Friday, June 9, 2006

Personal Aside: The Tribune Writes About Pennies While its Board Considers a Restructuring that Could Sell the Company in Chunks

The newspaper that doesn’t know what it believes…that can’t hire a regular cartoonist because he might alienate somebody…that writes editorials about the governor’s plan to privatize the lottery by spewing out questions for debate, concluding with something like “we’ll see”…that attempts to comment on major issues by splitting the difference…that regularly endorses Republicans in editorials but supports a liberal news staff that regularly leans the opposite way…is on the verge of break-up, according to The Wall Street Journal. Yesterday the Journal reported in its major news slot, right page right column, that the newspaper’s board is seriously considering a restructuring that could begin with large spin-offs and end with the sale of the rest of the paper.

Thus would end in a miasma of mediocrity and inconclusiveness a newspaper that came to greatness by supporting Lincoln during the Civil War, that rallied Chicago to rebuild after the fire of 1871, that supported conservative policies during the 1890s but became a flaming, quotable progressive newspaper backing Theodore Roosevelt and wrote a whole lot of city and national journalistic history from the 1920s through 1955. If the demise happens, it was caused by fatal lack of conviction (columnist John Kass being the great exception), a fruitless chasing to relativistic issues, a desire to be loved, a needless shame of its McCormick past, a simpering, whimpering desire to straddle the issues much like the old Whigs. We are at a time when newspapers should stand for something. The New York Times, let it be said, stands for a lot and is fearless in the way it propounds its liberalism, in its news columns, editorials and most Op Eds. The Sun-Times has become the Democratic party’s newspaper of record and people reach for it first because of its saucy, often saucily vapid, tone—but a tone that tells readers it knows what it is.

When a paper wants to emulate the New York Times but doesn’t have the guts to see it through by seeing that so-called “objectivity” is foolhardy and interpretive journalism is desirable, it presents a shilly-shallying and evasive temperament that is intolerable. Because of its lack of courage, because it stands for nothing, it could be said, it richly deserves oblivion. But that would be too bad. It could be spared by making it the philosophically committed paper it once was. But there is little hope this will happen with its Hinsdale, Oak Brook-included country club managers. A paper that so sorely wants to be a national player that it puts vibrant Chicago political news in the Metro section and parades its front page with filmy trend stories on the front page doesn’t deserve to succeed—but enough of its heritage survives that it would be too harsh to say be-gone even now about the once great Tribune. If it goes, the epitaph will be that it died because it was needlessly ashamed of its conservative past as its nihilistic managers, business executive with no souls, shrank from the paper’s courageous heritage.


  1. Take another look at that photo of Keillor on your site, Tom. Do you recognize genius?

    In the seventies – when I'm guessing that network TV's domination of media audience was the greatest – this struggling writer probably didn't have to look in the mirror to follow his instincts to radio; and he was clever enough to become a top earner in, of all things, public radio, while adding rocket fuel to career as a writer.

    You've often written of the need for a conservative paper in this market and its prospects for success, but you ignore that within the lifetimes of your grandchildren the growth of big city newspaper print circulation will be grotesquely stunted. Those financing these papers must see it, too, and are seeking ways to generate more revenue with their internet editions. Content aside, if the owners of these papers don't have the instincts and brains of Keillor, their audience will continue shrinking.

    I offer only one solution to declining circulation and readership beyond the current attempts to generate more revenue from advertisers and readers of internet editions.

    Take a tip from Keillor.

    Solicit donations from your audience. Participate in fund drives.

  2. Tom,

    The Tribune is in the mess it is because management's plans didn't quite work out. The WB turned out to be less than a success and all papers not just the Tribune have been whacked by the decline in advertising revenue. Plus, the Tribune lost in the courts on their plans for media expansion and that put them back to square one. I just feel bad for the regular people and reporters who work there. It's not going to be fun watching what's going to be happening to them as the Tribune goes through the breakup process.

  3. A Trib Co. breakup could ultimately help the Cubbies. Couldn't hurt, at least.