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.”
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.”
Lou and Driscoll are having lunch in a bar filled with cops and reporters. “This could be the old days almost,” Lou says.
“Almost,” Driscoll agrees.
“It’s good to be part of it again,” Lou says. “I feel I’m in touch with things. Getting back on a newspaper is like being with a woman who doesn’t shave her legs.”
“That’s beautiful,” Driscoll says.
“Yeah,” Lou says. “Reality. Maybe you don’t like it but it’s real.”
Driscoll spots Rossi taking a seat at the bar.
“I don’t like that kid,” he says.
“I’m not nuts about him either,” Lou says. “But he’s good. Real good.”
“Maybe,” Driscoll concedes. “But he’s got no idea about humanity. He doesn’t care.”
I’m at Medill on a gray fall morning not long ago to talk to a graduate-level feature writing class. It is taught by another ex-Tribune staffer, Alan Solomon, who took a buyout about a year ago. I think there’s more dignity in jumping rather than waiting around to be pushed, but Solomon tells me the landing hurts either way.
There are about a dozen students, sitting at a twenty-foot-long table, listening to me talk about a five-thousand-word profile I did of Reverend Jesse Jackson. I spent a summer with him, flying across the country and to the mountains of Venezuela, where Jackson had the villagers chanting in English, “I am somebody.” I tell the students that those days are over. It’s hard to find a five-thousand-word newspaper story these days. The Trib’s Sunday magazine was killed and most of the staff let go.
But I don’t want to discourage the kids. As one points out, they’ve paid good money to come to Medill and the university has already cashed their checks. So I tell them what is in my heart rather than my brain: being a journalist is fun and honorable and important and I’d do anything to get back into the newsroom. I still want to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I still care.
Solomon has the students write stories about my talk as a class assignment. “It would be too harsh to call Don Terry a cautionary tale,” one begins. “He’s closer to a warning—and a gentle reminder—that in the twenty-first century, the business of journalism, the careers of newspapermen, are too fleeting and fickle.”
Driscoll comes through. The old pro falls off the wagon but climbs back on long enough to write a story that could blow the lid off a police scandal. But Mrs. Pynchon is worried about the impact on the paper. It looks like she’s going to kill it. Driscoll joins Lou to commiserate at a newspaper hangout. Rossi comes in with the early edition. Driscoll’s story is page one.
“Oh my God,” he says. “She ran my story.”
Lou pulls the paper across the table for a better look. “Well, well,” he says. “We work on a newspaper. A real newspaper.”
The credits roll. I turn off my iPod and go to sleep with a smile on my face. Maybe in the morning, I’ll start a blog.