When Brenda first started at the Tribune in the 1970s, she tells me, you could count the number of black staffers on one hand. Not much has changed. When I left it didn’t take more than two hands and a few extra fingers to do the counting, especially when it came to tallying African-American men.
Brenda was as loyal an employee as you will find. She bled Tribune blue. She still does. Every morning the paper is waiting for her at her front door. Every time we talk, however, she complains about how skimpy it is. I, on the other hand, cancelled my subscription the morning after I was terminated. Bitterness and budget compelled me to do it. Now I read the Trib for free on the Internet. I have become part of the problem.
Please don’t tell Lou.
Charlie takes Lou to the tower to see Mrs. Pynchon, the widowed owner of the Los Angeles Tribune. She has to sign off on hiring him. “Don’t mention you were working in television,” Charlie advises Lou. “She hates it.”
“What should I tell her I’ve been doing the past ten years?”
“Tell her you were in jail.”
I’m with Mrs. Pynchon. Without newspapers, local TV reporters couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Without The New York Times, the network news divisions wouldn’t know what was important and Bill O’Reilly wouldn’t have so much fun—or make so much money—howling at the moon. At least, that’s how I used to feel. Now I’m trying to learn everything I can about how to shoot and edit video for the Internet.
My buddy, Tom Hundley, is trying to learn new tricks, too. He spent nearly two decades risking his life for the Chicago Tribune as a foreign correspondent before coming back to the main office a couple of years ago. He and I worked on the Sunday magazine together before the ax fell on us both. He was laid off with Brenda. He is freelancing and teaching journalism in Dubai. “I’m enjoying it,” he says, “now that the temperatures have dipped below a hundred degrees.”
So, Tom, you have one foot in and one foot out. What do you think?
“The core audience for newspapers,” he tells me via e-mail, “is getting smaller and older, but also smarter and more selective—they are more knowledgeable about how the media works (or should work), and through the Internet they have access to a lot of quality stuff for free. Most of the big metro dailies, meanwhile, are getting dumber in every respect—dumb in the content they put in the paper, dumb in trying to appeal to the wrong audience, dumb in the way they market themselves, and dumb (and noncompetitive) on the Internet. Their time has passed.”
Man, Tom used to be a fun dude.
He calls the Internet a beast that no one in journalism has figured out how to tame or make money off of. “We have to design a new business model, they tell us,” he says. “Right. I figure that happens about the same time the Cubs win the World Series.”
Suddenly, I feel hopeful. I’m a White Sox fan. They won it all in 2005. That means anything is possible.
Lou confronts his star reporter, Joe Rossi, about his demeaning attitude toward an older colleague, a veteran cop reporter desperately trying to stay on the wagon and in the business. “You don’t like Driscoll, do you?”
“He’s a dinosaur,” Rossi says. “It’s all over. Whatever happened for him was over a long time ago.”
“I’m a dinosaur,” Lou says.
Rossi doesn’t say anything.
“It would be nice if you argued the point,” Lou says.
More silence from Rossi.
Lou grabs his arm.
“It would be smart if you argued the point,” he says, pointedly.
My old friend Curtis Lawrence, from my early reporting days in the Twin Cities, did not get laid off. He quit the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004 to teach journalism full time at Columbia College in Chicago. I ask him the same question I asked of Tom and Brenda. How’s the newsroom look from the outside?
“I’m not that encouraged by the current state of the media, but I don’t think it’s hopeless,” he says. “I’m discouraged that there is less and less public affairs reporting on government and close-to-the-bone neighborhood issues. The argument has always been that the media gives people what they want. There’s some often-repeated saying that if all someone gets is hamburger and never gets steak, they’ll think hamburger is pretty good. That’s the direction the business seems to be going. You could even substitute bologna for steak.”