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To Serve and Project

A newspaper's voice should be more than the expression of its readers' collective thoughts.

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Dear Katie and Cherie:

On my blog the other day, you two pushed my buttons. I was writing about the Tribune's curious invitation to its readers to get involved in its presidential endorsement process: "As we think about that choice, we want to hear from you. Do you support Barack Obama? Do you support John McCain?... If you were writing an endorsement, what would you say?"

Said I, "If this is a stunt, it's stupid. If it's earnest, it's a disgrace."

Both of you posted comments.

Cherie wrote: "Michael, has it ever occurred to you that maybe the Tribune is feeling its way toward the obvious: that they are no longer the gatekeepers, but organizers of the discussion?"

Katie wrote: "Oh, quit whining. What is so wrong with trying to get a sense for what your readers want?"

Katie: There's nothing wrong with that, and there's nothing new about it either. Newspapers have been reading their mail for centuries. And if the modern paper creates a forum, in its pages or on its Web site, where the public can argue over the candidates, more power to it.

Cherie: You're perspicacious. Opinion not permitted to flow through the Tribune will simply flow around it. The discussion is not the Tribune's to direct—it's barely the Tribune's to influence in the slightest. To the extent the paper is simply inviting the discussion onto its Web site, I have no quarrel.

But the Tribune is going beyond that, holding up its endorsement as an enticement. A newspaper endorsement—vain, paltry attempt at persuasion that it may be—is customarily held to be that newspaper speaking its own piece. From its heart. Out of its convictions. Or its traditions. Or out of self-interest gussied up to look like conscience. The point is that when a newspaper endorses a candidate for president, we understand it's the institution talking. A newspaper that doesn't know its own mind—that asks the public for help in deciding what to say and on whose behalf—not only forfeits any reason for its endorsement to be respected but leaves us wondering why we should put any stock in its editorial page at all.

What Cherie and Katie don't seem to understand is that a newspaper in any media age must retain a mind of its own—and when it speaks it should sound a little bit like God. The new Tribune may not understand that either.

I'm still trying to get used to the new Trib. One thing that's disconcerting is the wandering nature of the editorial pages. They're always somewhere in back, last Friday at the back of the Chicagoland pages, last Saturday at the back of the Business pages, last Sunday at the back of the Nation & World pages. The secret is to look for the obits and then keep going. The Saturday treatment was really special—behind the classifieds as well as the obits. Oh, the indignity!

To its credit, the Tribune anticipated the problem with the handy "guide to today's Tribune" that runs across the top of pages two and three. The guide consists of shaded, numbered rectangles, each representing a page of the paper, and in an attempt to be unimaginably helpful, beneath the rectangles representing pages two and three the Tribune announces, you are here!

Some of the other rectangles are also designated as something special—as, for instance, the pages where Nation & World and Legacies (i.e., obituaries) begin. But most are not. They're just a series of pale, gray numbered boxes that do nothing but tell the reader that after, say, page 17, where Chicagoland began on Monday, there's a page 18, a page 19, and a page 20.

Many readers will intuit that for themselves. And as I study this display of gray boxes that don't look so different from a wide row of tombstones, I wonder if the new Tribune has missed a bet. If it had organized itself a little differently it could superimpose emoticons on these gray boxes to tell readers the nature of the news being proffered there: a smiley for a page of good news, a sad face for tragedies on distant shores, the imp with its tongue out for news too hot to wait to be fact-checked, and an angry face—in either red or blue—for news of fresh political slanders.

If anyone at the Tribune passes this idea along to Lee Abrams, the Tribune Company's dynamic new innovations czar, be sure to say it comes from me. If he thinks it was generated in-house he might actually go with it, and I don't want that on my conscience.

I hear it said that the new Tribune looks an awful lot like RedEye, so tarted up it's promiscuous, a wham-bam good time for glancers whose serious media relationships are online. For a while I thought that myself. I don't now, and to make my case I'm going to point to the front page of last Saturday's paper: two big black headlines heralding what were major stories by anyone's reckoning, "Report: Palin abused power" and "Wild Day Ends Historic Week"; a few paragraphs of news copy; and, labeled "Financial Crisis" and covering two-thirds of the page, the seven-day charts of each of the Dow's 30 Industrials. I can't imagine a more pungent way of communicating economic collapse than that field of charts, and I wouldn't have imagined this way either. But someone at the Tribune did. Yes, clever graphics can coexist with serious content, and not even uneasily.

Where the design of the retooled Tribune has gone seriously wrong is on many of the inside pages. The whole point of the exercise, don't forget, was to reduce the news hole to the size of the ad hole, and an immediate result of the new ratio was pages laid out gracelessly—a jumble of news briefs piled on a jumble of ugly little ads, or a full page of gray news copy standing beside a particularly drab full-page ad with no allowance made for how homely they looked together.

But the Tribune designers are learning as they go. Fewer and fewer pages make me wince. Enduring complaints? Well, the Tribune's proving you can always make the comics even smaller. I guess the day when grandparents read them to toddlers is over now, unless the old folks have had successful LASIK surgery.

And I'm a little astonished by the insult the Tribune is paying its columnists. Eric Zorn, for instance, was the flagship for the old Metro section. Now it's hard to find him. I have a friend who stumbled across Zorn once when the new look was rolled out and hasn't seen him since. He asked me the other day if Zorn was still at the paper.

What matters most about the new Tribune, though, isn't how it looks or where things are but what's in it. The Tribune's trying awfully hard to be useful and a little too hard to amuse. It's behaving like the people we know who are certain that if they ever stop being cheery and volunteering for everything their friends will drop them. But I never asked the Tribune to be my friend. I do ask it, and once expected it, to lead me into a vast and dangerous world it thought hard about, if not always the way I wanted it to. How much of that Tribune is left?

I don't know, but I keep seeing reasons to worry. Page three this Monday carried a roundup of Internet "beauty rumors" about measures the candidates are taking to look fabulous. The triviality of this story, occupying what was once a serious news page, troubled me less than its jaunty admission that the Tribune had no idea whether the stories it repeated were true. The viral spread of political lies online is a scourge I'd expect any decent newspaper to abhor. Yet here was the Tribune inviting readers to "fabricate your own rumors at chicagotribune/beauty."

Which brings me back to Katie and Cherie. I think the Tribune editorial board wants to endorse Barack Obama—a century and a half of Republican fidelity be damned. Maybe the Tribune calculates that by first polling its readers it can then shrug at those hard-core Republican subscribers, "Well, what could we do?" Maybe the endorsement isn't important this year to anyone but the editorial board—the big bosses just want to feel the love.

In 1974 the White House released a 1,308-page transcript of secretly recorded Watergate conversations. The next morning a rich and vastly more confident Tribune published a 44-page special section containing all 246,000 words of that transcript. Then the editorial page declared, "We have seen the private man, and we are appalled," and told President Nixon, whom it had endorsed for president three times in the past, that he should resign or be impeached.

That's the Tribune I want endorsing Obama.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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