Saturday, August 16, 2008

Second City's journalism future, past and present came together this week

The past couple of days have given us both a history lesson and a glimpse of the future for what passes for journalism in Chicago.

The Chicago-oriented website published by Arianna Huffington kicked itself into gear this week. While I will concede there is the chance it will get better, its beginnings are just as mediocre as I would have expected.

THE HUFFINGTON POST – Chicago on its first day gave us links to about a half-dozen news stories and features, all of which were lifted from the web sites of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.

The first “lede story” on the site’s first day of operation was nothing more than a link to a column written by Sun-Times Washington correspondent Lynn Sweet. Now I don’t have anything against the work of Sweet, who is one of the top reporters working in the Chicago news media.

She had an interesting column that day, and by and large the stories that were picked up from the two metro newspapers were the top bits of news for the day.

The problem is that because I had already looked at the Sun-Times and Tribune web sites (and the papers themselves) before going to the Huffington Post Chicago, I had already read every single bit of news that Arianna’s vision of the future of news media had to offer.

SHE GAVE ME nothing that first day I didn’t already know. And personally, I’d rather go straight to the websites that are producing copy to get stories firsthand. I don’t need Arianna’s vision of which stories she thinks I should read.

Insofar as the specialty columnists her site offered up, I could do without the ramblings of actor John Cusack – although I’m not going to be as critical of him as some pundits have been. It turns out that the actor who likes to think of himself as the ultimate Chicago sports fan couldn’t properly spell Larry Biittner, Chris Chelios or Michael Jordan.

But his typographical errors were mild compared to some of the whoppers that turn up on websites everywhere.

For those people who are convinced that these understaffed sites somehow give a personal touch to the news, proper spelling and good grammar are something that sometimes get sacrificed by the Internet – particularly if one is working on a business model that only is profitable if one does not have to pay the “hired help” who generate copy.

WITH ALL OF this, I don’t think the Huffington Post Chicago is a “must-read” site. I may check it out again in a month or so to see if it shapes up any (which is possible, I still remember how awful the Tribune Co.’s CLTV was in its first couple weeks of existence back in 1993).

But I don’t feel any need to add a link on this site to the Huffington Post Chicago, even though I try to keep a fairly comprehensive list of Chicago-oriented news organizations and their web sites down the right-hand column of the Chicago Argus.

For the time being, I will stick with reading the actual newspapers (and checking the websites to see if stories get updated throughout the day).

It was by actually reading the papers that I got a bittersweet treat this week – the Sun-Times is trying to give us unsubtle reminders of those days in the late 1970s and early 1980s when their staff combined with that of the now-defunct Chicago Daily News to create one of the top newspapers in the country – one that came very close to matching the Tribune’s circulation (about 700,000 copies sold per weekday for the Tribune, compared to about 650,000 sold per day for the Sun-Times).

MIKE ROYKO IS back in the newspaper. The Sun-Times on both Thursday and Friday reprinted columns he wrote for the newspaper during his six-year stint there, along with little boxes telling us whatever became of the people Royko wrote about.

It was interesting to learn that the Polish immigrant who got mugged and had the police thinking he was the robber did NOT wind up having his status affected by federal immigration authorities.

And it was refreshing to read a column that reported a story with a perspective, instead of just provided a forum for some literary gasbag to pontificate (a trend of which I am sometimes guilty of as well).

But it also had the negative effect of casting a pall over the rest of the paper – almost like it was showing us how much the publication has declined throughout the years. It was just as sad as last week when the Sun-Times editorial page reprinted a column written by Roger Simon.

OFFICIALLY, HE WAS a “guest columnist” filling the space of now-retired pundit Robert Novak. Yet I remember when Royko and Simon were the top columnists providing the Sun-Times with its voice in Chicago.

The Sun-Times is a newspaper whose ghosts have the potential to overshadow its current format. And that is not good.

There’s only so much old copy that can be reprinted before the Sun-Times becomes a nostalgia act. What comes next, the Sun-Times reprints the month-long series from 1977 about “The Mirage,” letting us know that the tavern on Superior Street was once used by the paper to document the degree to which government inspectors “shook down” small business owners?

It is in this environment that the present status of journalism came under scrutiny at the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper let several of its top editorial staffers go last week (including a managing editor, a Washington bureau manager and an ombudsman), and another 40 people were informed on Friday they no longer worked for the newspaper.

THE COMBINATION OF layoffs and buyouts are part of an effort to reduce expenses enough to allow Sam Zell and his people to claim a profit at a time when advertising lineage is plummeting.

When combined with positions that were vacant that will never be filled, there are now 80 fewer journalists working for the Chicago Tribune – although new Editor Gerould Kern wrote in a memo to staff ( that the truly significant number is 480.

That is the size of the Tribune’s remaining editorial staff, and he claims it to be bigger than any other newspaper publishing in the Midwestern U.S.

To me, what is intriguing about the Tribune these days is how it will cope with the losses of so many high-ranking people at once. Institutional memory is an important characteristic, even though some Tribune executives of today prefer to think of it as “museum-like” and dull.

BUT I CAN’T say I’m shocked that so many long-term Tribune people are willing to leave now. It’s not like the working conditions for those veteran newspeople paid much in the way of respect for their skills.

“Anybody in the newsroom over the age of 50 these days is being made to feel like they’re in Hell,” one veteran Tribune reporter recently told me.

With that kind of attitude prevailing, you can’t blame these people who thought they would devote their lives to disseminating the news for taking advantage of a generous buyout package (about a year’s salary along with continued health insurance benefits for some of the longer-serving journalists) for not working.


EDITOR’S NOTES: People who think the Internet is about finding video clips of kids fighting each other or cheerleaders landing on their butts might not care, but somebody ( has to figure out the future of who will generate the editorial content for websites, if the sites themselves are determined to take their copy from other sources. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times (which has felt disrespected by its Chicago owners) gave its assessment ( of the Chicago Tribune’s newest competitor for the attention of people wanting news and information about Chicago.

More than 11 years after his departure from this Earth (,cst-nws-royko14.article), Royko’s back!

More jobs than expected ( were lost at the Chicago Tribune in recent weeks. Meanwhile, the Sun-Times couldn’t help (,trib081508.article) but take a few digs at their competition’s financial problems.

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