Trib Buys Out Writers, Sells Out Readers

If the veteran journalists leaving the Chicago Tribune this month marched into some drowsing hamlet and set up shop, they could snap it awake with the liveliest weekly in America. The Tribune made going away irresistible, but not because these folks are senescent. They’re just damned expensive. Putting the bottom line first, the Tribune very quietly let it be known that newspeople who met some vague standard of seniority could, if they took off, receive two weeks’ salary for every year worked, up to a full year’s wage.

Mission accomplished. The Tribune reduced its payroll. Unfortunately, it’s cut costs in the fashion of the desperate coyote who escapes a trap by chewing off a paw. But thousands of the stockholders for whom the paper is published surely won’t even notice that Jon Margolis and John Maclean have disappeared.

By the end of the month they’ll both be gone–along with Dorothy Collin, late of Inc.; Kenneth Clark and Janet Cawley of the New York bureau; Elaine Povich of the Washington bureau; and the Tribune Magazine’s art director, Dan Jursa. Political cartoonist Richard Locher, who was past retirement age anyway, also leaves the paper’s payroll, but he’ll do four syndicated cartoons a week for Tribune Media Services. And he’ll still draw Dick Tracy.

This is, by and large, a story of fortune smiling generously. Cawley and Povich are both in their late 40s. Both were being recalled to Chicago and neither wanted to come. “I want you to understand I have no animosity to the Tribune. It’s just a matter of I wanted to stay in New York,” said Cawley, sounding blissful. “This little window of opportunity opened. Elaine Povich told me about it. I decided to give myself two weeks to catch my breath and then look for a job in New York.”

Margolis, about half a year from turning 55, said he was thinking of retiring then anyway for what he called an “existential” reason–discovering what he can do in life besides write an op-ed column before “I get too old and decrepit” to try. “One of the greatest jobs in the world” shouldn’t be done forever. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the young reporters don’t think I’m an irrelevant old twit. And they may be right. It’s certainly true that no one should be a columnist too long.” So he plans to retreat to some land he owns in Vermont and probably write a book, possibly teach, and perhaps contribute to somebody’s coverage of the ’96 elections.

“I can live the rest of my life in comfort if not opulence if I never make another penny,” he said. “I worked for the Tribune Company when the Tribune was a great company to work for. Which is when there were great companies to work for. In those good years they put away some money for me.

“I certainly was not pushed,” he went on. “I jumped. I think people on one level, the journalistic level, would rather I had stayed.”

And on a higher, corporate level?

“There’s clearly some imperative to reduce staff. And if you reduce senior staff you’re reducing higher-paid staff.”

So you’ll be replaced by an “associate”–a one-year hire?

“If that,” Margolis said. “The fact of the matter is, I think I’ll be replaced by nobody.”

Maclean’s plans, which he’s reluctant to discuss, are the most compelling and courageous. He’s signed a contract to write a book about last year’s catastrophic fire on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain that took the lives of 14 fire fighters. This was the first fire that smoke jumpers died fighting since Montana’s Mann Gulch fire of 1949–the “blowup” pondered journalistically and philosophically by Maclean’s father, Norman Maclean, in the posthumously published masterpiece Young Men and Fire.

To say that John Maclean, a 51-year-old business writer, is risking comparison with his father is imprecise. Comparison’s as certain as heat in August. Maclean’s going away to write his own book anyway.

“I worked at the Tribune 30 years,” Maclean told me. “It wasn’t hard to pull the trigger.”

The Tribune’s buyout offer may prove a godsend for a handful of gifted men and women in midlife. With luck, only the paper’s readers will suffer.

A Frank Farewell

This winter Richard Ciccone was removed as managing editor of the Tribune after 12 years in the job, one of the longest runs in the history of the paper. Ciccone, who’s been given a position defining suburban strategies, was a popular boss, and the farewell message he posted in the newsroom was read thoughtfully.

His former staff discerned an undercurrent of admission: perhaps critics who’d complained that the Tribune was too often outreported–on stories as big as Dan Rostenkowski and Mel Reynolds–were right. Here’s a long excerpt from the memo:

“Stories are what always have mattered most because it is what we do, the only thing we really need to do if we do them well. Whatever happens in the digital electronic satellite fiber optic future won’t mean much to any of us unless it means our stories go to more places and more people who will read them.

“For a dozen years I preached about good writing being essential to convincing the reader that the newspaper was a pleasure not a duty. I sermonized that presenting the facts in a traditional fashion no longer distinguished us from the many other resources of the same facts. I fear I may be responsible for the avalanche of anecdotal leads, italicized precedes, and other literary devices that add little information for the reader.

“I should have, if I didn’t, made it clear that great writing can only occur after great reporting. That takes time and commitment. As the world undergoes unprecedented technological and societal change it makes great reporting more challenging than ever. If we do not know so much more than our readers have discovered elsewhere, if we are not more curious, more obsessed and more determined to have all the knowledge we can find, how will we make them believe we are interpreting, not editorializing; explaining, not critiquing; engaging, not confronting?

“It is wrong to think that journalists simply record history. We decide what it is. We participate in it. It is up to us to define the human condition, the gaggle of academic theoreticians and statistics collectors whose titles and data often mislead us and our readers. We must become the experts. We will only thrive by giving our readers the information they need and can believe. I hope none of us ever believes we fulfill that responsibility by routinely reporting the merits of broccoli and the perils of bacon.

“And we must find ways to give the reader the mundane information they need and do not receive from multiple sources. Forget to remind them that it’s time to set the clock back and you will quickly learn what is really important to them. That’s what my new assignment is about.”

News Bites

Have any idea which way Senator Carol Moseley-Braun voted on the balanced budget amendment? If you don’t, go back and study last Friday’s papers. The info’s in there, but good luck finding it.

“It should be huge news!” a caller shouted into my voice mail. “Here’s a black Democratic senator, the only black senator, voting with the Republicans.” When he called the Tribune to complain, someone at the national desk told him to check the box on page 13 that listed the senators state by state. “I said, “Great! I’m glad our senator rates as well as the senators from Maine and Hawaii and Alabama.”‘

The only place the Sun-Times reported Moseley-Braun’s vote was in its box on page 24. Paul Simon fared better. He showed up on page one of the Sun-Times, although, like Moseley-Braun, he was buried on page 13 of the Tribune. But anyone following the debate knew where Simon stood: he’d cosponsored the amendment.

The lucky New York Times gets to pick and choose among Chicago stories for the ones it wants to cover, but why does it always do better than the local papers in covering the ones it chooses?

All-world heel Richard J. Bailey pleaded guilty last week to 20 years of swindling wealthy women by selling them worthless horses. Although he denied soliciting someone to murder heiress Helen Vorhees Brach, he apparently mesmerized the court with details of his capers with other “pigeons.”

The Sun-Times’s coverage was short and dutiful, and the Tribune’s so brief it seemed perfunctory. But Don Terry’s graceful account for the Times closely observed the fallen Lothario and put the reader inside the courtroom. For example, only Terry observed Bailey’s recently acquired plastic surgeon wife sitting behind him in court. “He married me,” Annette Hoffman told Terry. “He never tried to sell me a horse.”

Welcome, Ernie, to the comics pages of the Tribune. The interesting thing is that the Tribune held proprietary rights to Ernie for years but never bothered to run Bud Grace’s strip. In the meantime another paper in town, the Southtown Economist (now the Daily Southtown), wanted to carry Ernie but couldn’t.

Eventually the Tribune relented and gave the Southtown the strip. Then what happened? Southtown editor Mike Kelley decided he didn’t like Ernie after all and dropped it.

And there matters sat when the strip that two Chicago dailies turned up their noses at was voted the National Cartoonists Society’s 1993 comic of the year.

And still no local paper picked it up until now. But better late than never. It is an acquired taste.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Yael Routtenberg.