This month's Cold Iron is personal. Mostly, it's about newspapers, and since no one reads them anymore this may seem a little self-indulgent. Much has been written, however, about the sad state of journalism today and the loss of massive numbers of media outlets. Attention needs to be paid here because journalists, far more than the military, keep our democracy safe. I will gladly argue this last point with anyone.
Nevertheless, the impact is real and it's local.
A few years ago our local newspaper (that I used to work for back in the day) changed from a broadsheet to a tabloid format. I miss those six-column spreads but a tabloid is a cheaper paper to produce and, well, in these perilous journalistic times newspapers need to save money where they can.
Then they were bought out by a regional chain. The chain, however, is a newspaper chain and not some sort of hedge fund so they were committed to keeping our paper going and not just milking it for profits. I don't think the circulation has been much over 10,000 for many years but they kept the office here, fully-staffed, with printing presses in the back of the building.
Still, it's a risky game. Not long ago they closed the local office and print shop and, although they said they were relocating the office, I have no idea where it is. They also cut the paper back to just five issues a week. I think they have one reporter and one photographer still in the county, with other staff called in from elsewhere when stories require it.
It's still a pretty good paper, though, and they haven't raised the subscription rates to any ridiculous level. They report very little national or international news and that's quite all right because I can get that stuff from other venues. They do a good job covering our city council, area athletics, business, police reports, and the weather. I do worry, though, that, like so many hundreds of papers across the country, they are just hanging on by a thread.
Then there's my other paper, the Chicago Tribune (my first job was as a paperboy for the Trib), and that's a much sadder story.
When Robert McCormick built the Tribune Tower it was said he wanted to make the world's most beautiful office building. When my first novel came out I was interviewed by Rick Kogan on WGN and I still remember walking into Tribune Tower for the interview – it was glorious and certainly anything McCormick might have wanted.
It was home to the newspaper up until a few years ago. It's now luxury apartments following the newspaper's move to their printing plant. By the way, the call letters for the paper's radio and television stations – WGN – came from the masthead of the newspaper: "World's Greatest Newspaper."
About two years ago the paper was bought by the hedge fund, Alden Global Capital. Here's what one reporter found recently:
To find the paper's current headquarters one afternoon in late June, I took a cab across town to an industrial block west of the river. After a long walk down a windowless hallway lined with cinder-block walls, I got in an elevator, which deposited me near a modest bank of desks near the printing press. The scene was somehow even grimmer than I'd imagined. Here was one of America's most storied newspapers—a publication that had endorsed Abraham Lincoln and scooped the Treaty of Versailles, that had toppled political bosses and tangled with crooked mayors and collected dozens of Pulitzer Prizes—reduced to a newsroom the size of a Chipotle. [McKay Coppins, November 2021, Atlantic]
Quite honestly, from a subscriber's point of view the situation is even worse. Shortly after the sale the star reporters and columnists started to resign: early retirements, buyouts, and so on. I began lamenting the loss of John Kass who I read almost every day even though his conservative views pissed me off regularly. Then there was Mary Schmich, whose take on life and the joys and perils of survival was not only engrossing but had also earned her a Pulitzer Prize. There were many others.
What most annoys me today, however, is the general reporting. It used to be that the main section of the paper would have maybe twenty or thirty stories of varying lengths covering local, regional, and world news. Now, however, that same section will have maybe four or five stories written to ridiculously long lengths – more info on a particular subject than anyone could possibly want. Do you get the point? You gut the reporting staff and then tell those that remain to fill the pages with print. Also, since you no longer have reporters out there bringing in good stuff, you increase the editorial pages since they can be done in-house.
Speaking of print, the editing is just atrocious with pages violating just about every rule I learned in journalism class.
Some have told me that printed paper is on the way out, that all of our media venues will move to the internet. Maybe so. But I'll miss it.
G.K. Wuori ©2022
Photoillustration by the author