#650: Thoughts on the Chicago Troncune

June 22nd, 2016

The oldest written record of the Chicago Tribune is someone wishing them luck.

It’s from the June 10, 1847, Chicago Journal, one of the long-dead papers that, through mergers and ownership and other buyouts eventually fed into the modern Sun-Times. You can find it in the abandoned microfilm room of a less-popular floor of the Harold Washington Library on a reel someone had spooled backwards days, months, years earlier, so I had to rethread the whole thing before I could find the one little blurb.

It’s maybe two column inches talking about how a copy of the new “Tribune” landed on their doorstep.

They praised the typesetting and layout, and admired the plan for a completely nonpartisan newspaper. “Chuckled hopefully” might be a better description.

“Our neighbors have launched their bark upon the stormy sea of editorial life proposing to observe a strict impartiality. We wish them every success in their enterprise and firmly trust they will shun the rocks upon which so many gallant vessels have been wrecked.”

Prospecti

There are no surviving copies of the first issue of the Tribune — I’m skeptical of the romance inherent in the official Trib claim that the Great Fire claimed all copies, but it’s possible.

The only record we have of that first issue is the prospectus, sort of a mission statement published, as newspapers did back then, in other newspapers.

I’m still scanning microfilms and websites for an original publication of the prospectus, but here’s a supposed snippet that gets bounced around the history books and occasional Trib anniversary issues.

This one’s from the newspaper’s 110th anniversary, a slow news day in Eisenhower’s America.

“Our views, in all probability, will sometimes be coincident with the conservatives; sometimes we may be found among the ranks of the radicals; but we shall at all times be faithful to humanity — without regard to race, sectional divisions, party lines, or parallels of latitude or longitude.”

June 10, 1847.

Here’s a more recent mission statement.

“Tribune Publishing Co. (NYSE:TPUB) today announced that the Company will change its name to tronc, Inc., a content curation and monetization company focused on creating and distributing premium, verified content across all channels.”

June 2, 2016.

Old news

For those who know news history, you’re probably seeing the con I’m pulling. I’m comparing the dreams of the past to the reality of the present.

As the Journal warned, the Tribune crashed on those rocks of partisanship quickly and hard. They swung Republican within the first years of publication, finding more money in fanning political flames than in sober, unbiased accounts of the day’s events.

That’s what newspapers were in the 1800s and most of the 1900s, places to go to get news tailored to your pre-existing beliefs. It wasn’t until mass consolidation of newspapers that nonbiased coverage became the expectation. The new behemoth newspapers/radio/TV stations had to be all things to all people to cover their costs.

The Trib’s editorial board remained right-leaning, so much so that it wasn’t until the threat of future Fox magnate Rupert Murdoch buying the Sun-Times in 1984 that the popular centrist columnist Mike Royko, inherited from the shuttered Daily News, even deigned to work for “the Republican paper.”

What had been a massive scramble of newspapers, each striving for their own piece of the city, their own target audience (although the term hadn’t been invented yet) became a “two-paper town.” The Trib covered the North Side and suburbs with supposedly unbiased news and right-center editorials, the Sun-Times covered the South Side with supposedly unbiased news and left-center editorials.

What came next

Newspapers declined, the Sun-Times’ fall best signified by the 2013 firing of the entire photo staff. Owner Michael Ferro, who would later buy out the Trib and make it tronc, told writers to take pictures with their phones. One of tronc’s big promises is to be “more visual.”

The black press had faltered by then, best signified by the Chicago Defender returning to a weekly format in 2003. The alternative press went corporate, best signified by the Chicago Reader’s acquisitions by alt-weekly syndicate Creative Loafing in 2007 and, in 2012, the Sun-Times’ parent company.

Creative Loafing gutted the Reader, turning the multi-section brick of a paper into a single-section tabloid, the size and feel of The Onion. The Chicago-officed Onion doesn’t print anymore, by the way. It’s just online.

The ethnic and neighborhood press struggles on in various forms, but a Polish-language or Chinese-language can never and never tried to cover the city for a mass market.

There is online news of course, but that’s mostly the city filtered through one blogger’s opinion or one of the laundry list of well-intentioned news sites (Gapers Block, Chi-Town Daily News, Windy Citizen, Chicago Current, Center Square Journal) that eventually gave in to economic pressures and closed.

The ongoing news site DNAinfo started amazing, covering every murder that happened with stories about the people killed. They pulled no punches, not hiding if the person was in a gang, but talked about them as human beings.

It was wonderful. Then they stopped. I don’t know the reasoning, but I once joked with some friends that the two types of DNA pieces today are “Look at this cool new restaurant!” and “Restaurant’s neighbors decry gentrification!” It was completely unfair, but everyone knew what I was talking about.

And now the Trib is tronc, promising tailor-made reality the way the company once promised an even hand.

“tronc pools the Company’s leading media brands and leverages innovative technology to deliver personalized and interactive experiences to its 60 million monthly users.”

The old man’s shirt

I saw a potential street person speed walking down the street while I was thinking about this piece. He was half-crazed, going “hup hup” every few steps as he blew south on State Street.

He had earbuds dangling and flipping in the breeze, so I don’t think he was full-on homeless, but he clearly hadn’t washed in days or more. He wore a brown military cap and a gray T tucked into his too-high pants. Old guy. Ass sagged into nonexistence years ago.

The T-shirt had a line of dark dried sweat down the back, matted by more sweat that hadn’t yet had a chance to get grimed into the clothing.

On the front was a picture of a pigeon. Below that, the words “Chicago. Yeah, it’s alright.”

The legends were never true. The good old days were always 50 years earlier. The Sun-Times dove into irrelevance, the Reader’s fighting to stay important, the minority press is scattered and digital upstarts seem to fail or crash into fan service and personalization of the news, the modern “rocks upon which so many gallant vessels have been wrecked” in the stormy seas of Chicago news.

It’s never been perfect or even great. But my hope for the future of tronc and Chicago is that we can live up to the old man’s T-shirt.

I want us to get back to a point where we can look at the coverage of our city and hopefully someday say, “Yeah, it’s alright.”

How the pitch meeting for tronc must have gone

The afterlife of the Sun-Times photographers

In which a company led by the man who fired an entire newspaper’s photo staff says news should be more visual

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