#938: On the Move

June 8th, 2018

I was 23, out in the suburbs listening to a village official give a lackluster breakdown of an official’s sudden and slightly suspicious departure.

It was me and two other fledglings covering it, a man and a woman. I remember them as kids and I was a kid at the time, so they must have been absolute infants. They stumbled politely over questions, careful not to offend since they had to see, work with and get access from these people day after day, week after week. They pussyfooted over questions, but I could say something they couldn’t.

“Paul Dailing, Chicago Tribune,” I said. Everyone turned to watch me ask the question everyone had been dancing around.

And that’s it. That’s as close as I got.

Today’s the Chicago Tribune’s last day at its beautiful gothic-inspired horrorshow by the banks of the Chicago River. Orange crates have been packed, tears have been shed, reporters working there got a night among the stars with a party and some domestic wine sipped amid the building’s crown.

I know that because I’ve seen the pictures they’re posting online. I never got there.

I was a stringer for the Trib before I got my first full-time job with a newspaper. “Stringer” is an ongoing freelancer relationship. I was given a beat — a few small suburbs too inconsequential to staff but too large to ignore — and paid a two-figure income per government board meeting I covered. I spent more on gas and lost time at work than I made per story but goddamn it I was working for the Chicago Tribune.

I figured I’d get to the beautiful freakshow downtown eventually. If I worked my ass off and Journo-Santa saw I’d been a good boy, I’d get to the riverside explosion of fake flying buttresses that buttressed nothing, carved heraldry that never signified a clan and the other faux-gothic, faux-European, faux-fancy pomp of 435 N. Michigan Ave.

But I was wrong. I’ll never get to work there. They sold Trib Tower to developers, who plan to turn the 93-year-old building into condos and offices. The lobby carved with the First Amendment and laudatory quotes about the power and primacy of the press will be where some millionaire picks up her mail, some tech startup CEO poses for selfies or a Trib Tower Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream employee pauses for a mote of inspiration mid-lunch break.

Today’s the journalists’ last day in the temple of journalism, and they’re mourning it better than I could. Blair Kamin made me sigh. Rex Huppke made me laugh. The Trib Editorial Board managed to be self-serving about it, which is fitting. Mary Schmich was poetic about it, which is also fitting. John Kass managed to be self-serving, name-dropping, self-aggrandizing and get in a couple swipes at liberals and Barack Obama about it, which is also fitting but doesn’t earn a link because screw that professional angry grandpa.

So the Trib’s mourning what the move means for the Trib, which is right and proper. I have nothing to add. This brief post is about what the move means for all of us who never made it through those doors.

The Trib was and remains problematic. Its leadership is reactionary and retrograde, but its staff turns out moments of beauty and brilliance, even if every exposé or photo gallery is inevitable grist for the Ed Board’s mill for right-wing talking points. But it has a power, scope and majesty that still inspires.

It inspires the pixel-stained wretches to keep stringing, keep slogging away at little dailies-turning-weeklies, to keep honing that story and to rewrite rewrite rewrite until, Journo-God be praised, our words add a dash of poetry. Our photos convey emotion with a tad more clarity. Our editing gets tighter. We work and work until we get better in part because, yes, we want to walk through those doors on Michigan someday.

Space is important, both in what it is and what it connotes. Trib Tower casts a message to the skies about what journalism means. It says journalism is powerful. It says we are majestic. You should respect us. You should fear us.

An office space in an office building, even a nice one, says we are interchangeable. It says the only industry to get a name-check in the First Amendment might as well be a data center, or a law firm, or the corporate offices for a fast-casual dining franchise.

Data centers, law firms and fast-casual dining for the family on a budget are noble pursuits, as good as any other office-dwelling trade. And I don’t begrudge the world for rolling eyes at the castles news barons past built for themselves. Fake buttresses and faux-heraldry are overwrought egotism.

But I do mind when the news industry itself says we don’t deserve beautiful places. It’s telling all those fledgling kids starting out the best they can hope for is making cash for some owners who consider condos a far better use of beauty. It says get as good as you want to, but you’ll be in the same cubicle in the same office block no matter what.

I went to the Trib today, sat outside and watched tourists take photos of the castle. I don’t think they knew it was the site’s last day as a beacon for journalists across the Midwest, a bit of hope that there was an up to go to.

I watched tourist, tower and waving flag from across the street. That’s as close as I got.

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