Late into another sleepless Chicago night, I drag a blue-blooded widow and a balding curmudgeon under the covers with me, hoping they can help restore my faith. Mrs. Pynchon and Lou Grant are old friends of mine and I am happy to see them. But I make them whisper into my ear so we don’t disturb my wife. A few nights later, despite my best stealthy efforts, my wife catches us.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Mourning,” I say.
Since getting laid-off/axed/downsized/right-sized/fired last February from the Chicago Tribune, where I worked as a staff writer for eight years, I’ve downloaded and watched almost every episode of the first three seasons of the old Lou Grant television show on my iPod Touch. It helps me sleep. But the tiny iPod casts a big glow, so I pull the covers over my head like a little boy reading a comic book by flashlight way past his bedtime.
This thing with Lou, I assure my wife, is just a stage I’m going through. I’ll get over it. But right now I need a little help in getting past the anger, fear, and sense of loss that keep me up at night. It was watching Lou and the gang at the fictional Los Angeles Tribune that originally helped to convince me that a life in journalism was what I wanted—that it was fun and honorable and important. I’m surprised and happy after every episode at how good it feels to be back in a newsroom, even if it is only make-believe. Once I watched three episodes in a row before emerging from under the covers. There’s something comforting about the grouch’s gruff voice. But it is the premiere episode—September 20, 1977—that speaks to me the most these days.
After ten years, Lou has just been laid-off/axed/ downsized/right-sized/fired from his TV news job in Minneapolis. He heads to L.A. to interview with his old newspaper buddy, Charlie Hume, the managing editor of the Tribune. Lou arrives a few minutes early and pokes his head into a newspaper newsroom for the first time in a long time. The room is filled with editors, reporters, photographers, and the kind of music that only an orchestra of typewriters can make. (Is there an app for that sound?)
As Lou looks around the room, a grin spreads across his face. He’s home. Lou sits down across from Charlie. “The old Call Bulletin we worked for doesn’t even exist anymore,” he says. “That kind of makes you feel a little strange.”
Charlie nods. He knows what Lou is talking about. But what are you going to do? Adapt or die, that’s what. Then Charlie asks Lou, “What makes you think you should have the job?”
Lou smiles. “That’s easy,” he says. “I’m fifty years old and I have $285 in the bank.”
When I was growing up in Chicago there were four major dailies in town—the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Chicago Today. There was also the Chicago Defender, the African-American newspaper that helped spark the Great Migration, bringing tens of thousands of fresh newspaper readers to the city. The Defender was published five days a week. By the time I graduated in 1980 with a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, only the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and The Defender were still standing of the major papers.
The Defender’s was my first newsroom. The managing editor was the blond grandniece of Clarence Darrow, the legendary Chicago lawyer. The city editor was a gay black man. Little did I know at the time how rare such racial and gender diversity was at the top of American journalism, or in its ranks for that matter. Newsroom diversity or lack thereof is a sore point for my friend Brenda Butler. A veteran editor with thirty years at the Chicago Tribune, Brenda was laid off, along with fifty-two colleagues, two months after a wave of twenty was washed out of the Tower with me.
I recently asked Brenda and several other journalist friends for their impressions of the state of the business and the state of their hearts now that they are on the outside of the newsroom looking in. “I would not choose journalism as a field again,” she says. “There are smatterings of people of color. But the double scrutiny can be stifling. In fact, even though newsrooms have advanced technically, socially and demographically they have stagnated.”