When Creative Loafing Inc. bought the Reader two years ago, I got to know CEO Ben Eason over lunch at Julius Meinl, where I introduced him to my favorite server as the newest big deal in Chicago journalism. I had never heard of Eason before the day the sale was announced, but there we were, with a brand-new connection. He was the one building an empire; I was the one whose friends, the original owners of the Reader, had bailed out. Even so, in better times our lunch might have been the start of a beautiful relationship.
Instead the times have proved lousy for just about every newspaper in America. The Reader‘s two years as a Creative Loafing paper have been blighted by shrinking budgets, shifting priorities, layoffs, and bankruptcy. When I call Eason these days it’s not as an employee, a colleague, or a friend, but as a media reporter trying to keep up with the potential collapse of Eason’s company. He’s being challenged for control of Creative Loafing by his primary creditor, Atalaya Capital Management, which is owed $30 million Eason can’t repay, and at an auction August 25 in federal court in Tampa he could easily lose the company.
Creative Loafing’s bankruptcy is just one more media story to follow, along with the Sun-Times Media Group’s bankruptcy and the Tribune Company’s bankruptcy. But CL’s is the story I’m part of.
Eason always takes my calls, which I interpret as a sign that whatever happens, we’ll always have Julius Meinl. For the same reason, I don’t like making those calls. In a perfect world—no, in a marginally less imperfect world—I would commiserate with everyone I know at Creative Loafing who’s feeling beaten down by events and not write about the company at all. Certainly I can’t begin to feign disinterest in what happens to it—the auction will have an enormous impact on the future of the Reader, which I’ve been connected to in one way or another since the first issue in 1971, and of everyone who works around me in this little shop. The closest I can come to disinterest is agnosticism. I simply do not know whether in the long run—assuming a long run—the Reader would be better off in the hands of the people trying to keep the company afloat by cutting our editorial budget or in the hands of a New York-based private equity firm. My reporting won’t betray partisanship because I’m too perplexed to be a partisan.
Disinterestedness, of course, is the ideal in this business. Journalism has its canons, and covering a story you’re part of violates them. Then again, so does ignoring a story for the same reason. (Full disclosure is our motto—but disclosing there’s a problem doesn’t solve it.) When the canons of journalism were being written up everyone must have adjourned awfully damned early for dinner, because some things sure needed more discussion. They frown on violating someone’s privacy, but they squirm when we defer to someone else’s. . Last December I got a tip that Chicago Public Radio had just laid off about a dozen staffers from WBEZ and Vocalo. I made some calls, got the names, and posted the better known ones on my blog. Public comment poured in, and my ethics were promptly graded.
First: “Hey michael, I heard the reader’s not doing too well. When they cut you out of the budget, I’ll be sure to blog about it and link you. That way, your friends and family can read about it before you have a chance to tell them. Dick.”
And a few minutes later: “You’re really criticizing Miner for reporting on breaking news? in case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s what good reporters do.”
I can argue either side of that debate because it remains unresolved in my head. A few days after the Chicago Public Radio layoffs, and just before Christmas, the Reader made staff cuts of its own, the second round for editorial. Editor Alison True explained what was about to happen at a gloomy staff meeting and then privately told each of us who was in and who was out. Four days passed before I mentioned the layoffs on my blog, and I gave no names. The double standard didn’t go unnoticed. Someone promptly commented: “This happened almost a week ago. Seems dubious to report the loss of nearly a third of your edit staff during the one week most readers are out of the office. When BEZ announced cuts, it was at the top of the home page. Why the disparity?”
I have no explanation that will satisfactorily answer this question. The fancy one I’ll retreat to is one word long: epistemology. You see, it’s not simply what journalists know that matters to us but also how we happen to know it. I knew what happened at WBEZ because I got a tip and worked the story; I knew about the Reader because it’s home.
I like knowing. My personal rule of thumb is that it’s better to be told something off the record than not be told at all, because no matter how many stipulations your source imposes, once you know something you know it, and knowing it you can proceed accordingly. But journalists constantly monitor how we know what we know. There’s a fundamental difference between learning by reporting and learning by belonging. Yes, I did feel an obligation to acknowledge what happened at the Reader—and so I did. But to acknowledge isn’t to report.
The Chicago Tribune‘s Phil Rosenthal has a better idea. He doesn’t worry about lists of names. “For one,” he says, “the list is just getting too long. Nobody wants to read a telephone directory.” But for another, “not everyone wants it known” he just lost his job. “It’s a personal matter. And unless I’m prepared to call each and every person every time and get them to confirm the reason they’re leaving and the circumstances, it’s a bit unwieldy. Some people take buyouts, some people are fired, some people get retired—a lot of verbs.”
Rosenthal’s been the Tribune‘s main media writer since the spring of 2005. The story he’s ably covered but didn’t bargain for when he came over from the Sun-Times to take the assignment was the ongoing financial crisis at the Tribune Company. It promptly rose up and bit him, and after a year on his new beat, Rosenthal wrote a piece commenting on his predicament. At the time the Tribune was still a public company, but a war among major stockholders was tearing it apart.
“As a reporter,” Rosenthal’s story began, “when you have a personal stake in a story, you’re supposed to beg off the assignment. When the story is about the company you work for, you’re supposed to dig in and not let go. Welcome to the world of covering Tribune Co. for the Chicago Tribune.”
He went on, “We cannot claim to be disinterested. These are our jobs, our 401k plans, our futures on the line. For now, however, it’s the biggest business story in town. If we can’t handle that obligation as professionals, we might as well be sold to Ernie Banks.”
Far from subsiding since 2006, the Tribune Company story has become too big and complex for any one reporter to hope to handle. When U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald filed a criminal complaint against Governor Rod Blagojevich last December accusing him of—among many other things—trying to leverage a $100 million tax break to get Tribune editorial writer John McCormick fired, Rosenthal left that story for someone else. He already had his hands full—the Tribune Company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy the day before.
I called Rosenthal to find out if he gets any more pleasure out of writing about his own shop than I do. He doesn’t. “This is no fun,” he tells me. “If I could write about it less I probably would.”
He says, “If I get beat on a story about my own company, I look like a fool. If I’m ahead on a story, people shrug and say ‘Of course you are.’ The best I can do is develop sources through normal channels and report things out. Ultimately, the work will speak for itself.”
But it doesn’t speak for how treacherous it can be to get it done. “There are [staff] meetings I don’t go to because they’re off the record,” Rosenthal says. “If it’s off the record, there’s no point in me sitting there trying to figure out what I can do and what I can’t do. I don’t want to be put in a position where someone says ‘You can’t use that. You got that in a position where you know you couldn’t use the information.’ For the same reason, some people don’t attend off-the-record briefings at the White House.”
After the meeting, he’ll hear—it’ll be the talk of the newsroom—about what went on. But he can’t use that either. “You have to be able to source it,” he says, and intramural chatter isn’t a source. “It can be the foundation for other reporting . . . the basis for questions to others. But you can’t just use it. It becomes like any other off-the-record or deep background information. It’s information you have but it’s not information you can use in and of itself.
“I think I have standards,” says Rosenthal. “I think they’re adequate. It’s cutting years off my life.”
I wouldn’t go that far. But I will say this. Rosenthal is clearly not his paper’s ombudsman. He’s clearly not its conscience. He’s clearly not its voice. I’m none of those things at the Reader, but maybe not so clearly. Not always so clearly to my readers, or to my coworkers, and once in a while not even to me. It would be a scandal if someone else ever told me to stop writing about Creative Loafing or whoever next owns the Reader. But it’s easily my least favorite story.