by a conglomerate that has many things on its mind."
Of course, the Tribune denied a conspiracy. "I've been here almost four years," said its then sports editor, Dan McGrath, "and nobody has said one word to me about what the coverage should be."
But what would you expect him to say? I gave McGrath an opportunity to clear the air once and for all. Prove it, I said. And guess what? McGrath couldn't. None of the Tribune Company big shots had ever been smart enough to put what they didn't say in writing.
So the fun and games continued until the Tribune Company finally sold control of the Cubs and Wrigley Field to the Ricketts family in 2009. When that happened, there wasn't a wet eye in the Tribune sports department. It seemed 28 years of being accused of shilling for the corporation was long enough.
But that brings us to my good news. The Cubs are back in the clutches of big media! Conspiratorialists, start your engines!
The problem is that DNAInfo.com Chicago does not yet enjoy, by any stretch of the imagination, the visibility of the Chicago Tribune. Yet it's a shining example of New Media—a five-month-old website devoted to hyperlocal coverage that is staffed by journalists with excellent credentials and modeled after the critically praised DNAInfo.com New York. Moreover, big bucks are behind it: DNAInfo.com was launched four years ago by Omaha's Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade who believes "a nimble news operation available across all digital platforms can attract viewers and make money."
Yes, that's the same Ricketts family that owns the Cubs! And if the name Joe Ricketts rings a particular bell, you might be thinking of his patronage of conservative political causes, in particular of "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good," last year’s $10 million strategy that Ricketts ultimately didn't sign off on, though who's to say he wouldn't have if the New York Times hadn't splashed the plan across its pages while he was thinking it over. That coverage came at an awkward time for his son Tom, chairman of the Cubs, who wanted to spend $300 million renovating Wrigley Field and was still hoping a lot of that would be public money. Right! Money from the coffers of Barack Hussein Obama's hometown, whose mayor's last job had been as Obama's chief of staff.
The Ricketts Plan probably set the Wrigley Field project back by months, and Tom Ricketts is no longer asking for public underwriting, though he wouldn't mind tax advantages and other favors. Wrigley Field is a big running local story this spring, and it's far and away the top story on Serena Dai's plate. Dai's got Medill, the AP, New York magazine, and the Atlantic on her resumé, and she covers Wrigleyville, Lakeview, and Boystown for DNAInfo.
Every time she posts a story on Wrigley Field, the following boilerplate appears at the end: "The Cubs and Wrigley Field are 95 percent owned by a trust established for the benefit of the family of Joe Ricketts, owner and CEO of DNAinfo.com Chicago. Joe Ricketts has no direct involvement in the team's day-to-day operations."
(Meanwhile, when the Tribune covers Wrigley Field it still has its own boilerplate: "Tribune Co., parent company of the Chicago Tribune, owns a 5 percent stake in the Cubs.")
Joe Ricketts himself came to town awhile back and told his Chicago staff that he expected straightforward coverage of the Cubs and Wrigley Field. That's what Dai has provided, her managing editor, Shamus Toomey, told me Monday. He said she gets her scoops—Dai was first, according to Toomey, to report that the Cubs want to extend Wrigley into Waveland, build a pedestrian plaza between Wrigley and Clark Street, and play a lot more night games—through "dogged, old-school reporting," and not through an intramural pipeline to the Ricketts.
Said Toomey, "She gets an occasional question from a community member at public hearings—'Aren't you folks owned by Joe Ricketts?' She says, 'Yes, we are, but we operate independently from the Cubs.'" Toomey went on, "I came from the Sun-Times [where he was an assistant managing editor], and I'm treating coverage of the Cubs same way we do there. Go after stories, and when you get them run with them."
But that's what Tribune reporters and editors were saying when Tribune Company owned the Cubs. It didn't matter. It was more fun not to believe them, so people didn't. I think Dai's reporting isn't what's protecting DNAInfo.com from similar cynicism; DNAInfo.com's obscurity is. As I said to Toomey, when the accusations come fast and furious that you're in the pocket of your paymasters, that's when you'll know you've arrived as a news medium.