Tribune’s Changing Tempo

The rumors began to fly early last week: Tempo is dead! Long live Tempo! Well, rumors of Tempo’s death were exaggerated. How greatly remains in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders don’t agree on much.

First, the official word on the condition of the Tribune’s Tempo section from managing editor for features Owen Youngman. Youngman’s meeting with the Tribune’s Arts staff to discuss Tempo’s impending changes resulted in the recent rumor mill.

“What we intend to do is dramatically increase our coverage of arts and entertainment and pop culture by focusing the Tempo section on it six days a week,” says Youngman. “As a part of that, we’re combining Tempo and the Arts section on Sunday. But six days a week, we’ll have a section [Tempo] that focuses on that particular topic area.”

Tempo had already seen plenty of changes. Tempo editor Rick Kogan succeeded James Warren, who left at the end of 1993 to become the Tribune’s Washington bureau chief. Then Tempo’s staff was broken up last fall, scattering seven feature writers throughout the paper. The new plan called for groups of five writers drawn from anywhere in the paper to rotate in and out of Tempo in four-month stints, something this column called “sort of weird” at the time. Youngman says the rotation will continue, though he hasn’t discussed with managing editor for news Ann Marie Lipinski whether to keep that exact number of writers or that exact time period.

Under the latest restructuring, the new hybrid Sunday section will be called “Tempo something,” but Arts editor Rebecca Brown remains in charge. Rick Kogan steps down as daily Tempo editor. Asked if that means he’ll be looking for a new Tempo editor, Youngman says, “I won’t comment on personnel.” Word is, however, that the job will be posted soon. Kogan sounds relieved. “As I suspected when I first took this editing job, I am a born writer–though I’m extremely proud of many of the stories and writers that I’ve played a small part in putting in the section. Returning to writing will undoubtedly add 40 or 50 years to my life.”

The most controversial part of this plan, of course, is the new focus on entertainment and popular culture. Youngman explains that the Tribune has “evolved dramatically” since Tempo began about 20 years ago. Back then, Tempo was the only place for features. “But over the past few years all of the sections of the newspaper have taken on that task,” he says, pointing especially to frequent features on the front page. Tempo “has lost its uniqueness. And so we’ve been casting about to find a way to again give it a unique role in the newspaper. And clearly there’s a lot of interest inside and outside the newspaper for news of the world of art and entertainment and popular culture, and so by focusing on that six days a week we achieve that.”

What kind of stories does Youngman envision in the recast Tempo? “Stories that run in the Arts section now, stories that run in Tempo now that are on the media or entertainment or culture or the way that we entertain ourselves or learn about ourselves.”

And what about the stories that Tempo runs now? “Well, I think clearly that we hope that the best of those stories go elsewhere in the paper,” he says. “Some of the stories that go there now probably won’t come to our attention because we won’t be looking for them. But good editors and reporters when they see good stories make sure that they get in the newspaper somewhere. That’s a particular goal of Ann Marie and I. That’s something that’s only going to continue and become more of an area of emphasis.”

More specifically, Youngman says Bob Greene will stay in the Sunday Tempo/Arts hybrid. James Warren’s “Sunday Watch” column will move to the Perspective section, which Youngman calls “newly configured.” (Lipinski says she’s still “going over the details” for the revamped Perspective, but they include an expansion, color on the first page, a couple of new features still under development, and a more “distinct identity.”)

Sources say the target start date for the new Tempo is June, though Youngman refuses to comment on that.

As you might imagine, opinions on the coming Tempo/Arts merger vary wildly. The Arts staff, as personified by arts critic Sid Smith, can barely contain its joy. “On a lot of levels, we lobbied for this for years. I can’t remember when something I hoped for has been so sweepingly executed,” Smith exulted. “The only negative thing you hear from people who worked at Tempo past and present, who believed in Tempo, is the loss of stories of that kind. But from my perspective, the arts people, we’re in pig heaven. And I think I speak for everyone–what’s not to like? Keep in mind that you’re talking to people who, if we could vote, would make the whole paper entertainment.”

Other Arts staffers confirm Smith’s euphoria. But that “only negative thing” is a rather big negative for Tempo believers. “It’s just made us the Southtown Economist, and certainly isn’t inspiring. It’s dumbing down and it’s wrong,” sneered one. “And why wouldn’t [Youngman] say it’s to the best, it’s a great idea, they’ll have more arts? God yeah, we need to cover more arts,” the believer continued sarcastically. “They might as well blow this place up. Jesus, I don’t know. Give ’em time and they’ll have this place like the Danville Journal or something.”

That believer didn’t believe Tempo features would survive elsewhere in the paper. “There’s no place that has 50-inch stories. That’s just disingenuous. Or some form of denial. That’s the company line. “The whole paper’s a feature section.’ That’s bull, not the same thing at all. Ask Owen Youngman if he’s ever written a Tempo story. He wouldn’t know one if it bit him.”

Others are more tempered. “The [front] section is getting tighter and tighter, the focus of the news is shifting, so for writers who like to do this kind of stuff it seems it’s going to be very difficult to find a space for it. That’s my real concern,” said another Tempo believer. “You can get a 30- inch story into the [front] section or the metro section, but anything longer than that is very very hard. . . . They’re hoping these stories will get into the [front] section, but there are long features that are just not going to make it.

“I guess Owen and [editor Howard Tyner] do focus groups, and people want more entertainment news, and maybe that’s true,” says this believer. “Does that mean we shouldn’t write important stories that maybe not everybody wants to read?”

“One of the flippant remarks all around the newspaper is that it’s going to become KidNews for adults, or KidNews for yuppies,” says yet another believer. “I’m not sure what popular culture means. I don’t know that they’ve hammered out a definition. Change always comes hard, and that’s one of the problems many of us have with it. It may turn out to be a fine section.”

Writer Paul Galloway, one of the Tempo Seven exiled from the section last fall, was inscrutable. “I think it’s a promising idea,” he said. “I’d like to see us be more like other papers. I don’t agree with those who say it’s an abdication of high standards. I know I don’t have time anymore to read long, thoughtful stories and probably no one else does. I like the USA Today approach.”

Arts Plus on the Move

The controversy over the Tribune’s Arts Plus page appears to be over. Last December the Tribune set off a storm in the theater community when it decided to move Arts Plus from the coveted back page of the front section to page two, which would mean less space, due to advertising, and no color. As this column reported then, the Tribune preferred to use the back page to continue front-page stories. The League of Chicago Theatres preferred the status quo, and delivered approximately 15,000 protest letters to the Tribune. The move was postponed. “We can afford to be careful and deliberate,” Owen Youngman said back then, though he insisted some change would be made.

The move to page two will now definitely happen, according to Youngman. “But the fact that we’re changing Tempo in this way is a dramatic change from before. Reviews will continue to run, in Tempo as well as on page two, and the overall shift in what the Tempo section does is going to affect the mix in that. But we wind up with more of everything, frankly.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” says league president John Walker, one of the lucky stiffs who got to cart those letters over to the Tribune Tower. But the more he thought about it, the more he liked it. “If Tempo really becomes an arts section, that’s fairly interesting. We would applaud that move. I think that would be great,” says Walker. “If there was overnight [coverage] on page two and an arts section, I think the arts community, I hate to speak for the arts community, I don’t think I can, but in my mind that would be a nice trade-off.”

Davis Back From the Front

What the heck, let’s make it an all-Tribune day. Longtime Tribune City Hall reporter Robert Davis is moving back to the Tower. He compares his time at City Hall with Vietnam.

“I’ve done two tours of duty over there–I was there from ’75 to ’83 and then I was there from ’90 to now,” he says, with apparent relief. The City Hall beat does compare favorably with America’s least favorite war, however. “I got out alive, and there’s no Agent Orange that I know of yet,” Davis chuckles. “But I may have flashbacks.”

Aldermen aren’t as colorful as they once were, says Davis. He’s been known to call the current crop “amateurs.” “There used to be a good half of ’em were fairly well known, when you think of the old days of Vito Marzullo and Roman Pucinski and Dick Simpson, Marty Oberman, Bill Singer, all those guys. Most people knew who they were,” Davis recalls. “Now I would suspect if you ask any Chicago resident to name five aldermen, who would they come up with? Probably Burke, because he’s been there forever. Dorothy Tillman. . . . Then you’ve got Bob Shaw, who is pretty noisy about things, and then probably the fourth would be their own alderman, whoever that might be. And the fifth could very well be Roman Pucinski even though he’s not there anymore.”

Davis thinks the current transition period between city councils is a natural time to make the move. His first seven years at City Hall were long, he notes. The last five years were “even longer.” Davis says he succumbed to entreaties to join management, becoming an assistant metropolitan editor. “They say they need the institutional memory on the city desk, and I’m flattered by that description,” he says. “That’s what I kind of am.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.