#396: A Splash of History

November 7th, 2014

On Michigan Avenue, where the skittering, milling tourists and shoppers pause for a moment for selfies by the river, there is a stone-faced building made of history.

Part of that is literal, as the Tribune Tower is dappled on the sides with rocks pulled from the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, Angkor Wat, even the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Center.

But the gray Gothic building of gargoyles and buttresses seems itself a massive stone, inset in a bustling, modern, mall-swathed downtown of glass and steel and TRUMP, there to remind a city of its past.

And I peed there.

A friend who, for reasons confusing to me, has asked for anonymity in this story of hope and urine, works at the Chicago Tribune, a staid, conservative rag that remains Chicago’s largest daily newspaper. After a morning event and before a lunch of eggs and pancakes, she asked if I wanted to see the newsroom.

The tour wandered past desks and computers, mini-studios for webcasts and offices lined with old cameras and the plates of historic front pages on the plights of everyone from Churchill to Bin Laden.

Journalists can be cluttery types, with desk decorations ranging from piles of vintage toys to a few family photos to stacks and stacks of old newspapers, government reports, notebooks, magazines and other research materials that, sure, someday they’ll get around to using or throwing out.

We passed the offices of the RedEye, the overpriced free pop culture handout left by the thousands on trains and buses throughout the city each day. Their walls are red and lined with past pun-loaded front pages. A massive, Andre the Giant-sized printout of a page featuring Kanye West looms over the scene.

The RedEye people can bring in beer on Fridays, my friend grumbled.

Finally, the Chicago Tribune editorial boardroom.

The stateliest room in the stately building, the boardroom is as much a classy anachronism in the Trib’s piles of desks and Kanye as the building itself is along Michigan Avenue shopping and hotels.

This is where candidate endorsement interviews happen. For decades, the political elite, from governors to aldermen have come through these doors to kiss the ring of the newspaper’s editorial board and ask for their blessing.

Or to indifferently ask these business-appointed power brokers to not give too much crap in their fishwrap.

The walls are dark wood in the boardroom. Framed political cartoons crack jokes about Lincoln or Secretary of the Interior James Watt, depending on era. Glass cabinets built into those walls hold decades of writing by Trib journalists, both the seminal (“Boss,” “The Mirage,” “Mr. Dooley’s Philosophy”) and the lesser-known works (“Johnny Deadline, Reporter,” which I looked up later and seems quite good).

And there’s a little washroom to the side.

“C-can I?” I asked my friend.

“Sure,” she said, smiling indulgently as her pancake-craving stomach no doubt rumbling.

As I completed my business, which I will now proceed to describe in as intense detail as I did with the Tribune Tower itself, I thought about history.

The paper’s not what it was. No newspaper is. Revenue, ad sales, readership – all down. Online competition, turnover, resentment from screwed staffers and condescended-to audiences – up.

Even one as history-ripe as the Chicago Tribune can’t coast on history forever. People nod at history, haul their kids to see it as a cultural experience. That’s great for the Art Institute down the way, but a newspaper must be a living, viable entity, not a repository of past triumphs.

It must provide a community what it needs to, wants to or maybe just could know. It must provide a living for its employees, return for its investors, pride for its region.

A newspaper must be perfect, thought a man who runs one blog at a loss.

I don’t know what to do to keep that boardroom from becoming someone’s condo someday. I don’t know how to keep those desks filled or those plates cranking out facts. I don’t know how to run a major daily newspaper as a future-bound business and I don’t know who does.

But I think it’ll be a loss to the city if that newspaper fails. There’s enough history in this town. I think we need that gray Gothic stone set along Michigan Avenue to document it, not become it.

Comment on this story

Go to this spoken word event in Pilsen tonight

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