Thursday, August 14, 2008

The beginning (or the middle) of the end

It's no secret that the Chicago Tribune is planning some substantial cuts, due to falling circulation and a need to pay back the massive debt accumulated in its acquisition. I suspect that I'm not alone in watching the newspaper closely for some evidence of what it will become, and it is with no small trepidation. There's always the possibility of reading too much into the tiniest bit of evidence, seeing something that last year would have seemed like a blip now regarded as proof that the paper is heading for destruction.

[By the way, I am not at all blind to the Tribune's faults, as should be clear to anyone who's read this blog for a while. Their slavish editorial support of the president has become an embarrassment, business coverage is monumentally shallow, and the sports coverage has increasingly bent toward becoming an adjunct of talk radio. But they still seem to have the objective of covering the world, and, whatever their faults, there are still good reporters and columnists pushing ahead with the desire to find and deliver truth.]

However, when the evidence begins to pile up, one has to start drawing conclusions. Several Tribune employees have accepted buyouts (no, I have no idea why one has to read the religion blog to read the list of names), and it's a pretty experienced and distinguished list. I don't recognize all the names, not being familiar with the work of editors, but the names I do know represent a great loss, and the buzz is that there are more to come.

(That they accepted buyouts does not mitigate the loss. Having been through and near quite a few situations like this in my own work life, I can tell the lucky few who haven't that it is almost always smart to take a proffered buyout. Unless you are 99% sure that your management will be able to right the course once they toss a few overboard, the buyouts will likely be followed by force-outs, and the compensation will be less - plus, you're likely to be in a job market already filled with your colleagues.)

But it's always possible that the paper will figure out how to do more with less, that the people who have left are duplicative in some way, that standards will be upheld.

Then we look at the Tribune's Olympic coverage from Beijing, and it is far less than it has been before. Reduced in size, reduced in scope, seeking out the most obvious stories, there have clearly been bean-counters at work here. (Keep in mind that the major cuts are supposed to come at the end of next month.)

Yesterday, readers turn to the op-ed page, and are faced with a near-half page article titled, Top 10 songs on their iPods right now: You be the judge. Various local and national figures, including McCain and Obama, are surveyed for the contents of their iPods. This is, remember, supposed to be a page for informed commentary in one of the best newspapers in the nation, a forum for ideas and opinions.

Instead, we find out that McCain has a weakness for ABBA, and that the governor of Illinois is really into Elvis (well, that's fitting, since it is almost certain that, after the next election, Governor Hot Rod will have left the building). This is a feature that, in a serious publication, would have trouble making it into the Tempo (what some papers call Lifestyle) section. (And let's agree not to notice that these song choices are undoubtedly vetted and camapign-approved, so they do not reveal anything about the preferences of these people.)

And today readers were treated to a Tempo story about a Tribune reporter and her best friend, how they met in a dance class and bonded over the music of Melissa Etheridge (the reporter hastens to add that the bonding has nothing to do with the gay thing). There's a huge picture of the two best buds in front of the theater where Melissa is playing, and I'm just sure they did each other's hair before going out.

The thing is, you end up reading the whole article, waiting for the hook, the touching part where her best friend gets cancer or is killed in Hurricane Katrina, anything that will give this some resonance past, "We're best pals, we've been there for each other, and we love to rock out to Melissa."

And it's just not there. What is there reads like a poorly-written teenage diary, the climax being the point at which the reporter admits to her friend that she still dreams about the friend's bedroom, the one she had when she was 10: "The pink rose Laura Ashley curtains and comforters. The queen-size white brass bed. The closet, oh, the closet. It took up an entire wall, floor to ceiling, and was beautifully organized." And her friend does too. Then Melissa sings, the friends cry and hug, and we finish with: "We cheered for her—and for us."


I'm not saying every publication has to be relentlessly serious, that there isn't room for lighter fare. But it seems clear that the Tribune offered buyouts to at least one too many editors, because tripe like this doesn't belong in a high school newspaper.

If this is the way the Chicago Tribune is going, and it is just one of the news sources that are heading down this path, I fear for the quality of information we're going to be receiving.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw that Tempo article too. As I was reading, I waited and looked patiently for something touching or special, something that allowed the story to make it to the newspaper. But there was nothing. It was a long article
about a relationship that was as regular as could be. Even the "20-year" part of the friendship does not stand out because there are 50- or 60-year friendships that exist everywhere, and have far more personal growth and resonance.

The Chicago Tribune certainly was not very selective when deciding to print this story.

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