In the tradition of 18th-century newspapers like Samuel Johnson’s The Rambler, or more contemporary efforts like I.F. Stone’s Weekly, Charlie Meyerson’s Chicago Public Square, a daily newsletter containing short capsules of the day’s top stories, is a one-man show. In full disclosure, I’ve known Meyerson personally since the late 1980s. Meyerson started putting out the Public Square in 2017, in response to the flood of news associated with the then-new Trump administration.
“A couple of people came to me,” Meyerson recalls, “and said there’s so much happening. Do you know anyone who’s summarizing it in a coherent way? And I said, no, but then I thought . . .” Meyerson pauses for dramatic effect, “OH . . . I know SOMEONE who can do that.”
The first issue came out January 30, 2017, and except for occasional days off, Meyerson has been putting out the Chicago Public Square each weekday ever since.
From the beginning, Meyerson’s daily routine has been virtually unchanged. He gets up at 7 or so, lays in bed for 15 minutes checking the news on his phone, then he goes downstairs and pours himself “a cup of cereal” (“It’s been Trix through the pandemic, but I’ve lately, in a concession to nutrition begun in the last week or two, moved to Quaker Oat Squares.”) and eats while he continues to scan the online articles and leaf through the print editions of the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times he still has delivered to his house. Then he “pads” up to his desk in his Oak Park home and starts writing. At 10 AM Mailchimp “scrapes the website, sending out whatever is there. And between 10 and 10:10 AM, the “Square” appears in his subscribers’ email boxes.
The Public Square is the culmination of Meyerson’s four-decade-long career as a journalist. A graduate of University of Illinois’s College of Communications (renamed the College of Media in 2008), he spent the 80s and 90s working in the news departments of various radio stations (WXRT, WNUA) before moving on to the Chicago Tribune to work on their then-nascent digital initiatives, in particular their emailed newsletter Tribune Daywatch, which listed breaking news with links to Tribune online stories.
What Meyerson brought to the Tribune was the idea that e-newsletters need to be more than a mere list of headlines. “I argued this [newsletter] needs to have some personality, some sense of a human here.” Meyerson tells me, “I’m not sure a lot of people bought into this at the time.” While at the Tribune, Meyerson felt he was successful at giving Tribune Daywatch some personality. “Interestingly,” Meyerson notes, “When I left the Tribune in 2009 to go to WGN, they reverted to non human automatic headline lists—because it’s easier, it’s cheaper. You have to pay somebody to make it human. More recently they have eased their way back now to having some measure of personality, though not quite as snarky as it was on my watch.”
Snark is definitely one of the ingredients Meyerson puts into the Public Square. Recent headlines: “March maskless,” “Pepsi denigration,” “Colonel of untruth,” “What’s nu? Omicron.” But snark is only one of the ingredients that makes up the newsletter. Meyerson’s calm demeanor belies his depth—he is a major high-tech, podcast, and comic book nerd. The Public Square reflects all facets of Meyerson’s rich personality, his ear for news, his eye for finding interesting takes on that news, and his taste for quirky bits of human interest.
“[When I put together the Square] I ask myself what are the five or ten things that I think the audience needs to know right now,” Meyerson explains. “Then you work your way down to stories you might not need to know, but are interesting. When I was working for ’XRT we always needed a kicker, one last story before you go to just kick it over back to the jock. And the jock would then play a song that riffs on that. So I always put some kickers in every issue.”
Older readers may recall that back in the 80s, when Meyerson read the news on WXRT, the DJs used to tease him on air; Meyerson’s hyper earnest L7 persona was a contrast to their Dr. Johnny Fever hipper-than-thou on-air personalities. When I remind him of those days, Meyerson laughs: “I didn’t know that that came across on the radio,” but then he adds, “It’s true. That’s one reason that the name Chicago Public Square resonated with me—I’m public and I’m also quite square.”
A previously published version of this story referred to the Tribune Daywatch newsletter as “Tribune Alerts.” The Reader regrets the error.
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