The 2,000-foot Chicago Spire isn’t being built for Chicagoans, Paul O’Connor was explaining to me. “The fundamental idea of the place is to be a global pied-a-terre for the superrich from the Persian Gulf states, east Asia, Russia, western Europe, and South America. The spire is a metaphor for ‘global city,’ just as ‘one-newspaper town’ is its antithesis.”
A third of a century ago, about the time O’Connor was helping John Callaway launch a nightly news broadcast on Channel 11 (it soon failed), O’Connor and I were briefly editors together at the old Chicago Journalism Review. It was a good time. Journalists our age believed the wonderful world of Chicago newspapering needed to be set right, and back then the solution was obvious: turn it over to us.
O’Connor eventually left journalism, and in 1999 he founded and became executive director of World Business Chicago, a public-private partnership created to champion Chicago in the global economy. When O’Connor quit last month, Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business called him Chicago’s “top corporate recruiter.”
O’Connor broke into journalism as Mike Royko’s legman. His dad—he of the legendary sign-off “. . . and I am Len O’Connor”—was the glowering longtime political commentator of Channel Five. For a month in 1988 Paul was actually a candidate for mayor, running as a “Lincoln Republican.” If outsiders who come here look for “authenticity”—and O’Connor says they do—they surely felt that in him they had their man, someone Chicago through and through.
I went to him the other day for his take on the tattered state of the Chicago press. Say the stricken Sun-Times dies—will that mean a hill of beans to a sheik from Bahrain pricing suites in the spire? My own feeling is that it might, and that it should. O’Connor tore into the subject:
“The very phrase ‘a one-newspaper city’ pretty much answers your question,” he said. “It says ‘small town’ in a number of ways, none of which makes Chicago more attractive as a place to live . . . or as a place to invest corporate capital. A docile, incurious media environment means a low-energy town to a business decision maker. That might be nice if these were the days of Potterville, but the speed and complexity of change that is taking place in the local, national, and international marketplaces require high-energy, refined concentration, quick-reflex responses.”
I asked him to think of Chicago’s media as a component of the civic infrastructure. “Businesses coming to town at least glance at the state of local schools,” I e-mailed him. “Does the state of local media rate even a glance?”
He wrote back, “Businesses thinking about coming to town do not simply glance at the civic and cultural infrastructure, they look at it carefully. . . . Great daily newspapers are the primary portals—and indeed primary definers—of the unique culture that is Chicago. To me two dailies is bare bones. . . . How do you think a CEO of a multinational company would feel, and what do you suppose he’d think, if he had a press conference in Chicago to say he was thinking about moving his headquarters here and one camera showed up? And in the front row sat a reporter identifying herself as representing ‘the city’s newspaper.’ Global city or rube burg?”
O’Connor believes the local media are largely responsible for their present miseries. “You’ve got an audience out there consuming infinities of information in this complex bath of media, and the enablers of all this—the core newspapers—they somehow got lost. They don’t know where they are. They’re rabbits caught in the glow of headlights.”
Sam Zell took over the Tribune preaching “relevance.” The word can mean nothing in the wrong hands, but O’Connor thinks the paper’s new owner is on to something. To O’Connor, relevance is a meeting of content, language, and audience at a “harmonic spot.” It’s a newspaper in tune with its readers. “When I look at Zell I say, ‘Hallelujah. There’s a chance. There’s a fresh perspective.’ You have enough people at the Tribune to effectively march against Indiana, and what do they do? They’re a bunch of MBAs who don’t know the street, they don’t know where the city’s going.
“You get generally better news on Chicago from the Economist. They look at Chicago in a thoughtful way. They say, ‘These are your problems. I don’t know whether you’ll be able to overcome them.’ You’d think the locals would notice there’s a forest here instead of looking merely at the trees.”
O’Connor would like to see the local press cover Chicago the way the Economist covers it, as a city of the world. For instance, the Chicago press could write about the fiber-optic telecom networks being built in Korean cities as a model Chicago needs to duplicate. Downtown Chicago has the fastest, most sophisticated Internet exchange on earth, O’Connor told me, but the telecom capabilities of the neighborhoods are “pathetic or nil,” and no cutting-edge manufacturer would ever consider building a plant in one of them.
“The implications for the populace and mass media are equally bleak,” O’Connor elaborated in an e-mail. “Say the Tribune and Sun-Times wake up—as Crain’s has—to realize that 50% of Internet users are clicking on videos. Say the Sun-Times thinks that Jesse Jackson’s column would be better as a three-minute video with sound. Well, a very substantial percentage of the circulation that Mr. Jackson presumably speaks for/to won’t be able to get his column because their community doesn’t even have a lowly DSL line.”
To O’Connor, last year’s top local environmental story, about BP wanting the right to pollute more at its Whiting refinery, was just a small piece of an untold economic story of huge proportions, about billions of gallons of crude coming Chicago’s way from the tar sands of Alberta. “Nobody covers Canada,” said O’Connor.
O’Connor believes the Tribune should send its staff out into the world to look for stories that matter to Chicago and explain how they do. He thinks David Greising is the paper’s “poster child.” From 1998 to 2003, Greising wrote a column for the front page of the business section that had the vigor and sass of a sports column. In 2003 the Trib tried to move the column to page two, so Greising stopped writing it. The shift of pages would have changed the message from “you’ve got to read this guy” to “he’s not so important.” O’Connor thinks the paper lost its nerve. “He got his legs cut out from under him. I think there was squawking from the business side that he punched too hard, so they dropped him into the brass chipper.”
As it is the Sun-Times “is creaming the Tribune on business,” O’Connor told me. Yet at very nearly the moment he said this, Dan Miller, the business editor at the Sun-Times, resigned. He knew the paper was about to dramatically reduce his staff, and he didn’t want to work there anymore.
O’Connor thinks the local press no longer speaks with the city’s voice—it no longer sounds authentic. “Where can you find a good laugh in this town?” he wondered. “Nobody’s talking Chicagoese to Chicagoans. You had the class of Rokyo and [Herman] Kogan—the list goes on and on. Even in TV and on the radio there was a sort of joyful irreverence. But I don’t find it, I don’t see where it is.”
When journalism works there’s a “visceral bond between the people and their media,” O’Connor said, but today’s press has been reduced to “Darwinian randomness,” to managers “throwing shit on the wall” because they don’t understand either the audience or their own product. He dismissed the blogs reporters are now expected to write as “frenetic behavior. Everyone’s like a wire service now—always filing. These volumes are killers for writers and reporters. Can you tell me you can do that kind of volume without being just a fish for whatever the spin du jour is? That’s what most of this shit is.”
Would Mike Royko, if born 40 years later, have blogged? Maybe, if the money was good enough, O’Connor said. “Mike was an excruciating writer. Meaning the columns—when I worked for him—came out verrrry slowly. Part of the reason for that was that he invested all of his considerable ego in each one. . . . Mike also liked to have the last word, or at least a complete grasp of the competitive editorial context into which he was writing. He would spend all day and into the night reading the wires and everything he could get his hands on written by his peers, to see if he could get a view into their take on stuff and thereby ensure he would not be writing a dreaded ‘me too’ piece.”
Today he’d be googling. Royko grew up over his old man’s bar. Maybe the next one is now a kid sweeping out the family’s Internet cafe. v
For more see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.