It Was The “Worlds Greatest Newspaper”

The Chicago Tribune aka WGN or the “voice of the Midwest” is now in the hands of Alden Capital, the outfit that has been buying newspapers across the country essentially to destroy them.

Their profit motive is reprehensible. There are better ways to get rich than diminishing an essential piece of democracy, accountability, and sports coverage, for instance.

Now that Alden has secured full control of the Tribune Company, the depleted descendent of a once formidable enterprise, it will have its way with newspapers like the Tribune, the New York Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, The Hartford Courant, The Virginian Pilot and many more. Apparently spared is The Baltimore Sun which is being turned into a non-profit enterprise with enough Maryland based money to assure its future, at least for now.

The Sun was family owned in its heyday with an excellent Washington Bureau and enough foreign correspondents to claim that the “Sun never sets on the world.” The paper has an impressive past and the chance now to recover its stature, especially as the major outlet for real local news.

The Chicago Tribune, founded in 1847, is one of the country’s most famous newspapers. Under the ownership of the McCormick family, it was known for a nativist editorial stance and an element of braggadocio, hence “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.” By the end of the 20th century, the Tribune became an excellent practitioner of the storytelling and investigative crafts. It was, in my view, better than the snobs of New York, Washington and Los Angeles wanted to acknowledge. I won’t list the names — because inevitably I will leave some out — but from memory there were scores of outstanding reporters, correspondents, editors, critics who for one reason or another I knew.

I will mention my friend, Howard Tyner, who I met as a UPI correspondent in Moscow in the 1970s. He later was the top editor of the paper. He encouraged my son Evan to apply for an internship. Evan stayed for ten years and was a correspondent in Iraq, Egypt and China. When he joined The New Yorker in 2008, the Tribune bureau was closed.

Paul Salopek, winner of two Pulitzers at the Tribune, is now well along on a 21,000-mile walking tour of the globe, backed by the National Geographic and donations. At its best, that is the sort of journalism that the Tribune regularly did. Evan once went to Papua New Guinea to find the wood sources that ended up as furniture on a Chinese shipping dock.

So, what happened? I will summarize perhaps a bit too much. In 2000, The Tribune company, headquartered in Chicago’s iconic Tribune Tower, acquired Los-Angeles based Times-Mirror, at the time the largest merger in the history of the newspaper industry. In retrospect that was a business, cultural and timing debacle. The Los Angeles Times staff in particular, regarded the Tribune people as less impressive than they were.

One mishap led to another and bankruptcy and an enterprise emerged called Tronc which was mocked for its business clumsiness and its moniker. And so finally, the owner is Alden Capital.

What now?

The real purpose of this piece is to shame the Chicago elites — the business community, the locally based foundations and the hedge-fund and private equity titans — who have accepted the decline of great local journalism and show no sign of changing their position. This is now, I contend, the last chance to revive the Chicago Tribune, as a major 21st century news organization.

Having discussed this situation with among others James O’Shea and James Warren, two of the outstanding Tribune editors I came to know, the best of local journalism is being practiced at WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station which has a full newsroom. There are other outlets which in combination do not come close to what the Chicagoland region, as it is called, so badly needs. Lest the point gets lost, WBEZ is a non-profit enterprise supported by members, philanthropists and underwriters.

Why hasn’t the formidable wealth in Chicago been mobilized to save the Tribune and the tabloid Chicago Sun-Times, considered the “inner city” paper and turn them into a creatively financed non-profit institution — using a business model that is emerging elsewhere with still developing techniques.

Newspapers in the 20th Century were mainly dependent on advertising for its revenues. That has sharply and probably permanently declined. It is now essential for news to be supported in other ways — as WBEZ is. What has come to be called “engagement.” That means asking the consumers of news to pay for it, along side what community leaders can provide.

Nothing like that has been really tried in Chicago. My belief is that a great part of the power structure in Chicago is perfectly comfortable not being subjected to scrutiny by a top-notch newsroom. The presence of The New York Times national edition provides readers with international political, business and cultural coverage without the intense focus on Chicago (which, I should add, has a lot to offer).

When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013 as it struggled financially, the paper adopted the motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. The “City of Broad Shoulders”, the third largest city in the United States cannot — not — be so badly served. I live in New York (with decades of summers spent on Lake Michigan, about two hours from downtown) and a subscription to the Tribune there.

I read in print and on- line, four newspapers a day. I have been a journalist and publisher since the mid-1960s. I had an early experience in Chicago working with O’Shea on a non-profit called the Chicago News Cooperative. The board of local luminaries concluded it was better to make money on journalism than just spend it. CNC is long gone.

Chicago — in the broadest geographic and spiritual definition — should demand great journalism. Now. The measure of success in today’s world of media can no longer be the profit margins, as it once was. The challenge — formidable but necessary — is finding the ways to long term sustainability for gathering and delivering quality news and how or who will pick up the tab to make that possible.

Founder in 1997 of PublicAffairs, he is the author of “An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen” to be published in June.

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