New York Times staffs Chicago edition… or Gray Lady courts suburban blue hairs
Reporter John Cook’s pencil is sharpest when he’s covering his former editors at the Chicago Tribune. Here’s an example from Radar Online, penned in 2007 when former Tribune managing editor James O’Shea took the wheel of the Los Angeles Times in seas thick with economic and ethical icebergs:
During the five years that O’Shea served as managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, O’Shea was married to a manager of media relations for Chicago’s Field Museum.
The museum turned up in the Tribune’s pages more than 1,200 times during O’Shea’s tenure, sometimes raising eyebrows in the newsroom. (Full disclosure: Your humble correspondent was a Tribune reporter during O’Shea’s tenure there.) In April 2004, for instance, the paper ran two back-to-back Page One stories lauding the museum’s efforts to establish a nature preserve in rural Peru. The feel-good nature of the stories, their lack of news hook, their unusual length for a newspaper (more than 8,000 words total), and their prominent placement all had staffers wondering if they were an anniversary present to O’Shea’s wife. As one Tribune staffer puts it today, “Why put this meaningless Field Museum story on Page One?” (Adding to the intrigue over the Peru series was the fact that Jack Fuller, then the president of Tribune Publishing, was dating a Field Museum scientist featured prominently—and favorably—in the stories.)
Like the dedicated rodents on the wrong end of Whack-a-Mole, Cook’s former editors keep resurfacing for more, most lately in plans by The New York Times to launch a Chicago edition. Cook is ready with the mallet:
Despite its manifest troubles, the Times is in a pretty good position to compete with the Tribune in Chicago, largely because the Tribune is as dull as a sack full of wet newsprint and suffers locally from a well-earned reputation for stuffy, censorious parochialism. The Times has always had a very good foothold in Chicago because there is no local alternative for the sort of people who read the Times—curious, smart, and not invested in Chicago’s bottomless Second City status anxiety. The Tribune, on the other hand, is pitched directly at suburban blue-haired ladies who are given to write angry letters to the paper, and the definition of a successful editorial initiative at the Trib is one that does not generate angry letters from blue-haired suburban ladies.
But the Times isn’t actually getting into the local news business in Chicago itself; instead, it is outsourcing the coverage to something called the Chicago News Cooperative, a newly formed non-profit designed to “provide high quality, professionally edited news and commentary to the Chicago region on the Web, in print and over the airwaves,” according to a news release announcing its formation. So who’s heading up CNC? Why, James O’Shea, the Tribune’s former managing editor. On its board is Ann Marie Lipinski, the Trib’s former top editor and O’Shea’s former boss. And writing a column for CNC’s “branded content” in the Times will be former managing editor for features Jim Warren. In other words, the Times is taking a whack at the Trib by hiring the people whose complacency and abject failure to create a newspaper worth reading made the Trib vulnerable to a whack-taking in the first place.
And you won’t hear many Chicagoans calling Cook off. We can be fiercely loyal to local institutions–from Da Bears to ketchup-free hotdogs–but it’s been decades since many of us felt that way about our newspapers. More than a few Chicagoans welcomed rumors of an intrusion from The New York Times, because it looked like the first shot we might have at a decent local rag since Rupert Murdoch defiled the Sun-Times.
And despite second-city anxiety, the Times is a more natural fit than it might seem.
A few years ago, when people still subscribed to newspapers, I counted several copies of The New York Times on stoops in my rusty, working-class South Side neighborhood before spotting a single Tribune. The Times enjoyed better penetration in the gilded districts of Chicago’s North Side. I can almost echo John Cook’s statement that “I quite literally never met a Tribune subscriber socially during my five years in Chicago.” I’ve met a couple, but none of them live in Chicago. All live in the burbs.
Most South Siders I’ve encountered haven’t ever considered the Tribune relevant to their lives, except as a poison. And with good reason: it hasn’t covered the South Side, except in the most poisonous ways: parroting police logs, from a distance, to reinforce the area’s reputation as a murder zone.
Murder yes, sexual assault no. For years the Tribune would issue a “Community Alert” when a rape took place in certain predominantly white North Side neighborhoods, but would ignore the same crime on the South Side.
On the other hand, if a crime occurred near a place on the South Side where suburban readers might dare to venture–U.S. Cellular Field, for example–the Tribune would be sure to note the proximity of incident to ballpark, while consistently omitting mention of Tribune-owned Wrigley Field when crimes occurred near there, as they do more often.
Despite its name, the Chicago Tribune was never the Chicago newspaper. The Sun-Times enjoyed better circulation in the city. The Tribune was the newspaper of a certain segment, mostly beyond city limits.
So many Chicagoans were startled when the Tribune endorsed Barack Obama for president–despite the obviousness of the choice–because the Tribune seemed ever against whatever Chicago was for. Or–as in the case of the Iraq war–ever for whatever we opposed.
I use the past tense because the Tribune seems to have vanished into a pothole in the last year or so. It’s hard to say what it does anymore. What it did is on record. As Nelson Algren wrote of the Tribune in 1961, it had a “trick of substituting counterfeit values for true ones” to generate an ink Chicago that enriched Tribune, but that bore little relation to the real city.
So it’s no wonder the Chicago of flesh and bone, steel and concrete turned at times to the Times. You could find some of the most insightful coverage of Chicago life there–as in Isabel Wilkerson’s smart, sympathetic Pulitzer prize-winning profile of a South Side family, “First-Born, Fast Grown: The Manful Life of Nicholas, 10.”
And when the Sun-Times building was torn down a few years ago to make room for Trump’s new tower, not even the Sun-Times could tell us why the dumpy, barge-like building appealed to us, why we would miss it. The Tribune, busy scorning lesser media as it continued to lessen itself, wasn’t about to.
It took Lawrence Downes, a former Sun-Times copy editor, writing in The New York Times:
If you judge a building’s worth by what goes on inside, by what valuable things it produces, then even the most fabulous Trump property has nothing on the old Sun-Times barge.
The people I knew there were unusual, even by the relaxed standards of the news business: shaggy geniuses, smug mediocrities, smokers, burnouts and cynics. Most were old pros. Many were oddly wonderful, especially the copy editors….
And now the old building is being destroyed. Was it ugly? Yes. Is your grandma ugly? And if you answer a question like that, what does that say about you?
So it’s disappointing to see the Times brass staff the Chicago edition in a manner that suggests it may follow a model Chicago has rejected. There’s plenty of evidence Times brass isn’t very astute lately, but this isn’t an iPhone they’re trying to build. It’s a newspaper.
If Lawrence Downes can’t help the Times dig up any shaggy geniuses to run the Chicago edition, maybe the Times should search its own archives. Isabel Wilkerson, the Times’s former Chicago bureau chief, has been buzzing in the books, as Carl Sandberg would say, as a journalism professor. I’ll bet she misses this big-shouldered burg.