Bigger, Faster, Stronger...Better?/ Taking the Fun Out of Journalism/ Spinning the Basil Boot | Media | Chicago Reader

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Bigger, Faster, Stronger...Better?/ Taking the Fun Out of Journalism/ Spinning the Basil Boot

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By Michael Miner

Bigger, Faster, Stronger . . . Better?

The Tribune Company is in the forefront, and thoughtful people are taking a close look. Early this spring a three-part series by the Los Angeles Times on evolving newsroom principles began with a look at the Tribune. And now the May American Journalism Review pictures the company as a kind of info-spewing armada coursing through uncharted seas one paradigm ahead of everyone else.

"Entering the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune," writes Ken Auletta in AJR, "your eye is drawn to a massive multimedia desk, around which are arrayed editors from WGN-TV, WGN radio, ChicagoLand TV (or CLTV, the 24-hour local cable news channel), the Tribune's Internet edition and the Chicago Digital City affiliate."

The deck officers of this armada speak a Dilbertian tongue. "In most companies, a Berlin Wall separates the different media; at the Tribune, all media units report to David L. Underhill, vice president for video and audio publishing," Auletta observes. "'The goal of our unit,' says Underhill... 'is to be a synergy group. I love the word.'"

I suspect Auletta doesn't, which is why he quotes so many Tribune bosses invoking it and calls it the corporate "mantra." (His article is titled "Synergy City.") Repeated as often as Auletta repeats it, a fancy word like synergy turns into a fatuity.

"I am not the editor of a newspaper. I am the manager of a content company," Howard Tyner told Auletta, using words that might have been coined by Scott Adams. "That's what I do. I don't do newspapers alone. We gather content." Tyner is, on paper at least, editor of the Chicago Tribune. His reading of his corporate role sounds as spiritually self-denying as a request by Cardinal George to "think of me as the CEO of a vast nonprofit social service agency, though technically I'm a priest."

Auletta produced some 15,000 words on the Tribune Company for AJR. Crackerjack executives offered cutting-edge insights about the news business, backing up their notions with facts and figures. Though Auletta views their cool calculations with appropriate old-paradigm concern, he's hard-pressed to say that they're seriously wrong about anything. There's a sententious, throwing-up-his-hands quality to his conclusion:

"At a well-run company like Tribune, where managers and editors alike speak of 'quality,' 'credibility' and all the other heartfelt words that suggest they understand they have no product without good journalism, the problem is not executives who intend to do harm. The danger is inadvertent harm. Journalism is an act of faith. It is not concrete, like a balance sheet. Readers spend their money and time on the faith that journalists strive to learn the truth and don't cut corners. Journalists place their faith in the words of Abraham Lincoln--words etched into marble at the Tribune Tower's splendid entrance: 'Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe.'"

Perhaps it's time to replace Lincoln's axiom guarding the front door with a cheery "We gather content to gather content."

Auletta's piece kicks off a massive AJR series, "The State of the American Newspaper," an initiative of the Project for Excellence in Journalism that eventually will be published as a book. The state of the American newspaper is that sales are flat, and Howard Tyner doesn't want to call himself a newspaperman. For good reason. Tribune Company "non-newspaper revenues account for more than half its profits," writes Auletta. "Its newsrooms are multimedia models, with robotic cameras, digital audio and video equipment, and a central command desk shared by editors from TV, cable, the Internet and radio....Here, journalism is content. Executives--and editors, too--go on about synergy and brand extension, about how their individual companies are not mere newspapers, broadcast stations or Web sites, but partners and information providers.

"The dull, gray uniform is a deception," Auletta observes. "The Tribune Co. swings from the trees."

I sense Auletta letting his scorn peek through. He describes the editor of the company's Fort Lauderdale paper as a "neat, mustachioed man of 50 who tends to speak in cliches ('Nothing succeeds like success!'). But he is thoroughly up-to-date on Tribune Co. philosophy: 'This is, in all honesty, a reader-driven newspaper.' Maucker says he wants readers to be 'comfortable.' And they won't be if the 'newspaper breaks on the doorstep' because it is 'heavy' with government and investigative news." Is there a more quietly contemptuous word than "mustachioed"?

In Du Page County "executives are even discussing sponsoring Little League teams." That's to counter the paper's local reputation, which bureau chief Terry Brown concedes is "aloof and arrogant."

And Auletta has Barbara Weeks, general manager of CLTV, explaining the Tribune's cable news operation. "By bundling the only local cable news channel with the number one newspaper in Chicago--not to mention the number one radio station, the number one independent TV station (which doubles as a cable superstation), the Chicago Cubs and various online offerings--'any of the Tribune business units can get together and offer a super-synergistic effort. It's very compelling to an advertiser.'"

To an advertiser. So compelling is the supersynergism that in Chicago it's not the porcine Sunday Tribune that breaks when newspaper meets doorstep, but the doorstep. And though the latest news of the success of Tribune Company "business units" came along too late for Auletta to incorporate it, this month's annual Tribune tally of the area's best compensated CEOs found the Tribune Company's own John Madigan second, at $9,444,869--behind only Charles R. Walgreen III, who probably didn't even belong on the list since he's retired.

"Tribune executives focus unapologetically on their stock price," writes Auletta. "[CFO Donald] Grenesko says that every August each business unit is asked to sketch proposed revenues and expenditures for the next year. In September an 11-person operating committee reviews these figures. The committee usually bounces them back, insisting that spending be held down and numbers be presented again in November, before seeking Tribune board approval in December. What criteria do committee members employ to determine that the first sketch is unrealistic? They do it, says Grenesko, by carefully talking to Wall Street and gauging its response. 'The operating committee decides the goal--say, $2.40 a share.' Then, he says, they tell the divisions, 'This is what Wall Street is expecting from you.'

"What if Wall Street is unrealistic?

"'They have not been unrealistic,' says Grenesko."

An old-fashioned newspaperman read Auletta's article and told me he missed the point. The question Auletta should have posed is this: If the Tribune Company is making so much money, how come it doesn't publish a great paper? With all due respect, Auletta's point is that this isn't the question. (And no ambitious deck officer better get caught asking it.) The Tribune Company believes its dollars are much more shrewdly spent on synergy than greatness.

Auletta notes the eroding wall between church and state--between editorial and advertising. "The wall has been chipped at everywhere," he reports. "The Trib's managing editor, 42-year-old Ann Marie Lipinski, along with corporate marketing executive David Murphy, head the paper's 'branding committee.' Together, they sit in on reader focus groups to determine, in the words of Tribune Publisher Scott C. Smith, 'what they should be writing about.'"

The rickety state of this wall as it runs through the newspaper business was examined in the March series by Los Angeles Times media writer David Shaw. It's a token of the fascination that the Tribune holds for other journalists that Shaw began his series inside the Tower. "Journalists have long regarded the formal separation of their news and business departments as essential to their independence and credibility," he wrote. "At the Chicago Tribune, elevators that went to the advertising and other business departments were long programmed to bypass the fourth floor, where the news staff worked.

"But newspaper readership has been declining for more than 30 years....In their search for new ways to increase readership and revenue amid these mounting pressures, newspapers are now lowering, if not obliterating The Wall. When the Chicago Tribune office was remodeled, elevators were programmed to stop at every floor, and 'advertising people actually can come onto the fourth floor now and not get bitten or shot,' says Howard Tyner....Indeed, at the Tribune--and at many other newspapers these days--editors and business-side executives routinely meet to discuss readership, advertising, the creation of sections and a wide range of other problems and initiatives."

Shaw described the Tribune Company as a "pioneer in breaking down traditional barriers of all kinds" and briefly summarized its multimedia adventures. But his focus was on the wall. "We've had a pretty strong relationship between the troika of marketing, advertising and editorial for as long as I've been an editor, which is now 12 years," Tyner told him.

Even if the Tribune Company has shrewdly pocketed a whole ring of the keys that unlock the future, the compromises it has made collecting them are unattractive. That said, the consumer in me doesn't seek repentance; it wants the company to get on with what it's doing and do it better. In the past several days I've had reason to turn frequently to the on-line Tribune in search of prep sports coverage. What I've discovered is that this coverage isn't synergistic, complementary, above and beyond, or anything else. In this simple little area the Tribune is incompetent. The scores posted are frequently two days behind the calendar. The print Tribune I know and trust wouldn't dare be so unreliable. There is a wall, I presume, that prevents the flaws of the new media from spreading to the old. That wall had better stand.

Taking the Fun Out of Journalism

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, might be the nation's foremost media ethicist. The project, funded by the Pew Foundation, is a massive piece of soul-searching, "an effort to stem the drift toward infotainment, cynicism and incompetence," he told Editor & Publisher last year. One road the project is traveling leads to a series of hearings around the country on the state of local journalism. Another leads to the AJR series that Ken Auletta's article just kicked off.

I noticed Rosenstiel on Nightline a couple of weeks ago discussing the live whirlybird coverage of a fellow who parked his truck on a bridge connecting two LA freeways, creating a massive traffic jam, then set his truck on fire and eventually shot himself to death on camera. "Here is a story that is news by any definition," host Chris Wallace said to Rosenstiel. "It affected tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. Don't you have to cover it, and don't you have to stay with it, particularly knowing that all the other stations are covering it?"

And Rosenstiel replied, "Well, you don't have to stay with it....Turning a camera on a live event isn't journalism--it's technology. Journalism is the act of making decisions, of editing, of making choices. And the quality of one's journalism is the quality of the choices that one makes."

So it is. But the first principle of journalism is witness, not choice, something I hope Rosenstiel understands, because his criticism's worthless if he doesn't. At any rate, Rosenstiel was the featured speaker last week at the annual Headline Club dinner. I wasn't there, but I'm told that his humorless cataloging of collective sins was coolly received by the audience of experienced professionals, who were present, after all, because they'd been nominated for Lisagor awards.

"A sanctimonious twit. It was terribly insulting," says one nominee, who gave expression to his feelings by trying to thwack Rosenstiel with a globule of butter. "My aim was short, and it hit Carol Marin's briefcase."

To general astonishment, when Rosenstiel was done speaking he said that he'd answer questions. Nigel Wade signaled. I'm often critical of the Sun-Times editor, but here he spoke for Chicago journalism.

"If we put out a newspaper as tedious as your talk," he told Rosenstiel in roughly those words, "we'd go out of business."

Spinning the Basil Boot

Hollinger International, the newspaper chain for which Nigel Wade loyally toils, is expert in the ways of not going out of business. Its 30 percent profit margin, in fact, is almost double the industry average.

The pleas of Jesse Jackson, Paul Simon, and other public figures came to nothing, and Basil Talbott cleaned out his desk Monday in the Sun-Times's Washington bureau. After 30-some years at the paper Talbott was through, laid off to cut the budget.

Wade posted a memo back in the newsroom in Chicago. "Today is Basil's last day with the paper," it said. "He has chosen not to accept a senior reporting position in Chicago, which I offered him verbally on April 21 and in writing on April 30. The company also offered to discuss, as an alternative, a continuing relationship on freelance terms....The company will be providing Basil with a generous separation package over and above contractual requirements and we wish him well."

Wade's memo perplexed both Talbott and Daniel Lehmann, who chairs the Sun-Times unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild and negotiated on Talbott's behalf. The "senior reporting position"--words weighty with dignity--hadn't that been some undefined newsroom job back in Chicago? The "generous separation package over and above"--wasn't that another couple of months of health insurance?

But perhaps they'd misunderstood the extent of management's generosity.

Here's the exact language of Wade's April 30 letter to Talbott: "While I cannot offer a specific assignment--most key beats already are covered--I assure you that we will use you in a way commensurate with your talents and experience, consistent with the normal city room routines. Furthermore, we would meet reasonable relocation costs."

But Talbott hadn't been assured by Wade's assurance.

Wade's posted memo went on another paragraph. "Economies must be made in our Washington operation, as elsewhere." (The Sun-Times's Washington bureau is now down to one reporter.) "The paper will continue to provide full coverage from the nation's capital, with bureau chief Lynn Sweet, the comprehensive service of the Washington Post, and that of the Washington bureaus of the Los Angeles Times and Scripps Howard, plus columnist Robert Novak."

Not to mention Arianna Huffington.

News Bites

This week the Sun-Times, Tribune, Exito!, N'Digo, New City, and the Reader jointly filed suit against the city in federal court. The papers don't want to have to be displayed together in the "multiple news racks" Mayor Daley thinks will beautify Chicago. These racks are being shoved down the plaintiffs' throats on two major downtown streets, State and Michigan, the suit argues, putting the papers at the mercy of an inexperienced concessionaire, JC Decaux Chicago, Inc., a French company's subsidiary created to run the local operation.

Decaux would provide the racks and get its money back by selling advertising on the back side. The papers complain that they'd lose the ability to advertise themselves at the point of distribution--something they do now on the boxes Daley considers an eyesore--and that what they consider their constitutional right to distribute their product as they see fit would be infringed.

Holistic journalism, anyone? Dahleen Glanton, writing in the Tribune April 8: "Even at Chicago's Robeson High School, many students know nothing of the man, according to school officials." Howard Reich, writing in the Tribune April 12: "Perhaps most touching of all [at the South Shore Cultural Center program observing the hundredth anniversary of Paul Robeson's birth] were performances by gifted high school students. Melody Tunson offered an eloquent reading of a poem, 'He Was Our Big Robeson'; Ramon Davis turned in a rap homage to the man; Safiyyah Omar contributed an elegant solo dance; and Kevin Jackson stole the show reading the speech Robeson gave as valedictorian at Rutgers University."

James Breashears, principal of Robeson High, where a mural honoring Robeson looms at the entrance and his photographs hang on the office walls, wrote the Tribune to question Glanton's assertion and to suggest that, in light of it, Reich might have wanted to point out that Tunson, Davis, Omar, and Jackson are all Robeson students.

oRoyko Walks Out

Either the Chicago Tribune is marching boldly into a multicultural future inconceivable to its late master Colonel Robert McCormick, or PC values have sapped its spirit and cracked its spine.

Either Mike Royko is an erratic shadow of the towering columnist of the 60s and 70s, or he's stayed the same while the world has changed around him.

And if Royko's the same, that's either too bad for the world or it's simply too bad for Royko.

Last week Royko almost quit the Tribune over a trivial matter. Half the Tribune would have been heartsick at such an enormous loss. And half would have been glad to see the old dinosaur go.

On Monday, June 24, Royko returned from vacation in a terrific mood. It lasted until evening, when he read the notes of two staff meetings that had been held while he was gone. He stormed out of the Tower and didn't come back all week.

The subject of the meetings was the paper's gang files. These are the files of sources' names and phone numbers that are indispensable to a newsroom's reporters. Editor Howard Tyner wanted the gang files expanded so that more voices and a broader perspective would show up in the paper's stories. Chicago bureau chief Dahleen Glanton ran the meetings.

In Glanton's memo to the staffers who took part in the meetings the old gang files became "our new source directory"--certainly a cloying example to some veterans of new speech driving out old. Glanton thanked them for participating and attached five pages of notes of "general issues" and "specific suggestions" raised at the sessions.

These were comments jotted down as they were tossed off. For example:

"Whitebread zoning. City-type stories of diversity don't get played in suburban editions.

"Stereotyping: In city, there are African-Americans; in the suburbs, people are white. Wrong.

"Mainstream sources. It's one thing to do features on minority issues, another to find sources on traditional coverage issues who are not white.

"Having different voices is key. More than race, gender, age. It is having something else to say, to give more dimensions to coverage.

"Even as we change, trust takes time. People still bring up Col. McCormick. Mike Royko."

And that's where Royko exploded. What the hell was this? McCormick met his maker 41 years ago. To name him as today's problem was preposterous. So that left Royko to take the fall by his lonesome for every Mexican-American cook and lesbian cabdriver who won't shell out 50 cents for a Tribune.

Apparently Royko wasn't sure what Glanton's memo represented. Was this official? Was this management's list of deeds to accomplish and obstacles to get past on the road to an enlightened tomorrow? Or was management simply willing to watch Royko pecked to death by mice? He screamed at Tyner and spent the rest of the week playing golf, while his friends at the paper tried to persuade him--successfully, it turned out--that he couldn't afford to quit.

"He's in a fine mood," Tyner told me Monday morning, after he'd talked to Royko by phone. "He took some time off. He had to work off some personal things. He got mad, and it was largely because he misunderstood what [Glanton's memo] was. When he did understand, the problem went away. This was not the Mexicans stomping around. This was not the gays stomping around."

No, this was Royko, sick of all the stomping around, stomping around.

The problem at the Tribune, said a writer in Royko's corner, "is this whole making everything bigger than it has to be." People don't talk, they don't storm up to Royko's desk and tell him his last column on Mexicans was bullshit. Instead, criticism oozes out as "goof-ass memos of goof-ass meetings" where reporters lay claim to victimhood. "Any reporter who can't do his job because of Colonel McCormick and Mike Royko isn't a reporter."

Not that anyone at the meeting actually went so far as to say he can't. The point here is to communicate some newsmen's perception of Royko's latest travails.

It's not the only perception. A writer too old and white to easily tar with a PC brush reminded me of Royko's last column before he went on vacation. The subject was Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds. Royko began by reminiscing about Charlie Finley, the late owner of the Oakland A's. "I'm probably gonna sell the team," Finley said one night at the Billy Goat.

No you won't, said Royko. But Finley had his reasons. "Besides, I'm tired of dealing with all those coons."

Royko protested Finley's indiscretion.

"With a look of innocent confusion on his face, he said: 'Why can't I call them coons? They always call me mother f------.'"

No one at the Tribune but Royko could conceivably get anything so tasteless in the paper, the writer said. And look at how Royko ended the column!

"So I'm on Marge Schott's side. I hope she goes to court and sues the other owners (including the Tribune Co., which owns the Cubs) for violating the inalienable right of all Americans to occasionally say something dumb."

This is vintage Royko. It also can be read as a furious, reckless Royko who doesn't much care what he writes. His colleague at the Tribune doesn't watch with awe and admiration.

Royko was expected back in the paper on Wednesday. If for some reason he didn't show up--God knows what happened this time. o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Kurt Mitchell.

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