I didn’t expect to blog so much about the Tribune when I started this thing, but I realize it is just one more medium I ingest, and has just as much relevance to our common culture (especially as newspapers try to be more like entertainment). So when Sunday’s Trib really wowed me, it was time to say something.
Saying “newspapers are dying” is kind of like saying “the world’s going to hell in a handbasket.” It’s always a little true, but neer quite completely. It’s neither more nor less true for one generation as for the previous one. Lately, though, it really seems like the Future Is Now for my dear old fishwraps. Ad revenue is dwindling, page count is shrinking (not to mention page size!), and thanks to a shrinking “news hole,” the paper feels more jumbled and spare. (The Trib’s Op-Ed page was *always* the last two inside pages of the front section; now it’s a nomadic feature that wanders the newsprint wastelands, never sleeping in the same place twice…)
Then there’s old RedEye, the creek-deep insta-paper for Generation Zzzz. When the Tribune introduced this daily short-form paper in 2002, it was an invigorating moment in journalism: Stuffy, entrenched suburban paper reinvents itself with brevity and zip to compete for the dwindling market of young readers. The Chicago Sun Times launched its Red Streak at the same time, and with rival newspaper hawkers hustling on opposite corners, the competition gave downtown Chicago a turn-of-the-century feel. The only things missing were newsboys shouting “Extry! Extry!” about the latest on McKinley’s assassination.(Chicago Business has an interesting summary of the rivalry here.)
But RedEye quickly became an entertainment and joke paper, with wafer-thin coverage of actual world news, and excessive space given to sports prognostications and celebrity hook-ups. Whatever it earns the Tribune in ad revenue, RedEye likely has done little to renew the shrinking ranks of Big Paper subscribers with newly converted young commuters waking up to their need to know more. Nah, RedEye is free and it’s got sudoku.
It’s been painful to watch the mainstream press wriggle like this. So it gave me a boost of J-school pride to see Sunday’s Tribune come with a half-wrap “house ad” around the front page, aggressively touting its services as a government watchdog.
I couldn’t beleive it. Like Howard Beale telling us he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore, the Tribune is standing up and shouting on its front page, “We’re relevant, dammit. You need us!”
The wrapround features brief summaries of recent investigative reporting success the paper has enjoyed, from busting Gov. Blago’s senate auction to whistleblowing the poisoned well scandal of Crestwood, Ill. In all, eight in-depth investigations in the last year (or so; the timeframe is unspecified). What the editors are saying without saying is: “Who’s gonna nail these perps? Local TV? Bloggers? Twitterers? Pound sand, digerati — it’s mainstream muckrakers all the way!”
Who else has the resources, the training and the trustworthiness to do long-form investigative reporting? Without this major daily paper, we may have never known that a loved one’s rape had gone unsolved because the police department failed to test DNA data they had on hand (which is the front page watchdog story you see in the photo at top).
The back page of the wrap is a “Meet the Watchdogs” photo album identifying, by name and picture, all the staff writer and editors who specialize in the reporting and investigation that led to those stories. If you ever thought newspapers were faceless and monolithic, this sort of puts the kibosh on that.
If I understand correctly, this wrap is just one in a series of five that seem to be making arguments why the Tribune should be your newspaper of choice (Entertainment& Sports, Local Economy, Commnity Issues and the “Chicago Experience” being the others). But with this Watchdog example, I think it’s a far more persuasive a tool for why newspapers should be your choice for all news.
Media, lawyers, cops — some people find it easy to blame society’s ill on these things. But no matter their flaws, they’re essential for freedom and justice. If major daily papers die off, we lose that big sibling who looks out for us on the playground, and we’ll be even more subject to the bullies who hang out behind the bike rack.