Back to the Future

Managing editor James O’Shea went on a little when he announced Charles Madigan’s new assignment. He called Madigan a “seasoned veteran,” one of the Tribune’s “premier writers,” someone whose new job will “capitalize on his staggering skills as a fast and graceful writer.” The point is, Madigan’s 56, yet O’Shea was asking him to be the paper’s new futurist.

As O’Shea told the staff by e-mail in mid-August, Madigan “will head up a new continuous news desk” that will carry the paper “into the next generation of newsgathering.” He means 24-hour gathering for the Internet, something Madigan’s capable of thinking about in terms so old they’re new. If the Internet is a maw with an insatiable appetite, well, so was United Press International, where Madigan once cranked out stories for the UPI radio wire and where the motto was “A deadline every minute.”

Madigan says, “Where do you find people who can look at a story and think ’50 words’ and tell almost the whole story in 50 words–and turn around and do it for another story and do it all day long?”

In the Tribune newsroom, he hopes. “This means turning a small part of the Tribune into a very aggressive newswriting and gathering operation,” he says. “For the most part, it’s not going to affect how people do their jobs as journalists here. The diligence and expertise remain where the Tribune’s value is, and that you can’t get in the way of. But it will speed up immensely the idea of how quickly you have to get the news out. That hierarchy process–where you make a decision late in the afternoon and evening about what’s going on in the paper–this does away with it. You make decisions immediately. People on the Internet are generally not going to be reading long stories about anything. You can link to longer stories, illustrate with other stories, whatever you need to do. But the writing has to be severely compressed–as you wrote for the radio wire–and have personality but be informative at the same time. The idea behind this is very old-fashioned. The values behind this are very old-fashioned. What’s new is that now it’s on a computer.”

The current Tribune home page is a listless place. Ideally an Internet news site should be as protean as the world is. Madigan says that’s possible, though months away. “If you think about the whole newspaper when it comes to you in the morning, it’s a big smorgasbord of things–wire stories, other papers’ stories, in-house stories, features,” he says. “The challenge will be to take that smorgasbord and serve it up as rapidly as possible. . . . We have all the facilities to do that now and probably should have gotten into that aggressively a long time ago, but we didn’t. And now we are.”

Madigan’s career is a tribute to his ingenuity. After working for UPI in Pennsylvania and Moscow, he joined the Tribune in 1979 and has held more jobs there than it makes sense to list, reinventing himself whenever he felt pigeonholed. For the last five years he’s edited the Perspective section, and he recently added his blogging personage, “Rambling Gleaner,” to the op-ed page. He’ll go on gleaning while he revamps the Web site.

What about bells? I ask him.

When big breaking stories rolled into newsrooms on the UPI teletype, bells went off.

“There could be bells,” he says. “There are a lot of things you could do, and what’s going to happen will be dictated by your interest in news. Some people will not want to be completely awash in news–and there will be versions for them. But we’ve got to compete with everybody. As for revenues–it’s not in my pay grade to worry about that.”

Not Very Intelligent Design

Everybody’s writing about intelligent design. “It’s sweeping the nation, and no wonder,” said my pal A.E. Eyre. “It combines science and religion, the best of both worlds. What’s not to like?”

Some say it’s a little light on the science, I replied.

“They don’t say that in Kansas,” he said. In Kansas the board of education knocked evolution down a peg and urged teachers to add ID to the curriculum. “When I was a kid,” he went on, “my wildest dream was a comic book where Superman and Batman–joined by Robin, the Boy Wonder–fought crime together. Intelligent design is almost the same thing. When you think of everything that faith accomplished in the first millennium and everything rationalism accomplished in the second, imagine what they could do if they teamed up in the third.” He concluded with great force: “Kansas is a state that dares to dream those dreams.”

The problem, I said, is that intelligent design calls itself a scientific theory, but it can’t be tested.

Eyre snorted. He said he’d heard that a million times and never understood it. “God didn’t give us science,” he snapped. “God gave us tablets with Roman numerals on them. Science is something we humans cooked up on our own. It’s fraught with imperfections. If a sensible idea like intelligent design can’t be tested under the rules of science, we need to change the rules of science. That’s what Kansas proposes to do.”

Was he saying science could have one set of rules in Kansas and another in Illinois?

“It’s what federalism is all about,” he said. “And we’ll see which state invents the perpetual motion machine first.” He said he’d put his money on Kansas, since the best minds in that state have been working on it so long.

Intelligent designers, he explained, are merely saying that the world as we know it is no accident. As an illustration, he said he’d never understood why people don’t all speak the same language even though monkeys speak the same language. Then he realized someone must have stepped in and gummed up the works.

Someone with a certain intelligence, I ventured.

He nodded. “There was a kid back in middle school named Benny Caswell who broke into the principal’s office and dumped out all the files and poured ketchup on them,” he said. “I’ve always thought of language as something that might have been cooked up by Benny Caswell.”

What about disease? I said.

“Poor Elvira Johnson!” Eyre said. “She was two years older than the rest of the class, and she left her boogers everywhere. Whenever I read about an epidemic I can’t help but remember Elvira Johnson.”

And war?

Eyre asked if he’d ever told me about Donald Kazoryk. “He was really mean. He beat me up. But when he repeated eighth grade I never saw him again.”

So the thing to understand about intelligent design, I surmised, is that the designer’s intelligent but not very. Adolescent maybe, or borderline retarded.

Eyre looked puzzled. “Is someone claiming anything else?”

High Hopes

The August 29 Sun-Times made a troubling prediction. Trying to imagine the downtown of tomorrow, it said “Fordham Spire. . . . Outlook: Unlikely.”

Surely this can’t be true. Architect Santiago Calatrava has called out Chicago. The city has three good reasons to build his megatower.

1. It’s cool. The Tribune’s Blair Kamin wrote four stories about it, with headlines like “Scaling Aesthetic Heights” and “Spiral Tower Harks Back to Babel.” He’s got the kind of crush on Calatrava’s tower that back in high school was visible halfway down the corridor. But who doesn’t?

2. It’ll shut up Donald Trump. No one in Chicago pretends to be happy Trump came here. He’s an alien and a goof.

3. Calatrava’s tower is what Chicago is about. Or used to be about. Look at Marina City and then at Lake Point Tower. They’re part of the tower’s bloodline.

OK, traffic will be a nightmare, and developer Christopher Carley is in over his head. So what? He can go bankrupt building Calatrava’s tower and dine out on the experience the rest of his life. The follies of some lives are vastly more noble than the triumphs of others. (See North Bridge.)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.