Credit: P.S. Mueller

Despite its masthead, the Chicago Tribune was never the World’s Greatest Newspaper, but it was hard to beat on its home court. “We were a Chicago paper but we kind of considered the midwest our backyard,” says James O’Shea, a former Tribune managing editor who now runs the Chicago News Cooperative. “We didn’t want to cede it to anybody.”

In 1993 the Tribune unaccountably let itself get beaten on a big regional story—massive flooding across the midwest. The Tribune missed the big picture, while the New York Times generated coverage that would bring Chicago-based Isabel Wilkerson a Pulitzer for feature writing and make her a finalist in national reporting. Tribune reporters from that era still smart at the memory.

Now history repeats itself, and this time there’s nothing unaccountable about it. A Tribune reporter rankled by 1993 shrugged off his paper’s lackluster response to the recent tumult in Madison, Wisconsin. “I suppose at one time we would have treated it as a major story,” he said. “But you know, I don’t hear any carping. It’s not that the staff doesn’t care. But the paper may not have the horses to do that kind of thing.”

In Madison a new governor, Scott Walker, is applying the Rahm Emanuel axiom that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Responding to the state’s $3.6 billion deficit, he’s brushed aside concessions offered by unionized state workers to try to bust the unions—an act of aggression damned by his critics as gratuitous in the short run and hailed by his admirers as essential in the long. A deficit of similar magnitude can be found in every other state in the region, and most definitely in Illinois. Ohio also has a governor who wants to break the unions, Indiana a governor who already has.

So how to cover the showdown in Madison? On the one hand, there’s the piece of it that’s sheer entertainment—14 Democratic state senators skedaddling to Illinois in mid-February to deny the senate the quorum it needs to pass Walker’s program; prounion demonstrators filling the capitol and chanting truth to power like wannabe Egyptians and Libyans. The Tribune was on those stories. It also sated its readers’ appetite for punditry—Clarence Page, Steve Chapman, Dennis Byrne, Jonah Goldberg, and E.J. Dionne all weighed in on public sector unions, along with the editorial page, and I’m probably overlooking a pundit or two.

But the Times peeled more layers of the onion, and it kept peeling long after the Tribune lost interest. For instance, on February 28, the Times carried a front-page story on the debate within public sector unions over what concessions, if any, to make in order to preserve the right of collective bargaining. The Tribune buried a three-paragraph Reuters update from Madison. Last Sunday’s Times led its Week in Review section with a piece headlined “As Goes Wisconsin . . . / The Midwest’s legacy of labor activism—and conservative pushback—are both in play today at the Capitol in Madison.” There was nothing about Madison in the Sunday Tribune.

When the Tribune cedes Libya to the Times and the BBC and Google News, it’s no skin off the reader’s nose. When it abandons its post as the go-to source of regional news, we suffer. The Tribune should have an innately superior grasp of the midwest because the paper belongs to it, has a stake in it, and thinks about it all the time.

Except that apparently the Tribune doesn’t.

Former Trib reporter Dick Longworth gave me the heads-up. In an e-mail, he reminded me of 1993 and went on, “Once again, the Trib is virtually ignoring a terrific story right next door—the union-governor battles in Wisconsin and Indiana, not to mention Ohio. Not so the Times. . . . It’s whomping the Trib on what should be its own story.”

In 2007 the much-traveled Longworth, now a senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, published Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. To save itself, the midwest must think globally and act regionally, Longworth argued, and journalism had a role to play—if it was up to it. “If the Midwest is to act as a region,” he wrote, “it needs a trusted publication to set the regional agenda. No such Midwestern publication exists.” Perhaps the Tribune would rise to the occasion, he suggested. But more likely “it will be a Web site, taking over as newspapers decline.”

Longworth could say in his book that midwestern readers “know that something’s going on out there [in the wider world] that is changing their lives, and they look to their local newspapers to explain it to them.” Today’s readers can’t look to the Tribune to explain Wisconsin.

Longworth believes that explaining what matters to a public that may not realize it matters is still a big part of what journalists need to do. What’s been going on in nearby states since the election of tea party governors and legislators last November, he said, “is a new conception of running state government. It’s an assault on unions, and it’s an attitude toward what state government can do, and it’s going to affect the shape of the midwest. One example is high-speed rail. Are we going to have a high-speed rail network in the midwest? Obama and [secretary of transportation Ray LaHood] would like to do it. So would Pat Quinn. But the governors of both Wisconsin and Ohio have taken money they got for high-speed rail and sent it back to Washington. You can’t have a high-speed rail network in one state.”

A high-speed rail network would alter, perhaps profoundly, the region’s shallow sense of itself as an economic commercial entity. And Chicago would be the network’s hub, reinforcing its role as the regional capital. If there’s no hub and no network, what price does Chicago pay? If the region’s governors can think of no response to hard times but retrenchment, does Chicago lead, follow, or go its own way?

“The financial pressures over at the Tribune are real, they aren’t in bankruptcy for nothing,” Longworth allowed. “But I’m saying when a really good midwestern story breaks out you should be covering it.”

How? Longworth threw out a few ideas. “Wisconsin is the midwest’s breeding ground of unionization. How does this fit into that history? What are the people scared of? I think you want to analyze—are the wages of public service people really higher than the private sector’s, and why? I’d get somebody over to NEA [National Education Association] headquarters in Washington to talk to them about the NEA and the work world and what the NEA can do to increase popular support. I’d have somebody in Rockford bird-dogging these Democratic legislators. If I could, I’d get some reporters out to Eau Claire, Appleton, Superior, elsewhere in Wisconsin, because Madison is Madison. What is the rest of the state thinking? I’d try to find a school, if there is such a school, where kids aren’t going to school because the teachers are in Madison protesting. And then you’ve got to dig into the financial situation in Wisconsin—and, by extension, other states. How bad is it really? What do the restrictions on collective bargaining do to solve the budget crisis?

“I haven’t even talked about sending somebody to Ohio or Indianapolis.

“As you know, the very same bill, pretty much, just passed in Ohio. And we’ve got two new Republican governors in Michigan and Iowa, both of whom face considerable budget deficits—especially Michigan. But neither, so far as I know, has tried to resort to this. Why?”

I also asked O’Shea how he’d have run the Madison coverage.

“We’d have covered it day to day and we’d probably also have done a weekend takeout with reports out of Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin comparing how Illinois stood up,” O’Shea said. “And we probably would have assembled some people and started talking about what factors are driving this. Not just unions. Economic issues, budget issues. I keep hearing people saying the state is broke. What does that mean? They still have income. We’d be looking at union workers, teachers—are they grossly overpaid? And another issue, a more Perspective kind of piecethis as another example of how people in this country say they want one thing but they don’t want to pay for it. Everybody’s talking about the budget deficit but nobody wants to do anything with Social Security.”

O’Shea mentioned a couple of recent Times stories that especially impressed him: a March 2 piece by business columnist David Leonhardt headlined “Union Pay Isn’t Busting State Budgets,” and a front-page story the next day about a unionized Madison high school teacher making $30,000 a year and saddled with a $26,000 student loan who was planning to move to Colorado, where she could keep teaching by living with her parents. The headline: “Teachers Wonder, Why the Heapings of Scorn?”

O’Shea hadn’t paid much attention to the Tribune coverage, but he’d noticed that a lot of it was picked up from the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Company paper that hasn’t settled for its backyard. “Obviously we have ceded the story to the LATimes, which has staffed it since the story broke and still is staffing it,” a Tribune reporter e-mailed me. “It is just another sign that the Chicago Tribune gave up its national and international reporting franchises to the LATimes in the money-cutting moves. The powers that be make no pretense anymore even of being the voice of the midwest. I have seen stories from DeKalb turned down because it is now considered outside our circulation area.”

The e-mail continued on a note of pained resignation. “We get what we pay for, and if news organizations can’t generate income from selling what they do, they will do less and less actual news gathering. We’re going through a very profound societal change, and one that should make us all feel very, very uncomfortable. The power grab in Wisconsin certainly is one of the most important stories unfolding right now, and we are not covering it, and we are not examining it, except for the predictable bromides from a couple of editorial writers and columnists writing from afar. That can’t be good for the newspaper, for the community it serves or for the future in general.”