The Black Track: Minority Problems at the Tribune

Last autumn, three young black reporters and a black copy editor resigned from the Chicago Tribune, one after another.

It looked terrible. Editor Jim Squires huddled with the journalists’ bosses and called in the Tribune’s top blacks, among them George Curry and Nat Sheppard of the Washington bureau. Curry and Sheppard talked to the three reporters.

But in the end, Squires decided the problem wasn’t about race at all. At least it wasn’t about racism. The problem turned on ambition and opportunities.

“My real failure,” Squires told us, “and what I’m concerned about, is that I’m not hiring them in enough numbers to increase the retention numbers. We’re hiring 30 percent minorities–we don’t even have to have an opening to hire minorities. And we’ve made no progress in the total numbers of people who have stayed.”

The Tribune wants to raise its number of minority journalists to upwards of 20 percent of the staff, Squires said, but the paper’s stuck at 10 or 11 percent. “When I brought in two or three new ones a few years back, it was immediately followed by the departure of two or three [other] new ones.” Now this. How to get over the hump? he wondered. Maybe the Tribune will hire 70 percent minorities for a while; maybe 100 percent . . .

It is no simple thing to be an able young black reporter at a newspaper like the Tribune. For one thing there are the distractions. “A lot of the news organizations are courting the same bunch of people,” one of the departed four explained. “All of us have had multiple news offers from people on the outside of Chicago. It’s a kind of running joke with us. Who called you this week? They’re trafficking in the same bunch of people. It’s very hard to resist. It’s flattering when Dow Jones calls you up, or the New York Times drops a note in your mail.”

And if you can put up with that, there are the hellish working conditions, which for as long as we’ve been in Chicago Tribune reporters have been describing to us as bureaucratic, impersonal, paternalistic, and thus inadequate to the human soul. Worst of all, there are the suburbs.

You would be right in supposing that few black go-getters, urban to the core, are eager to be posted in Hinsdale. But Hinsdale, site of a major Tribune outpost, isn’t what lures white go-getters into journalism either.

“A phenomenon at work in the big top-echelon media outlets is that there is not a lot of mobility at the top,” Squires said. “We tend to get these jobs and stay in them. No one wants to quit being managing editor of the Tribune, or sports editor, or metro editor, or editor of the Tribune. So you put a kid on a fast track and they get to a certain point and no one moves. When that happens to a young nonminority worker, their options are not as great as the minority worker’s–and we’re talking about the hotshots, the good ones.”

Said Squires, “A minority reporter good enough for the Tribune can leave and go anywhere they want to.”

So who were these hotshots who got away? First to jump was Fred Marc Biddle, who’d come in at age 22–damn young to be at the Tribune, and he knew it. “There was a feeling I was being promoted more or less out of turn.” And was there a racial component to this resentment? we wondered. “I mean, after three years of being in the spin cycle there, I can’t rule it out and I can’t rule it in,” Biddle said. “You’re talking about something very delicate and you don’t go throwing charges around. But I won’t say it wasn’t on my mind an awful lot.”

Biddle started out writing for the business section, then was shifted to the metro desk and shipped out to Hinsdale. He did not want to be there.

“I felt resentful that the newspaper was devoting so many of its resources and manpower to covering the suburbs in exhaustive detail–‘microjournalism’ was the term–when it didn’t devote the same resources to covering the city, its neighborhoods and goings-on. I did resent that.”

Last summer, a Boston Globe editor Biddle remembered from an internship there called and asked him if he was happy. “The answer was a resounding no.” Then life got better. The Tribune brought Biddle back into the city and gave him the State of Illinois Center. But this assignment didn’t make Biddle any friends: “There was a lot of bad feeling over that beat. Everybody and their mother had put in for the job.” And after a few weeks he hung it up and joined the Globe.

“I was not that good at 22 to deserve the job I had,” Biddle told us with measured vagueness, “and I was not that bad at 25 to deserve the reputation I had when I left.”

You felt like damaged goods? we asked. “They said as far as they were concerned I was on good paper. I’m not sure I really believed it.”

Michele Norris, who is 27, joined the Trib from the LA Times in the spring of ’87 and was immediately thrown into the Trib’s massive investigation of Chicago’s public schools, the series the Tribune hopes will win it a Pulitzer this spring. That done, the Tribune sent her to Homewood to cover south suburban schools.

“I didn’t see it as a progression, as a step forward in my career,” Norris told us. And who would? “I don’t think there’s a lot of time or room to do much analytic or investigative reporting, which is what I was interested in doing, when we’re trying to be a paper of record and focus on the minutiae of board meetings and administration. I understand what the Tribune is trying to do–it’s clearly the next frontier for them–but it’s not something I wanted to do.”

She also didn’t want to keep suffering the perception that “you’ve gotten where you are because of the color of your skin. . . . When there are only a handful of blacks in a newsroom, those accusations seem to be much more common.” The Washington Post called and Norris split. “When you look around, and see four or five black editors in the newsroom, it makes you feel good.”

Norris told us, “I don’t think working in the suburbs is completely unacceptable. I’m working in a suburban bureau now.” She’s covering the countywide school district of Prince Georges County, Maryland, “a very interesting district, in the throes of a desegregation battle, a growing black population, lots of innovative battles.

“Also,” continued Norris, “I felt the coverage of schools in Prince Georges County was much more important to the Post than the coverage of the south suburban schools was to the Tribune.”

Of the ones that got away, Michele Norris’s departure apparently gnawed most at Jim Squires. “Jack Fuller said Michele Norris did not get a bad deal at the Tribune,” Squires told us, Fuller being the executive editor Squires went to for a postmortem. “The problem is once you do a metro school system series and you’ve done it, it’s very hard to go back to covering school board hearings. That was a big fun wonderful project not followed by another big fun wonderful project.

“I would hire her back in a minute. But I can’t promise her any faster track than she was on. If she stayed, she could have had any job she wanted around here.”

The third black reporter to split already had one of those choice assignments. Cheryl Devall, 30, three and a half years at the Tribune, her dues paid, was covering City Hall–“as important a job as we had,” said Squires–and she walked away from it. Devall decided she’d rather cover Chicago for National Public Radio.

“I was aware other people had left,” Devall said; “they were friends of mine. And that it would be seen regardless of what I did as a racial thing. In my case, it wasn’t. I don’t believe it was. Any little indignities I regarded as water under the bridge. For me it was a matter of looking at the next ten years of my life and saying ‘Do I want to deal with the internal politics of the Tribune or do I want to do my best work?'”

Then Celia Daniels quit. A financial copy editor in her 30s with reservations about the Tribune’s commitment to advancing blacks into management, Daniels is now assistant business editor of the Detroit News.

And then Constanza Montana, a young bilingual Hispanic, handed in her resignation. They were sending her to Wheaton, and after 16 months on nights, Montana thought she’d suffered enough. But Montana’s was one kiss-off too many. The Tribune offered terms. Montana will be out in Wheaton only till May 1, and then she’ll come back to cover Hispanic affairs. That’s a new beat; the Tribune might even open a bureau in Humboldt Park.

“We basically insist that everyone be willing to move to the suburbs,” said Jim Squires. “We’re trying to establish a new culture here and there are some pains connected with that. But the experience is much more positive than negative. A lot of very happy people whose careers have been rescued like it.

“If they don’t like it they can stand in line and get as old as I am and some day they can determine the coverage. . . . We can’t get down in every suburban area to the Pioneer Press level of reporting. We don’t aspire to that. We do think we can cover government and what government did yesterday. Anybody who has the right to raise your taxes ought to be covered by the Tribune. And if reporters don’t like it they can go somewhere that doesn’t do it and we’ll find someone else.

“The good young minority reporters can say, ‘Go stuff it.’ But if we make exceptions here, I’m hung.”

Tower Topography

There are parallels between the bureaucratic layers at the Tribune and winter wear in Yakutsk. Even where real power lies, the flow chart is a muddle. You might have noticed this in trying to decipher last month’s shake-up at the top.

Get out your pencils. Stanton Cook shifted from president to chairman of the Tribune Company. But he’s still CEO. The new president is Charles Brumback, who had been president and CEO of the subsidiary Chicago Tribune Company. He’s succeeded in those posts by John Madigan, who had been executive vice president of the parent company (and chairman of the Chicago Cubs).

Forget who’s on first. The guy on deck is now Charles Brumback; he’s won the war to succeed Cook in 1990 if Cook retires then on reaching 65. A numbers man, Brumback made money hand over fist at the Tribune even while allowing his expansionist editor–an old ally going back to their days at the Orlando Sentinel–to open bureaus not just in the collar counties but all over the world.

So now Jim Squires reports to Madigan, and the two men aren’t close. Does it matter? The publisher of the Chicago Tribune is still Stanton Cook!–we suppose because publisher is such a neat thing to be. As Squires said about lesser offices, “We tend to get these jobs and stay in them.”

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