Yesterday there was a big piece in The New York Times about the stupid and skanky management culture at the Chicago Tribune Co., which real estate tycoon Sam Zell took over several years ago, and predictably ran into bankruptcy.
The Times story reminded me of the spring of 2008, when I tried to save the Trib.
I was trying to save myself, really. I was sputtering, and entertaining a gambit a day, to keep the freelance juice coming in agreeable and meaningful ways.
On a manic Tuesday morning, I sent an e-mail to then-CEO Sam Zell, from one hubristic vulgarian to another:
I keep reading about how you’re shaking up the administration of the Tribune Company, without seeing the first signs of new life in the Chicago Tribune or its Sunday magazine.
I assume you’re interested in shaking up the publications. I assume you haven’t gotten to it yet. I’d like to help.
On this dullness, I am an authority several times over. I write for the Trib fairly regularly—well, just about exactly as regularly as I read the Trib. What a boring fucking newspaper it is! And it’s boring because the editors are terrified—not terrified of you, but of the corporate bean counters and lawyers whose feathers they have dedicated their souls not to ruffle all these years.
Your editors are much more profoundly motivated by the fear of getting in trouble than the excitement of making a splash. The ones who are awake, anyway. I was once in the features newsroom visiting an editor. It was so quiet in there, I would have cleared out the place with a belly laugh or a cross word. I’ve been in libraries that more resembled newsrooms.
I’m also an authority on the Trib’s dullness because I do some freelance writing and editorial consulting on corporate publications. I’ve often remarked, and meant it, that the editorial limitations at the Chicago Tribune are more restrictive than those of employee magazines for insurance companies.
But I’m mostly an authority on the Trib’s dullness because the editors there have only taken my worst story ideas over the years, while my best story ideas have beaten their brains in on those thick gray walls.
… I can’t tell you the number of good stories that don’t get commissioned because an Entertainment editor says, “Hmmm, great story, but Gertrude and I think it’s more Tempo-y.” And then the Tempo editor says …. “Hmm, it’s wonderful but I think it’s more Entertainment-y.”
These are not the rants of a rejected freelance writer. I’ve written a lot for the Trib, and its sister, Chicago magazine, where I’ve got a piece in the current issue, on Drew Peterson’s third wife. They’re much more the ravings of a bored freelance reader.
Where’s the imaginative first-person reporting (and I know you won’t point to John Kass’s buffoonish bullshit) on the preposterous Rezko/Blagojevich trial?
With all the craziness happening in Will County—unsolved murders, hilarious corruption and social anarchy and the fastest growing county in the U.S.—why isn’t a top Trib reporter down there turning over this fresh manure? (For a rich whiff, see my piece on Bolingbrook mayor Roger Claar ….)
And where’s the playful spirit that once married the terms Chicago and journalism? Sun-Times’ “Mirage Tavern” is one of the last examples that comes to mind. A great series that everybody from that era still talks about. It’s inconceivable in this day and age to do a story like that! (Or is it?)
Let’s give the Tribune one quick shake: I propose that you give me—any loose cannon would do, but it was my idea first—ten thousand dollars per month for one year, with the agreement that I’ll deliver directly to you 12 stories for you to show the rest of the Tribune editors: This is the sort of thing I’d like to see every once in a while. Something surprising! Something that two intelligent people could argue about! Something that might sell some papers!
Assuming you’re satisfied with the stories I’d write (with the help of a colleague or two that I’d pay out of my monthly fee), you’d drive them into the newspaper via whatever channels you feel like.
To pull this off, I’d have to drop pretty much all of my freelance clients, so I’d need you to give me the whole year to prove myself to you. After that, however, I’d ask for no assurances.
What do you think?
I didn't hear from him for a month—a relief, because of course I had no idea how I was going to deliver these 12 Pulitzers.
When he finally did respond, it was a brief mumble, about how he needed to trust his editors "to give our readers what they want."
That was also all I needed to hear to dismiss Zell as another incorrigible mass-communication dunce who thinks readers wake up in the morning knowing exactly what it is they want to read … and who mindlessly believe it is the role of journalism to give it to them, sunny side up.
They believe the whole key to journalism is the business model, as if making good, compelling stories—which has become more and more difficult to do over the last quarter century as newspapers came under by risk-averse, bottomline-obsessed umbrella corporations like the Tribune Company—has nothing at all to do with the future of journalism.
Zell's problem wasn't only that he didn't know the newspaper business. It was also that he didn't understand or give a damn about journalism: Its role in society, its role in people's lives, its potential to make life richer all around, by documenting in vivid detail what some of us had no idea was happening, and what the others of us sensed was true all along.
Kind of like what that New York Times piece did yesterday, eh?