Call me a burned out old wire service hack, but I had all but given up hope that the Chicago Tribune would have much of a future. It sold its classic building, a symbol of the place if ever there was one, to condo builders who viewed it as a golden address, after remodeling. The staff bounced around a couple of times before ending up over at Freedom Center, the brick mega plant over near the railroad tracks where the paper is printed. The papers that had once been part of its empire seemed to be drifting away. Alden Capital had its hands around the neck of the place, eager to squeeze what money it could from a process already severely diminished from its heyday.
Then Gary Marx and David Jackson wrote an op ed piece of reason and passion for the New York Times begging for some folks with deep pockets and dreams of the survival of journalism to come along. I thought that was pretty hopeless, but I admired them both, as I always have, for having the balls to do it. I thought they would be gone and the effort would be memorialized somehow, but forgotten.
For the first time in over a decade, I am, sorry to say I took a buyout and ran away from the place when the running was good. A fairy tale of an ending to this story is approaching, and it could put the Tribune and its papers in the same position The Washington Post landed on when Jeff Bezos, the money printer of modern business guys, bought the place and started pumping dollars in. It was always a great paper, but now it’s an even greater paper. Big staff. Big budget. Just what The Tribune needs to re-establish itself. I so hope it happens! It would be the best news for journalism since Donald Trump decided to make it the enemy of the people, which it has never been in any mind but his own. (The less said about him, the better).
I joined the Tribune in 1979 when it had a strong future, I believed, even as the company I was working for, United Press International, was sinking in the muck because publishers simply refused to pay what it was worth. Lots of grand journalists were tossed out as UPI basically disintegrated, as many had always predicted it would in its struggle with the Associated Press, blessed by membership agreements that guaranteed its bills would be paid. The Tribune had no such weaknesses. It also agreed to pay my shipping costs from the Soviet Union. I was part of a whole collection of people brought in to spunk up its presence on the world stage (and in Chicago, too). We were all outsiders but valued for our experience. In those days, a Saturday morning news desk job scraping up little stories for the Sunday paper could yield to an assignment in, for example, Panama. Bill Jones, the compelling editor of the paper, would just tap you and say, “The Shah of Iran’s going to Panama. Go down there and see what’s up with that. Get some money and get there quickly.”
And off we went.
I loved that about the place. The Tribune was where potential lived, not always realized, and lots of reporters benefited from that. It was a good place to have your skills measured and then used a lot. If you could write quickly and accurately, you would end up writing maybe a dozen stories a day, or one huge story. It depended on what was happening.
The place sent me everywhere. A couple of big Europe trips. A couple more Moscow assignments. Lots of political stories. Rambling to my heart’s content. Writing about anything that landed in front of me, or that I landed in front of. It was great, great work.
That animosity caused by my strangeness (I was not a Chicago type guy) passed as we all came to know each other, work on stories together, struggle against evils (real or imagined) and rambled across the green pastures of Chicago journalism. And they were green. Men and women who worked at the old Daily News were at The Tribune. They were great writers and thinkers. People from Chicago American. Layers of wire service veterans picked up in various hiring rounds when the Tribune wanted to up its game.
There were no bad lunches at The Chicago Tribune. You could always gather up a collection of excellent science writers, great economics writers, foreign correspondents back in town, whatever you could think of. The paper did not pay for these events. We did, because we loved the feeling of it so much you could not resist when the chance came to repeat it.
The Washington-based political writer Jon Margolis would drop in, and that would be an event. Or you would go to Washington to help out on a story and THAT would be an event.
It was the only place in the world where one of your work partners could call up, nearly in tears, to announce all his notes had been tossed out on a big project. “How could that happen?” I asked. “I left them in brown paper bags on my desk. The cleaning people thought they were garbage.” Of course, they were not. So we got together and rebuilt what was lost. Because that’s what you did at the Tribune.
The stories could go on forever, but not here because even I realize that the trip down memory lane isn’t everyone’s idea of how to spend time.
But the fact that a potentially robust future is approaching is so heartening I felt I just had to take note. I pray it works out. The staff deserves it. Thank you David. Thank you Gary. Great work, as always