Gerould Kern, center, will be replaced by the Tribune's editorial page editor, Bruce Dold, left. Credit: Michael Zajakowski/Chicago Tribune via AP

“I think it’s a really exciting time at the Tribune,” said a young reporter there, when it was announced that Gerould Kern is retiring after close to eight years as editor and editorial page editor Bruce Dold will take his place. Young reporters are like that. Older reporters aren’t feeling the moment as giddily.

The change at the top follows by just a few days the change beyond the top—the news that Michael Ferro, who already owned a controlling interest in the Sun-Times, had bought a larger stake of Tribune Publishing than anyone else has. Senior Tribune journalists disagree on the reaction to that. “Horror, dismay,” says one veteran I talked to; mostly numbness, says another, who lived through the Sam Zell era and the subsequent waves of layoffs—”Most people here are in the business of keeping their heads down.” 

As for Kern, he became editor under Zell when the incumbent editor and various more obvious successors bailed—and his willingness to work for the “grave dancer” did not sit well with his critics. “A go-along get-along kind of guy,” says a staffer who doesn’t respect him. A staffer who does concedes that Zell and his minions ran over Kern, but “once they were gone he was liberated to be the best Gerry, and I think he’s been a good editor under the circumstances. He’s kept a decent level of morale and some sense of momentum when objectively one can see only diminution.” In fact, Kern expanded the news hole, and he increased the number of editorial and op-ed pages—an improvement that Dold, of course, also had a lot to do with. 

Because of Zell and the layoffs, today’s Tribune has a shallow bench, and some of the Zell-era survivors in high positions are regarded as nincompoops. Not so, Dold. He’s 60 (Kern is 66)—a little old, perhaps, to reinvent the Tribune with one brilliant innovation after another. (Unless Ferro learned his lesson at the Sun-Times, he probably thinks that’s his assignment.) But Dold’s admired by the staff for his intelligence, writing ability, and knowledge of the business. “He’s a real reporter, you know,” says someone who can remember Dold’s newsroom days. “He’s not just a pundit.” 

“Bruce runs a vigorous editorial page, one that engages seriously and constantly on issues that matter,” says an admirer. If he has baggage, it might be a couple of things in combination. An ardent champion of Governor Bruce Rauner, Dold’s editorial page hasn’t wrestled with the possibility that Rauner, however sound his grasp of Illinois’s fiscal crisis, is an overreaching jerk and his own worst enemy. Furthermore, Dold is perceived to be vastly more plugged into the city and state power structure than Kern ever was. Can he draw a line between his connections, his editorial beliefs, and the need of the newsroom to be unfettered by either? 

My sense is that most people at the Tribune think he can.

Here’s what’s so interesting:

Both the Tribune and Sun-Times backed Rauner when he ran for governor two years ago. But Dold published what I called a “we-can-barely-contain-our-lack-of-enthusiasm endorsement,” while the Sun-Times violated its own new policy of not endorsing anyone to offer X-rated homage. “An extraordinarily capable businessman,” said the Sun-Times. “A smart businessman, skilled executive and born leader beholden to nobody.”

And, for that matter, “decisive, bold and thoroughly independent.” (To complete this portrait of shamelessness, Rauner was a former member of Ferro’s investment group that bought the Sun-Tmes.) 

Now it’s the Tribune editorial page that’s ardent. As for the Sun-Times. . . A few days after Ferro surrendered his executive authority over the Sun-Times in order to buy into Tribune Publishing, it published an editorial that all but begged to be read as a declaration of independence. “Hey, Governor, it ain’t workin,'” said the headline; and the editorial began:

 For more than a year, Gov. Rauner has been inflicting permanent damage on one of America’s great cities—and so too, then, on the entire State of Illinois—by holding the city hostage to a rigid “turnaround” agenda that is going nowhere.

Good for both papers, good for Chicago, and good for any readers willing to benefit from diametrically opposite points of view. Of course it’s weird that the two papers are ultimately under the thumb of the same guy, Mike Ferro—the situation reminds of a high school basketball game I read about years ago where one coach took ill and the other one wound up coaching both teams.  

But at least the game went on. Whatever it takes, we’re better off if our daily papers go on too.