#733: An Idea I Want You to Steal

January 2nd, 2017

I have an idea. I want one of you to take it from me.

In 2010, the San Francisco-based literary journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern put out an edition called the San Francisco Panorama. Instead of the usual whatever-goes-in-McSweeney’s, the issue was full of brand-new investigative journalism and longform nonfiction printed up as a 15×22 newspaper broadsheet.

Comics by Chris Ware, sports coverage by Stephen King, investigative piece by laid-off Bay Area journalists — in total, McSweeney’s collaboration with the nonprofit Public Press had more than 150 writers, photographers and artists contributing to what I assume was pretty cool but I’ll never know because the damn thing sold out before I could get my hands on a copy.

The goal was showing people what a print newspaper could do in and for the 21st century. It was new writing, new reporting, new graphic means of conveying information. A newspaper not banking on nostalgia.

My idea is their idea, but for Chicago and done by one of you who has the time and moxie to helm it.

I call it the Chicago Operator. If you run with the idea, you can call it whatever you damn well please.

The funding could come from Kickstarter, as seems to be the norm for people who have publication ideas but don’t happen to be named Bill Random House or Susie Penguinpress. Size and scope can be determined by how successful the campaign is.

It’s not without peer in Chicago. On Oct. 13, the Invisible Institute teamed with The Intercept for a one-shot print product produced by South Side Weekly. It was called Code of Silence and, instead of one issue of a newspaper, printed one single story, a three-year investigation by the Invisible Institute’s Jamie Kalvan into the punishments two Chicago Police officers who exposed a gang of cops hustling drugs received from their brothers and sisters in blue as retaliation.

40,000 copies were printed, never to be printed again. The online version will live as long as The Intercept does. The success rate of online news, even news funded by eBay’s deep pockets, makes me wary. The print copy I picked up from the bar down the street will keep telling those officers’ stories long after The Intercept lets its server payments lag.

The Panorama’s 112-page broadsheet broke down as 32 pages of news, 24 of sports, 24 of arts, 16 of comics and 16 of food writing. I’d probably cut the food section, add a science section, divide out state and local politics into their own sections and add one solely on housing issues if I were in charge.

But that’s irrelevant because I’m not in charge. You are. And if you run with this, you will have a canvas to paint your own ideas on that, for one glorious issue, nothing in Chicago can even match.

The Chicago Tribune recently pulled away from its tronc-ening for a beautiful front-page story following Tavon Tanner, an 11-year-old boy recovering from a gunshot wound. Online, it’s a nice story interspersed with paid posts from the Chicago Botanic Garden, popups asking if you want to subscribe and those awful clickbait ads “From Around the Web” that, as of this writing, include “This game will keep you up all night!”, “Is Your Computer Infected? Try Free Virus Scan Now” and “35 Impressive Views of Donald Trump’s $100M Boeing.”

But in print, when the first top half of the Chicago Tribune was a stunning photo by E. Jason Wambsgans of a child showing off a scar that took 30 staples to close, I shivered. This was art. And no Walmart ads popped up as I was in the middle of a sentence.

The Chicago Tribune is 11 inches by 22 inches, a sad cropping from news’ glory days. If you do go for the full 15 by 22 news used to be (and I know a place that prints at that size and does accept side work on the press from high school newspapers and the like, but I work there so it might be tacky for me to promote by name), think of the effect that could have. Each spread a glorious 660 square inches to paint your ideas in words and photos and design.

Sustainable? No, or at least not in a way I’ve been able to figure. But for one glorious issue, for one glorious moment, you could give the stories that matter to this city a treatment no one else can offer.

The idea is yours and the name the Chicago Operator is yours, if you want it. It comes from a quote I’ve written about before by the possibly fictitious trivia wordsmith Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope. It fits my version of both how I think the news press should operate and the smooth city operators I think the press should take down. Also, I think “The Op” sounds cool.

But whatever you make of this idea, the name should be yours. If The Op fits, have it. If it doesn’t, drop it away. You don’t need it.

As payment for the idea, give me a thanks in your first editor column and, if you’re feeling very generous, some made-up title with “emeritus” in it. But it’s your paper and your plan. Give me whatever you think I deserve and give Chicago the news you think it deserves.

Read how a Logan Square craftsman uses print to ease the pain

Learn about a web series two artists of color are using to tell their stories

Scope out a scumbag trying to capitalize on press rep. Are you going to let him win?

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