Trib Losing Perspective?
Aside from the deep-sixing of Arts Plus, the Tribune format change I find most problematic--or should I say least unproblematic?--is the cleaving of the Sunday Perspective section from the perspective of the Tribune.
The editorials and op-ed columnists now show up on Sunday in the same place they can be found the rest of the week, at the rear of section one. Consistency is often a puny virtue, and here it's no virtue at all. The more contemplative nature of America's Sunday papers long ago invited a design in which analyses of and reflections on the week's somewhat breathlessly reported news were gathered into a section of their own. Perspective was what the Tribune called its version of that section. You couldn't miss it.
Today's Perspective section has a recalibrated purpose and a fresh young editor. He's Robert Blau, a former police reporter who helped earn his new job and also define it with last April's account of a trip he and his wife accompanied his father on back to Buchenwald, the concentration camp Blau's father had survived as a child. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. The perspective was not the Tribune's but Blau's. At its best, which Perspective has been fitfully under Blau, it's a sanctuary for this high form of newspapering--journalism as personal witness.
"The idea is to create a section that's provocative and more readable than Perspective used to be, and not just a dumping ground for stories that didn't have a home in the rest of the paper," Blau told me. "And also to have a little bit of fun--that's the mission. The mantra has been to do all of that riding on the shoulders of the news, so it doesn't become just a freestanding feature section the way Tempo was. Every story should have a voice, a point of view, but should be focused squarely on news events and be inspired by the news."
It used to be, managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski explained, that Perspective "had become kind of a Sunday extension of section A. Friday afternoon would roll along and we'd say, 'Here are some good stories that didn't make it to section one. Let's put them here'"--alongside the op-ed columns and editorials.
My quarrel with the new approach is that I think the Tribune has unnecessarily orphaned those columns and editorials. They also have voices, express points of view, and were inspired by the news. A Sunday paper is a vast plain readers could graze from dawn to dusk if they had the time and appetite. They don't. By stashing it at the rear of section one, the Tribune has buried its own Sunday editorial page.
Most of the Tribune's changes have been more modest. The new Arts & Entertainment section is broadsheet--the old Arts section was tabloid--and better for it. "We like to think it's a little fresher--the look of it in broadsheet," said editor Rebecca Brown. "We're still covering the same material, but the design of the section has forced us to not treat every story the same way. We're weighing stories a little better."
Now Brown also edits Tempo--which was, as Blau said, a "freestanding feature section," and under a couple of intellectually curious editors, James Warren and Rick Kogan, a distinguished one. Faithful readers dreaded seeing Tempo dumbed down into a pop-culture ghetto. But the Tribune decided to interpret the pop-culture concept elastically, and the new Tempo looks much like the old, only pinched around the intellectual edges. "The things that aren't there are the human-interest stories, I guess, that don't really have a pop-culture slant to them," Brown said. "We still write a lot about people, but people in arts, entertainment, performing of some kind."
Brown even ignores that rule of thumb when she feels like it, and I wish she would (or could) just let the section revert to what it was. Staff writer Anne Keegan used to write a lot of gritty, street-smart stories about cops. It's been an adjustment, Brown allowed, but Keegan has met the new Tempo halfway: at the time she was working on a story about cops who write books. (To be followed by what--cops who watch cop shows? cops who polka on Saturday night?)
"What we're trying to do is keep the substance and make it a little more of a pleasure, a fun experience than it was before," Brown said. "The mission was to lighten things up, but we didn't want 'light' spelled l-i-t-e."
The second time I heard "mission" and "fun" invoked in a single breath, I began to suspect the presence of a party line. "Fun" no more describes what the Tribune should be dedicated to than it describes what it's ever been like to read it, or ever will be. Fun is a place the Tribune can't get to from here. But as long as it doesn't walk the walk it can talk the talk all it wants to. The biggest change the Tribune made had nothing whatsoever to do with fun, other than to shove a thumb in its eye: the Tribune scrubbed Arts Plus to make room for a solid page of news jumped from page one.
No single page of the daily Tribune served a clearer public service than the back page of section one, which was packed each morning with overnight reviews of music, dance, and theater. Now some of those reviews are jammed into the back of the Metro section, and others show up eventually in Tempo.
The Tribune warned months ago that Arts Plus was on the way out. A formal protest from Chicago's theater community bought time, but couldn't save the space. "Everyone here would agree," said Brown, that Arts Plus was a major loss.
The "ideal solution," she said, would be a Tempo that could live up to its responsibilities and run reviews of opening-night performances the following morning. But for technical reasons Tempo is printed days in advance. Overnight capacity is an item high on everyone's wish list. "It's one of the things everyone's looking forward to," Brown said. "It's not imminent."
What About Us?
When I'd asked Ann Marie Lipinski about the changes at her paper, she asked, fairly enough, about the changes at mine. Specifically, what did I think about what the Reader did to Hot Type?
I said it was fine by me. She seemed amazed. I think she expected me to say, if I were honest, that I hated it. After all, the logo's smaller, my name's smaller, the typography fades Hot Type into the woodwork, and the column even looks shorter. So much shorter that another reader wrote asking if I'm on the way out.
Readers see newspapers making change for the sake of change and wonder why. But writers and editors thank God. The Reader's always looked good, but to the staff it stopped looking interesting years ago. The design became too just so: a place for everything and everything in its place. This inflexibility also exasperated the staff in a practical way: it ruled out a front section that a reader could page through in more than one gear. A New Yorker reader can discover what features an issue holds while riffling through for cartoons, but no little oddities drew in impatient Reader readers. Kate Friedman's new design is fixing that deficiency good. Some readers may think we look too busy and messy now. I rejoice.
As for Hot Type, it became a gilded cage. Its length was decreed, the illustration (almost always a head shot) unnegotiable, and the design classical to a fault. The new Hot Type can be shorter; it can also be (and has been) a little longer. And it can now share its page with some goofy counterpoint.
Obviously, some soul searching and research have gone into the Reader's new look. The elegant old look served us nobly, in the early years making the paper look more professional than it was. But we concluded that readers, though perhaps they knew it not, wanted this. Certainly we did. When newspapers change their looks, as when cars change their grilles or radio stations their formats, and you wonder why anyone would tinker with success, consider that predictability eventually stupefies, and it's stupefied the tinkerers already.
The biggest international story this past Monday was the secession vote that day in Quebec, which threatened the unity of Canada with God knows what ultimate impact on the political map of North America. That morning's Sun-Times didn't carry a line. Though to be fair, the Sunday paper the day before had carried a nice Los Angeles Times piece on page 33.
But dare one accuse the Sun-Times of parochialism in the beamish afterglow of that "gala" the Honorable Conrad Black, P.C., O.C., and chairman of Hollinger Inc., threw for the "global glitterati" at the Cultural Center? (I quote the headline to the two-page spread the Sun-Times modestly carried, complete with initial-happy guest list and menu.) I doubt that a city's number-two paper has ever asserted its clout and staying power with more panache (even while its circulation was crashing below the 500,000 mark). Yet if I may niggle, the spectacle of the Baroness of Kesteven (Margaret Thatcher), O.M., P.C., F.R.S.; William F. Buckley; the Honorable Walter Annenberg; the Honorable Paul Volcker; and George Will all fetched by a London-based media czar to his provincial capital did raise a doubt about the motto on the Sun-Times editorial page: "An independent newspaper."
Or maybe that's why the Quebec referendum was ignored in Monday's Sun-Times. Black's a Canadian, and the first paper he owned was in Quebec. What a show of defiance.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.