Trib’s Business Blunder

Last week the Tribune demoted the columnist who’s arguably the paper’s best. Colleagues of David Greising protested that moving his column from page one to page two of the Business section was perverse and self-defeating, and the stated reasons for it were unworthy of the Tribune. Greising himself made it clear that he would either write for the front page or not at all.

Managing editor James O’Shea gave Greising the column in 1998 when Greising came to the Tribune from Business Week, where he’d been the Atlanta bureau chief. He wrote three days a week about business the way guys like Rick Morrissey write about sports. He went after the decision makers, naming names, telling them what they should have done, telling their boards which CEOs ought to be unloaded. If the bumbling of Jerry Krause and Mike McCaskey made for lively copy, there was no excuse for boring readers when the subject was the blunders of the execs running McDonald’s and United.

And because Greising wrote clearly and gracefully and was smart, witty, and fair, the column was a great success. At least that’s what journalists around the Tribune concluded. Judging Greising by their own values, many felt his column was as good as columns get. They assumed that was good for the Tribune. Everybody knew somebody who’d never picked up the Business section but now read Greising faithfully.

But last week O’Shea said it wasn’t so. “Basically,” he told me, “what it came down to was that David was doing a very good job of executing a bad idea. The bad idea was mine.”

O’Shea told Greising privately on Monday and the staff later that two readership surveys had revealed a surprising truth. What most readers wanted “was a quick read on the day’s events,” O’Shea explained to me. “They don’t particularly value a commentary column. It’s not that they don’t like it, but they’re as likely to go to it on page two or three. They value news and information and analysis a lot more than commentary.” Actually Greising did write analysis. But “because it was in column format,” O’Shea said, “people considered it his opinion.” It was that too.

The Tribune put a high value on visual uniformity when it redesigned itself two years ago. A key element that Metro, Sports, Business, and many lesser sections shared was a column running down the left side of page one, a head shot of the author at the top. The front section was the big exception; no column was allowed to squeeze out one of the world’s most important news stories. O’Shea said it turned out that the public wants to read financial news the same way it reads world news–straight, with no frills or distractions. As for Greising’s column, the readers surveyed said they’d find it wherever the Tribune put it. “Ninety-five to 98 percent say, ‘If you put it on page two I’ll go there to read it.'”

“He felt he couldn’t fight the data he had developed,” Greising told me. “I regret that there wasn’t more discussion, a broader focus. I think the column has some influence. I think it has the right following in our core readership. I think Business readers have been reading it, and certainly, given the response I routinely get from the column, there are people who are affected by it. But he’s doing what he thinks is the right thing.”

Greising asked O’Shea if he could look at the data. He wanted to see what questions had been asked and how they’d been answered. O’Shea said no. The survey hadn’t asked only about Greising. There’d been questions about two other columnists–Carol Kleiman and Jim Coates–who ran on the front page of Business, and O’Shea felt the results should stay confidential. Greising has too much respect for O’Shea to question his motives. But he wasn’t happy to be shifted to page two, and he told O’Shea he wouldn’t write for it.

Page one? Page two? Does it matter only to a prima donna? Greising didn’t think so, and neither did the Business staff. Consumer research notwithstanding, newspaper people know that where a column runs sends a message about what the paper thinks of it. Page one says to the reader: He’s our best. He’s important. He’s a reason to stop at this section. To the writer it says: You’re good enough to set an agenda and sell the newspaper. All a column on page two says is, if you happen to run across this you might think it’s interesting.

To the Business staff, Greising’s column was a good reason to believe the section might be going places, which is why moving it off the front page made them so gloomy. Great newspapers don’t let readership surveys tell them what to do. They act on their convictions and expect readers to catch on and catch up. If readers picked up the Tribune Business section merely for a “quick read on the day’s events,” it was because they expected less of the section than it offered. Greising’s column deserved to be promoted, not buried. Readers needed to know how good the Tribune thought it was.

The Tribune’s not much for promoting its people; it doesn’t want to treat anybody as bigger than the paper. But Greising was the best evidence of the stylish, provocative, savvy section that Business editor Rob Karwath presumably wants Business to become. Karwath told me, “I want Greising to stay here and be part of our group, which is trying to take the Business section to the next level.” Greising wrote at the next level. Cutting him down instead of pushing him forward suggested a loss of nerve.

Last Thursday O’Shea, Karwath, and deputy managing editor George de Lama met for about 75 minutes with the Business staff. The meeting stuck closely to Greising, but a few things were also said about a general softening of the section, which some staffers say they see and suspect has been ordered by Tribune Company execs. “People were uninhibited in saying what they thought,” someone at the meeting told me later, “and everybody said the same thing. ‘This is a mistake. Why are we doing this?'” Another said, “The staff was demanding answers. There were a lot of angry, unhappy people.”

Greising himself was quiet. Afterward he had a meeting with de Lama. Greising’s editors didn’t want to lose him, realized they might, and had already begun to work something out. Greising’s Wednesday column ran on page two, but there was no Friday column, and then he went on vacation. Chances are a new deal he can live with will be nailed down once he’s back, and that it’ll have him writing a column on page one of the Sunday Business section–this justified by the theory that readers expect opinion and analysis on Sunday–and doing some sort of special projects the rest of the week. (If you noticed that Coates’s computer column ran in its usual place on page one this past Monday, the logic behind that was the same: nothing financial happens on Sunday, so Business on Monday isn’t read for hard news anyway.)

At the end of last week Karwath called the week a “whirlwind.” The staffers who’d complained to me about Greising had brought up some other beefs, and I asked Karwath about them.

John Schmeltzer, for instance, was taken off the United Airlines beat last February, just a few days after some United execs came in and complained about inaccurate coverage. “I don’t pull reporters off beats because somebody complains,” Karwath said. “When I have to take action like that it has to be based on some other reason. And it was in that case.” He didn’t want to get into specifics.

It’s true that Schmeltzer had made some factual errors. More important, he was ill, perhaps having driven himself to exhaustion trying to cover United by himself. But if Karwath had reasons to make a change, his timing was awful.

Then there was Robert Manor, the Business writer whose leg got busted in a barroom brawl. Karwath asked police reporter David Heinzmann for help in getting the police report of the fracas. Backed up by Metro editor Hanke Gratteau, Heinzmann refused to cooperate, and when Karwath thought twice about the position he’d put Heinzmann in he apologized to him.

Karwath didn’t want to talk about that, but he was open about another matter that’s roiled his staff. The other day he gave a job interview to a fugitive from the “dark side”–a writer who now freelances for the Tribune but used to work for Philip Morris. “They sound like lobbyist jobs,” Karwath told me, looking over the candidate’s resume.

As an outsider, I’m not about to nail an editor for consorting with someone he hasn’t even hired. His staff’s willingness to hold such a thing against Karwath suggests that he’s not the Tribune’s most popular boss; it doesn’t help that he put in his own time on the dark side, working in Tribune marketing before returning to the dignity of the newsroom. What some Business reporters suspect about O’Shea’s mysterious readership studies is that Karwath asked for them, expecting them to show what a good job he’s doing. But Karwath says, “It wasn’t me.” He’s pretty sure the first study was launched before he took over Business.

News Bites

Another Greising theory from the ranks: that he got in trouble with the Tower over a June 1 column on the Tribune Company’s huge stake in regulatory changes the FCC was about to approve. The editorial page supported these changes in the name of free enterprise and public benefit. They didn’t sound quite as attractive when Greising wrote about “airwave aggregators” and “the most sweeping move toward media concentration ever.”

But Greising says he never felt pressured from above. What’s fact is that the Tribune didn’t do a top job covering the public debate before the changes the Tribune Company coveted went through. And it hasn’t done a top job since–as Congress, responding to public pressure, has threatened to nullify the FCC’s new regulations.

For example, last week the House Appropriations Committee voted 40 to 25 for a budget amendment that would keep the FCC from enforcing its new rule allowing TV networks to buy more stations. The next day the New York Times carried an 884-word article and a cheerful William Safire column covering the development. The Tribune posted two substantial articles on-line, one from Reuters, the other from the Tribune Company’s Los Angeles Times. But in the paper itself, where Jim O’Shea’s research says readers like to find out what’s going on, there were four paragraphs from the Reuters piece–a total of 124 words–buried inside the Business section.

Who is Blair Hull? He’s the Senate candidate with all the money whose name nobody can remember yet. Anyone who’s willing to spend $40 million to get elected has to be taken seriously. Anyone who needs to spend $40 million to get elected can expect a little irreverence. Hull got himself some ink last week when both dailies ran stories about how he’s throwing his dough around. In the Tribune headline he was “candidate Hull”–evidence of the obscurity he’s yet to emerge from. The headline of the always ruder Sun-Times said, “Blackjack king outspends Dem rival 4-1 in Senate bid,” and the story explained that Hull had parlayed $25,000 in blackjack winnings into a fortune. On the plus side, the story ran on page one. On the minus side, it was accompanied by a photo of Hull waving to the multitudes in a suit that didn’t fit.

RedEye and Red Streak carried the same cover story this past Tuesday. RedEye called it “Just me TV,” Red Streak, “15 minutes.” The subject was narcissism. The two-page, full-color RedEye spread was a lot more attractive to look at than the single black-and-white page in Red Streak, and RedEye was candid about where the story came from–the Associated Press. Red Streak dropped the AP tag and ran a byline, Martha Irvine, that made the story look original.

Plenty was written recently on baseball’s All-Star game. Have the changes rescued the game, or is it still a meaningless exhibition? I’d like to see someone develop the argument that when you come down to it, it doesn’t really matter who wins the All-Star game but it does really matter who wins the World Series.

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