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Tinkering With the Tribune; Soft Head, Small Mind

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Tinkering With the Tribune

At first glance, the ongoing shuffle of personnel at the Chicago Tribune would seem to be just another of the paper's irregular upheavals designed to provide the illusion of corporate vitality to the people working there. In fact, though, this one may prove to be a good deal more methodical than merely madcap.

For those of you keeping score at home, this latest switcheroo is one of the largest; it started several months ago, and it has involved nearly 40 Tribune staffers. Some of the changes are highly visible: Pulitzer winner Peter Gorner has moved from the Tempo section to the news side, where he will continue to write mostly on science; longtime nightclub critic Larry Kart, who specialized in jazz and comedy, has joined the books section as an editor; Bruce Buursma has gone from religion reporter to covering the White Sox (in Sunday-school prose that has thus far baffled seasoned sports readers); John Blades has gone from writing literary criticism to full-blown features on literature; Rick Kogan, the jack-of-all-clubs entertainment writer (and former denizen of this space), has signed on as TV reporter. Many of the transfers involve less well known Tribuneites, such as Howard Tyner, former foreign editor who has been installed as an assistant managing editor; Gary Dretzka, who used to be deputy sports editor and is now an associate features editor; and Bob Carr, who used to be the assistant entertainment editor but is now one of the editors for Tempo.

As you'll notice, the Tribune is never at a loss for loading up the bureaucracy with subtly graded job descriptions. (What exactly is the distinction between a "deputy" and an "associate" editor?) You need the skill of a Kremlinologist to pierce the veil and decipher the hidden meanings, but they are there. For instance: Tyner's new mission is actually to mediate between the foreign and national desks in constructing the paper's first section. Dretzka is really one of two new associate features editors, and the smart money says that this is the first step in reducing the considerable power wielded by Colleen Dishon; although she is listed on the masthead as one of three associate managing editors of the Tribune, she in fact maintains control of nearly every department outside of news and sports. And Carr's background in the arts makes him well qualified for one of his new responsibilities, that of acting as a sort of liaison between Tempo and the news section in moving some arts coverage into the front of the paper.

In fact, the attempt to break down existing barriers between news and features is at the heart of the Tribune's staff shuffle. According to Jack Fuller, the paper's executive editor (one Tribune title that really does mean something), the brain trust had been taking "a systematic look at features' needs and organization" in hopes of making significant changes.

An example of their research can be found in the new "science and technology team" that was assembled back in May. It comprises Gorner; reporters Jon Van, Ronald Kotulak, and Casey Bukro, each of whom has concentrated on health and science topics; and Mike Millenson, who has been writing for the finance section, specifically on the health-care business. As Fuller explained, the entire unit is assigned to the newly unified national and foreign desk (in contrast to the metropolitan desk, which used to administer the science beat); their work is then placed in the appropriate Tribune section, be it news, Tempo, business, or even sports. While it may sound only commonsensical, it's a plan that not only consolidates the paper's coverage of science, but has ensured it a higher profile in the first section. (This is a far cry from the Tribune's "media team" of a few years back, which lumped together no less than four writers covering television and the broadcast industry. The paper's coverage promptly diminished in quality.)

The catalyst for all this office-moving was the recent elimination of the Tribune's national edition, a somewhat embarrassing and reportedly unprofitable version of the paper that was sent by mail to far-flung subscribers, mostly in southern Wisconsin and western Illinois, arriving a day or more after it had been published. But, as Fuller explained, the Tribune now transmits (by satellite) its pages to a printing plant in Madison, having found it possible to truck the paper from that plant to most of its former "national edition" readers--and deliver it by the next morning, anyway. Thus, no need for a separate out-of-town version of that day's Tribune (which was also rushed out to Chicago train stations as a sort of "afternoon final" for commuters to read on the way home).

The demise of the national edition freed up a number of editorial staffers who had been involved in preparing it. "It compelled us to make a lot of changes," Fuller told us. In fact, it provided a flexible pool of writers and editors to use in "trades" with other departments--and that in turn helped solve a pressing people problem: "We tried to use the occasion of these two things [the end of the national edition, and the desire to restructure the news/features relationship] to get some movement for people who, because of burnout or the desire for new challenges, had been looking for a change for a long time."

How all this will stack up in coming months--and whether it will turn out to be just another innovation swallowed up by the omnivorous Tribune bureaucracy--is worth keeping an eye on. At any rate, as the rival Sun-Times enters week four of its current headlessness--with nary a publisher within sight of the rumor mill--the folks at Chicago's broadsheet can afford to tinker to their heart's content.

Soft Head, Small Mind

Great moments in Chicago journalism (parts 453 and 454 of a series):

On Thursday, August 18, the front-page headline in the Chicago Tribune screamed out the news--"GOP Nominates Bush for President." (Did we say news? In case you've been in a shallow grave since May, this event had been a foregone conclusion for months.) If you believe that a big black page-one headline should actually give you news, you've got to think there was something else to be done with this one--maybe some mention of the vote total, or Bush's well-regarded speech, anything beyond the obvious. And even though we realized that this headline wasn't really for the readers of that day's Tribune--but rather a banner for posterity, a safe, bland statement for the historical record--we still had to giggle at the silly solemnity staring us in the face.

And anyway, it could have been worse. It could have said "GOP Nominates Dewey."

For that often elusive blend of publicly displayed neurosis and just plain bad writing, you'll have to look hard to beat Dennis Byrne's column in the Sun-Times of August 12. In this remarkable whine, inspired by the WGN TV broadcast of Wrigley Field's Opening Night, Byrne took a worthwhile message--that there's something troubling about Harry Caray's marriage of the "Bud man" logo to his "Cub fan" image--and buried it in sophomoric insecurities about the newspaper Byrne himself writes for.

"Wait a minute," Byrne led. "I thought the guardian of the city's good taste and virtue was ensconced over there, in the Tribune Tower. The Tribune's Cubs, you know, play ball in the purest embodiment of baseball--Wrigley Field. And like lightning bolts from Olympus, The Tower pronounces which newspaper is great (theirs) and which isn't (ours)." (Get this guy a couch, willya?) Byrne went on to damn the Tribune for the way in which its sibling, WGN TV, covered the washed-out game, homing in on the frequent scenes of beer in the broadcast booth. "Nice piece of news judgment," he sassed with reference to the director's choice of camera shots. "Learn it at the Tribune?"

It's not often you see the member of a major newspaper's editorial board resorting in print to a teenager's taunts--much less aiming them at the competing major newspaper--and we suppose the uniqueness of this should count for something. Nonetheless, the court finds Mr. Byrne guilty of one count of guilt transference and two counts of sniveling self-pity masquerading as snide sarcasm, aided and abetted by a steady stream of bitter envy. The sentence forces him to edit several of his own.

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