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We've seen this act before on another stage. Rosenthal came to town in 1996 to be an assistant sports editor at the Sun-Times. His previous job had been entertainment editor at the Los Angeles Daily News; that's where he'd met Bill Adee, who was now sports editor at the Times, and Steve Rosenbloom, who was now writing a column for Adee, Between the Lines, that was a series of snarky rim shots. But as Rosenthal arrived, Rosenbloom, the paper's newest star, was leaving—he'd gotten an offer he couldn't refuse from the Tribune. Adee shoved Rosenthal into the breach.
"Phil's also a great writer," Adee told me then. "I've been dying to get him in the Sun-Times in some way. It's a different way, but people will be happy with him too. It'll be a little different. I don't know yet whether Phil is as mean as Steve is, but we'll find out."
Phil wasn't as mean as Steve. But he was more versatile. Rosenthal kept Between the Lines going for a while, but it was never as crisp and nasty as what Rosenbloom was turning out across the street. The bigger problem was that Rosenthal had had it with sports. So he asked if he could write a TV column and was given a page a day to play with, half of it his column and half—What Are You Looking at?—his Between the Lines act adapted to zinging whatever was on the tube that night.
The Tribune widened Rosenthal's lens in 2011 from media to all of business, his editor publicly predicting then that Rosenthal's wit and analytic skills would "help take us to the next level." That's a destination you can never be sure you've reached, but Rosenthal has done his bit, consistently writing nicely crafted stories that contained an idea or two readers might not have thought of for themselves. He was the new type of business writer, a demystifier, and a good one.
But I remember an earlier demystifier, David Greising. Hired away from Business Week in 1998, Greising wrote about business for the Tribune "the way guys like Rick Morrissey write about sports. . . " I said in the Reader. "If the bumbling of Jerry Krause and Mike McCaskey made for lively copy, there was no excuse for boring readers when the subject was the blunders of the execs running McDonald's and United."
Greising's column ran on page one of the business section until 2003, when the Tribune decided to bury it inside. An editor told me surveys revealed business section readers wanted "a quick read on the day's events" more than they wanted commentary, no matter how high the quality of the commentary.
Margin Call is a quick read raised by the power of ten. It's got the flavor of a sports column too, because that's where the column's roots are. If this were an editor's bright idea, I'd worry. "This was my idea," says Rosenthal in an e-mail. "We talked about a lot of ways to shake things up, and this was one of them that everyone got behind. There's flexibility as events warrant, but the plan is to do 'Margin Call' four days a week in addition to a more traditional column, which would run in the Sunday paper . . .
"I'd like to think it's not all rim shots, that there's a point to at least some of it, whether it's funny or not. But if it's a quick, interesting read and brings readers to the business section of the website and paper, especially readers who might not otherwise be inclined, then it will be a success."
If it's Rosenthal's idea, it won't be cheesy. I don't think he could sustain cheesy even if he tried.