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“Open Letter to the Chicago Tribune on the Future of the Tribune and Mass Media Local Newspapers”


On June 13, 2008, Timothy J. McNulty, public editor of the Chicago Tribune wrote about drastic changes coming to the Tribune.  He asked readers to respond to this.  I wrote this letter to him, and shared it in other places (including Z Net) because I was trying to think out suggestions that I thought would help save the Tribune (despite the chance of them having a snowball’s chance in hell of being adopted).  I share this, not as THE solution, but a solution, and to stimulate thinking on this and similar issues.

 

June 15, 2008

 

Dear Mr. McNulty—

 

As the crisis of US newspapers have intensified over the last few months, I have thought a number of times about writing to the Tribune to share my two cents.  Your Friday (6/13) column took to me actually sitting down to write—and although you might not like a lot of what I say, I hope you will honor your words and pass on to the “powers that be”—and I hope that includes Sam Zell.

 

Let me introduce myself:  my name is Kim Scipes, and I’m an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN, although I live in Logan Square in Chicago.  Among many other courses, I teach a course on Sociology of the Media.  I also am a person who worked for many years before coming back to academia to get my Ph.D., which I just got in 2003 at the age of 52.  I tell you that because I’m not just a casual “consumer” of the media, but am very much interested in it.

 

I write this because I believe the news media is very important and plays an incredibly important role in our society.  In other words, I want the Tribune to survive and thrive, because it—like the Sun-Times and various other media outlets—plays an important role in our society, or at least could play such.  Thus, I hope you’ll read what I have to say, although you will probably disagree, if not reject what I have to say.  I’ll leave the responses to you and your bosses, but think it would be most helpful to you if I wrote what I feel and not try to “pull my punches” because it might be felt “offensive.”  But I’ll tell you what I think about things, and then offer a few ideas as solutions.

 

Quite frankly, I think the Tribune is a crappy newspaper.  Most often, when I read it, I come away angry at the piss-poor job you all are doing.  It is an insult to me that this is one of the most widely read newspapers in the country:  I never imagined the quality of the US news media as a whole could be so low!  (In other words, I think most of the media is doing a very bad job overall, despite there being some excellent work being done in a few specific areas:  but generally speaking, you all are doing a terrible job.)  I want to say that anyone who relies only on the Trib or its related media outlets to understand what is going on in the world, the US, the state, and the region can in no way consider themselves “educated.”  In fact, I’d go so far as to say they were “miseducated”:  they think they know what’s going on in the world, but they really don’t.

 

There are three key problems, in my opinion, to the deteriorating situation in which you find yourselves:  you are compromised politically, you are compromised legally, and you refuse to include critical thinking in your work.  Additionally, you have no vision, no understanding of your purpose, and with the single exception of John Kass, have no courage.  Let me explain.

 

First, you are compromised politically.  The leaders of the Tribune Corporation and senior management of the newspaper are part of the “establishment” of this country and specifically of Chicago.  Admit it or not, that affects your coverage.  You want an example?  Look at your non-coverage of the Chicago Public School system.  I subscribe to Substance, published by a former CPS high school teacher, George Schmidt, and I get more out of a single issue of that newspaper than I get in a year of Tribune (non) coverage.  Why do I have to go to a under-funded, under-sourced community-based paper to get any substantive coverage of a subject that is of vital interest to the entire city and to me, who has two children in a CPS school?  This is obscene.  But I understand your being compromised:  if you seriously looked into CPS and the work of Arne Duncan, you’d have to go after him and Mayor Daley.  And, other than a gripe here and there—and Kass once in a while—you won’t do that no matter how f—ked up the city is!

 

You are compromised legally because you are a for-profit corporation—and you can’t do anything that might offend your advertisers, especially over a long-term period.  But if you have to worry about offending your advertisers, then you CANNOT provide us with the news and information we need in this city.  The Tribune is not an example of a free press:  you are a bought and sold press, and until you change that, you are doomed to extinction. 

 

You are allergic to critical thinking.  I cannot believe how much crap gets published in your newspaper that simply cannot stand the test of critical thinking.  If I were grading the quality of the Trib the way I grade my students—based not whether they agree or disagree with me, but on the quality of their thinking—I would give the Trib an “F.”  For an example, we need to look no further than your coverage of the Iraq war and US foreign policy. 

 

To this day, the President of the United States cannot give an honest and coherent reason for the US invading Iraq.  And to my knowledge, the Trib has never called him on this.  If he cannot give us an honest and coherent answer about why he invaded Iraq, and an honest and credible answer as to why this was so pressing that he could not take a single other course—which he has not and cannot—then he is a war criminal, guilty of killing over 1 MILLION Iraqis, and over 4,000 US troops:  and he should be impeached, and then sent to The Hague and tried as an international war criminal.  And if the Trib had an ounce of integrity, then it would have been calling for impeachment, at a very minimum, YEARS ago.  Yet, the Trib—nor ANY major newspaper that I am aware of—has failed to meet this important test.  (And no, this is not just an individual vendetta—our system of government requires accountability from our elected officials, and not only is the Trib failing this test, but so are the overwhelming large numbers of our elected officials.)

 

You have ignored other major problems this country is facing/being affected by.  You have provided your readers with only minimal understanding about climate change (aka “global warming”) and nothing about “peak oil.”  You have provided no real information about the current financial crisis.  I could go on and on.

 

Much of your state and local coverage is like this, too:  yes, you sign on when US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald goes after someone, but with your resources and knowledge of the state, you should be leading efforts to expose corruption and bad government.  Don’t you wonder how the Combine that Kass keeps writing about in this State manages to survive over the years…?  And what is the Trib’s role in this process????

 

But no, you want to be head cheerleader.  Think about the Olympic bid.  Think of the thousands of staff hours costing tons of money being wasted to get this show….!  We are wasting hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars promoting this project, at a time when we don’t have the resources to keep the CTA going on its own, much less addressing poverty and income inequality in this city.  And if we get the Olympics—so what?  Yes, Chicago will get a lot of “free” publicity, and the eyes of the word will be on us, but didn’t we get almost as much from “The Fugitive” or “Hoops Dreams” were filmed here?  And they last a hell of a lot longer time!  No, it’s a boondoggle that will benefit the egos of some of our “leaders,” the heads of the Trib and Sun-Times will get to crow a bit, it will benefit some of the big hotels, and it will benefit some of the construction unions—the last are the only ones I have the least beef with, especially if they will bring everyone in under the union, and not keep African Americans and other workers of color out.  But for the City as a whole:  it will be a big nuisance, and needed social programs will be even more underfunded after than before, because I’ll bet dollars to donuts that we find that somebody—or a bunch of somebodies—have their dirty hands in the till, plus it will undoubtedly come in, surprise, surprise, over budget.  This scenario is so difficult to imagine in this City—not.

 

Read Don Terry’s story in today’s Magazine—incredibly good reporting, incredibly crucial issue.  And this woman has been struggling to keep her efforts going.  And what support does she get?  Nothing from the Mayor or our alder-things, and a little bit from the State.  But NO ONE goes after the root of the problem:  that we have an incredibly unequal society—much more unequal than any industrialized country in the world, and more unequal than some of the poorest countries in the world—and that this inequality, with a lack of opportunity to overcome this inequality even for those who have not given up, is killing our children, and especially young African American children who are trapped in the caldrons of inequality. 

 

I could go on and on, but it won’t help.  Our social problems are deep and extensive:  why is it that the United States put 731 of every 100,000 of our population in prison, yet the closest competitor in the world, Russia, only incarcerates 611/100,000.  Or Mexico at 157/100,000 or Canada, at 127/100,000?  How can you explain this?

 

So, what do I think about the Tribune in this situation?  First of all, from my reading of the Trib, there’s no vision of what you want to do:  this is an incredibly unfocused paper—not unlike most of your competitors nationwide—and you spread your resources too thin.  You try to be all things to all people, and as a result, the only things you do well are Sports and Weather.  But you try to be a social spot, and you try to report on business—an incredibly weak section of the paper—and you try to cover the Metro area.  And you try to cover the auto industry, and real estate, etc.  Again, you try to do too much:  you are VERY unfocused.

 

To me, your strength is your news gathering and disseminating capabilities.  You have a range of reporters that are generally of high quality, if not top flight.  I don’t think they are generally used well, but lack of quality of reporters does not seem to be a problem.  (I think a much bigger problem are your editors up to and including the top.)

 

What I would do is focus on news gathering and dissemination.  I’d cut out all the social crap, and give everyone who has a job in these areas a chance to be reassigned to news gathering.  I’d end all the advice columnists, get rid of all the gardening, the transportation, real estate sections, etc.  Cut, cut, cut.  But don’t get rid of the people:  just reassign them to news gathering and dissemination.

 

So, I’d cut down to the front section, with sections on international, national and state news.  I’d keep the Metro section, but focus it.  I’d keep weather.  I’d keep sports, but I would cut down and focus on a few things and do them well, and not try to be all things to all people:  I’d cut high school sports.  (Why focus on high school sports, if you don’t—and you don’t—focus on high school academics?)  Your business section is atrocious, and I’m not sure should be saved:  I can’t imagine anyone locally who would look to the Trib as their first or even second source for their business info.

 

But the biggest thing I’d change is that I would change the Trib’s mission statement or whatever it is that “guides” you.  I’d decide that the Trib’s purpose in life is to discover, explain and disseminate the most detailed information available to your readership for the hope of discussing and understanding what is taking place in the country, for the purpose of getting people inspired to join and contribute to the forwarding of social justice in this country and the world.  Period.  And I would put this ahead of EVERYTHING, no matter how unpopular or how much people criticize you at first.

 

Now, that would have a number of ramifications. First would be corporate governance.  I would break the Trib (the newspaper) off from the Tribune Corporation, and make the Trib a non-profit operation.  Use the resources available from the rest of the corporation to support the Trib.  Now, that wouldn’t necessarily mean you would have to forsake advertising, but it would qualitatively reduce the impact of advertising on your operations, your choice of stories, your focus, your page numbers devoted to news, etc.  (And, please, don’t you dare try to tell me that your advertising policy has no affect on your news coverage.  When I want to buy a bridge, I’ll tell you!)  Now, this may apply to each newspaper within the Corporation, but you’ll have to figure that out:  my focus here is the Trib, alone.)

 

Second, I would hire the most devoted advocate of social justice within the newspaper industry or, to be really bold, outside, that you can get to be top person of the Trib (publisher?).  I wouldn’t promise a lot of money, but would promise total support for a significant period of time—say for a minimum of five years—as long as this person strenuously advocated for social justice.

 

I would take your best reporters and turn them loose on injustice—that ought to keep them out of trouble for a while!  Tell them you want them to provide description as well as analysis in their stories.  Tell them there are major universities throughout this region, with many academics doing top flight work on this issues, and to let them know that good reporters who can translate academic material to popular readability are valuable. 

 

I would specifically look at the region, and make sure that I was covering all the issues across the region in the most intense way possible.  And I’d make connections:  what impact is peak oil having on our regional transportation network?  Or climate change?  The Trib has an incredibly important role of focusing in on regional issues.  What about the impact of sprawl on the region, on our farmland, on our food supply, on our environment?

 

I would seek to hire the best reporters available, and make sure they’re representative of the overall city.  You’re probably in pretty good shape re white women, but what about African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians, and both males and females of each?  I would freeze any hiring of whites until you reached some racial parity unless they brought some knowledge and experience that was truly exceptional—and this would be VERY limited, at best.  But one of the criteria for hiring would be the ability to understand how social changes are affecting poor people, of every group.

 

You would also need to qualitatively improve your global coverage especially, but also your national.  The Trib is one of the few papers with major international bureaus remaining, but you certainly do not use them well:  most of this reporting is pretty mundane at best.  You should be focusing on how global changes are affecting the US.  You should have some critical reporting about key areas, such as the Middle East:  as poor as it is, you generally cover the area better than most US papers, but why not hire someone who really knows the area, languages, cultures, personalities, etc?  How about regularly running reports by Robert Fisk of the British Independent, the single best English language reporter on the Middle East in the world?

 

 

Wed, June 18

 

I’ve gotten distracted for a couple of days but want to finish this up.

 

One thing I didn’t address previously is your editorial page:  I’m sorry, and perhaps my thoughts are colored by the absolutely atrocious editorial this morning on Iraq, but this editorial page is almost pure unadulterated crap.  Oh, excuse me, how could I say that:  Iraq is obviously such a resounding success!  I’m sorry:  we’ve only killed over 1 MILLION Iraqis, we’ve had over 4,000 US troops killed, approximately 60,000 wounded, goodness knows how many with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), many of whom we will have to support for the remaining 50 or so years of their lives, we’ve destroyed that country, we have to have 140,000 troops on the ground (with another 150,000 plus contractors), it’s costing our country $12 BILLION a month, with a Nobel Prize winner in economics estimating our total cost around $3 TRILLION, and we’re talking success????  And for what reason?  Every reason the President of the United States gives has been PROVEN to be a lie.  And our Constitution has been ripped apart, our global standing in the gutter, we are less safe than before 9/11, etc., etc.  If that’s success, I eagerly await a description of failure!  (And don’t say I don’t know what I’m talking about:  I’m a USMC enlistee, serving from 1969-73, although fortunately did not go to Vietnam, but have been studying US foreign policy over the last 30 year period.)

 

But coming from the Tribune, this editorial is not a great surprise.  I’ve long despised the work of your editorial board and your editorial page in general.  As a whole—with perhaps once in a great while, a timid position on the Palestine/Israel conflict that could be very useful, until you pull your collective heads down your hole—there is no willingness to go beyond the stupid, useless and wrong status quo on much of anything.  There is no vision, and damn sure no boldness in your positions.  I don’t know where you get your information from, or how you use what you do get, but what your produce comes out the rear end of a horse—and that’s the best I can say about the editorial board.

 

Likewise, your editorial columnists.  Where did you get these clowns?  Stephen Chapman—you’ve got to be kidding me.  How’d he get on your editorial board:  does he have compromising pictures of The Colonel or something?  When the only position he has a decent perspective on is decriminalizing marijuana, this should suggest you ain’t dealing with a heavy weight.  He is a free market ideologue who wouldn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground—and on top of that, he’s wrong.  This is a major voice for your newspaper??? I’d be embarrassed.

 

And Kathleen Parker—ple-ese!  I’m not even going to waste my breath.  Just like those other “free market,” “conservative” jerks:  they pontificate confidently, but overwhelmingly, they are a joke.  They don’t have any idea what’s going on in the country, and they are too arrogant to try to find out.

 

Clarence Page can be good, sometimes, but overall is pretty weak.  What makes him interesting at times is that he grapples with race-related issues, which despite the hoopla, still is a major issue in this country:  I wish he’d do it more, I wish he’d do it in a much more challenging way, but I give him credit for trying now and then.  It’s just that I think he’s long past his prime.

 

I think Dawn Turner Trice is doing much more interesting work around race—and has a sharper perspective.  Here’s someone I think is considerably above the crowd, and deserves national exposure, instead of being limited to Chicago.  I’d switch positions between Page and Trice.

 

John Kass, as I said above, is your single best columnist in the paper—when he focuses on crime and corruption in the area, in the state.  He’s knowledgeable, conveys it very well—why doesn’t he write a book periodically on this subject?:  I think it would be eagerly read.  And unlike damn near every other Trib columnist, he takes risks, and has a vision that we deserve more and that we can get it.  I also like that—unlike the rest of the Trib hierarchy—he will criticize King Richard, and calls “bullshit” on the Mayor, which is NOT DONE ANY WHERE ENOUGH.  (I also think most of his other stuff is pretty lame, and he doesn’t know squat about national politics, but I tolerate this crap to get to his gold.)

 

I also think John Hilkevitch is a solid columnist:  his work on transportation and its impact on the region is excellent.  He’s not flashy, but he’s solid—and, unlike most of your columnists, he knows his stuff.

 

So, instead of finding columnists—including guest columnists—who really are trying to address serious questions that this country is facing, we get a lot of right wing ideologues who can’t even tie their shoes, but the Trib legitimizes them as “important voices.”  My ass!  Now, let me be clear:   I’m not opposed to them for taking positions different form, if not opposed, to mine:  I’m opposed to them because they cannot even provide a coherent, thoughtful approach from their own perspective to an issue that challenges me to think.  And that’s for those who are supposed to be serious:  needless to say, the social chit-chat isn’t even this good.

 

I guess the ultimate insult is that there are good, thoughtful commentators who are much more deserving of being published than almost the entire Trib stable of writers.  Again, I don’t know who every hired these clowns, but I’d get rid of that person (s)—you have proven incompetents.

 

I guess I’ll quit now.  I would love to see the Trib live up to its potential, but I’ve seen no leadership at the newspaper that suggests it will.

 

None of this will be easy, I know.  You’ll loose some readers if you take my approach.  But you’ll have a solid core, and a base from which to expand—but on the basis of solid news and dissemination.

 

Whether you accept my “vision” of social justice to guide the paper or not, it seems crucial that you pick a vision:  and go for it with all the organizational resources you can muster.  However, if you half-ass it, you will fail—and Chicago will be the worse off for that failure (and Mr. Zell will be a lot poorer, despite gaining control through a phony rigged game).  But I see no way that the Trib can remain a for-profit enterprise and thrive.

 

Thanks for taking the time to read this.  I hope you pass it on as your promised.

 

 

Sincerely,

 

 

Kim Scipes

Chicago, IL 

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