Tag Archives: newspapers

Why I think it’s a crummy idea to stop funding public radio

Like U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), I have deep misgivings about our federal spending. Unlike him, however, I think it’s a weak idea to right our ship by cutting funding from National Public Radio.

I happen to think NPR is one of our country’s most trustworthy and consistent sources of information. You can disagree. Certainly, its firing of Juan Williams for remarks about Muslims raised concerns about how politically correct (read: “ultra-liberal“) the organization really is.

And I understand: A news source that spends a percentage of its coverage on the arts can’t help being perceived as “a little too intellectual” (read: “elitist liberal snobs“). If you don’t like the arts, or people talking about the arts, or people talking about the arts on government-supported radio, then NPR is probably going to chafe your hide sometimes.

Let’s put those disagreements aside and just boil the matter down to what commercial versus non-commercial news coverage really means:


There’s a palpable difference, yes?

It’s not like NPR is any stranger to commercial slumming. In addition to program sponsorships, corporate partnerships and pledge drives, you can even see that Android found a way onto the NPR home page. But what’s important to note here is one news provider is giving us what we want, while another is giving us what we need. That’s the legacy of non-profit news versus news for business.

Is NPR an imperfect news source? Sure. Pure objectivity in news is an unattainable perfection, no matter the organization. And I’m sure it has at least one interview in its archives where yet another celebrity dishes about something vapid.

But while not perfect, NPR is pretty damn good. It’s thorough, reasoned, thoughtful — and in an increasing rarity, calm. It reaches everyone, with news from local to national to international, entirely for free if you choose to partake of it that way. No cable package or newspaper subscription necessary — just a pocket radio. Forcing NPR to stretch out its hat even further reduces our chances of maintianing a truly “fair and balanced” news source.

And if you still don’t buy that, consider this: Fighting over public radio funding will be a contentious slog that would result in almost no perceivable improvement in our budget crisis. Even Colin Powell agrees: Want to fix the problem in a hurry? Trim the fat in the Big Cost Centers, like entitlements and defense. There’s more than enough debate in those two nouns to fill a session or three of Congress.

Anything else is a mere drop in the bucket — and could result in more front-page coverage of reality TV judges … interviewing inconsequential personalities … about fading talk show hosts. If only that Piers Morgan/Howard Stern headline had contained an off-hand Sarah Palin reference, it would have completed its death spiral to triviality. And in times when most Americans are choosing  CNN and Fox News as their most trusted news sources, I’d rather not give up the fight for careful thought.

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Zorn to be wild

Yet another reflection on the Chicago Tribune:

I think columnist Eric Zorn may finally be getting the attention from his employer he deserves. His non-daily columns have appeared on the Metro page for years, and on Sundays he had been given a break-out space called “Change of Subject” where he could expound on mutliple topics — though this section usually appeared on page 2 of the local news section. This last Sunday, I noted for the first time that “Change of Subject” was slotted in the front section, a page ahead of the complete op-ed page.

This is a big deal to me, since I believe Zorn is one of the most articulate, thoughtful and engaged commentators I’ve followed. He doesn’t make lazy assertations, and can never be accused of hiding in an ivory tower to sling arrows of philosophy at his enemies. He invovles his readership directly, running a very active supplementary Web page at the Tribune site. Sure he’s an unapologetic left-leaner, and this helps me relate, but I believe Zorn does a credit to all political discourse as someone who thinks before he writes, backs up his opinions with facts and foundations, and mea culpas when proven off base.

I wanted Zorn to have the page 2 spot vacated by Mike Royko upon that columnist’s death in 1997, but that went to another Trib employee I had never heard of, John Kass. Turns out Kass lives up to Royko’s legend as a bareknuckle (journalistic) brawler, maintaining the gritty street cred of this prominent spot in the paper. That’s not Zorn’s way. He doesn’t lob taunts at City Hall and give deprecating nicknames to the shifty public officials that Chicago is famous for; instead Zorn fights with reflection, analysis, forethought, and a proletarian activism that wins him loyal readership.

In 1999 he dared his readers to join him on a one-year challenge: Learn something new, undertake some daunting task, and take the year to get it done. He called it the For Once In Our Lives Society — FOOLS. He was training for a marathon himself and, realizing that misery loves company (and that company keeps you honest and on track), he opened up his challenge to readers who wanted to be part of the challenge. Not just other runners, but anyone who had a hankering to improve something in their lives, and needed group support to get it done. The group buttressed each other on Zorn’s site, as they worked toward their various goals.

Mine (since yes, I was an official FOOL that year) was to master the Flash and Illustrator programs, as I was surrounded in my office by titans of art and design who could help me. I got pretty far down my road, too  — I designed an animation and took classes — but fell apart as chaos in my office deprived me of my mentors. I learned a great deal but I let my hurdles get in my way, and I ultimately failed. Many others didn’t; more than 100 first-time marathoners finished that year’s LaSalle Bank Marathon with Zorn.

My FOOLS project was going to be great. It involved two people watching a bunch of lousy TV shows, including a brief documentary about squirrels!

My FOOLS project was going to be great. It involved two people watching a bunch of lousy TV shows, including a brief documentary about squirrels!

You can see what I mean, though: Zorn doesn’t just spew opinion; he reflects. He’s a thinker. And he’s damn eloquent. Here’s a treat from this Sunday’s “Change of Subject” — which I hope got a better readership for its superior placement. In discussing the comments of Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, who is handpicked by an outgoing alderman to be his own replacement on the council. De Jesus has apparently gotten some critical blowback from his and his church’s anti-gay sentiments. De Jesus told a Tribune reporter: “Isn’t it ironic that you’re asking me to be tolerant and you’re intolerant to my beliefs. How is that?” Zorn rebuts:

The answer: It’s not ironic in the least. But you can say so because the left, in large part, has embraced a narrow definition of tolerance — a live-and-let-live attitude toward those who are different from oneself — that belies the fact that all decent people are intolerant of a good many things.

Murder, to name on obvious example. Pedophilia. Bigotry.

Tolerance of such acts is a vice. It’s sensible — not hypocritical or ironic — for a person to be intolerant of the intolerable, no matter where one comes down on the idea of equal rights for gays and lesbians.

And it’s sophomoric at best, disingenuous at worst, to trot out the old “your intolerance of my intolerance is a form of intolerance” argument that turns the whole notion of tolerance into a circular absurdity that can justify anything.

I hope to be that eloquent some day.

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Paper view: More op-ed craftwork in the Trib

No time to write posts on Father’s Day —bad Daddy, bad! — but I keep forgetting to comment on the return of the Joe Fournier papercraft to the Tribune’s op-ed page.This time, a jab at Hizzoner Richie Daley and his rather unpopular privatization of parking meters:

Is Meterhead a "meathead" joke or a Mötorhead joke?

(Print your own copy here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/meterhead )

I like this trend (the first iteration being a Roland Burris-Pinocchio riff), first of all because even when unbuilt, the artwork is complicated and beautiful to behold, like a blueprint or a celestial map. Second, as political commentary goes, it’s almost more effective than the venerable old political cartoon. I love political cartoons, but too often their creators go for low-hanging jokes, and that can be tiresome. Tiresome things lose their flavor quickly.

But papercraft as vox populi surprises and delights.

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Every yard needs a watchdog; or, Thank you, Mainstream Newspapers

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.

Sadly, that story touted about the title plate about Cubs fans and Sox fans tries to make much hay out of rotten non-news. "More Cubs fans have cats, 24.1% to 21.3%" Thanks, Watchdog!

Note that wrinkle to the wraparound: For a brief moment I assumed it was the typical advertisement wrap, which often girds the funny pages to tell me of deals on toner at Office Max. Halfway through the annoyed crumple, I realized my mistake, and soothed it out lovingly.

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!”

Other recently raked muck: Clout-based admissions into University of Illinois, shady doctors promoting miracle cures for autism, Chicago's poor track record for elevator inspection, and aysmal test results for infant car seats that never got reported to manufacturers.

Other recently raked muck: Clout-based admissions into University of Illinois, shady doctors promoting miracle cures for autism, Chicago's poor track record for elevator inspection, and abysmal test results for infant car seats that never got reported to manufacturers.

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.

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Newspapers, meet papercraft

I’m about to hand it to the Chicago Tribune twice in as many months. This time, on the Wednesday, June 3, op-ed page, they ran a quarter-page commentary on Sen. Roland Burris, that used not reasoned argument or stuffy rhetoric, but cut-out paper dolls to ridicule the less-than-honest toady who sucked up to power.

Check this:

Aw, look at his wittle hat!

Yes, you’re seeing Roland Burris melded with Pinocchio, right down to a nose that grows. And if this pattern hadn’t been printed on flimsy newspaper, I’m pretty sure you could make this guy. (Fortunately, the Tribune site had a downloadable version; I’m not sure it will always be in the location I found it, so I’ve replicated the download below.)

DOWNLOAD:  BurrisPinocchio by Joe Fournier

See more stuff by Joe Fournier, the designer, here.

I was genuinely stunned, not only because this was a pretty clever use of space on an op-ed page (really, what else can you say about a guy who swears he didn’t talk to backscratchers to get his appointment, before he’s caught on a tape talking to the chief backscratcher’s gatekeeper). Even better than a fresh surprise on a historically humdrum op-ed page, I think it’s just neat that papercraft is coming into the mainstream. As a guy who has publically admitted making miniature superheros out of paper, I can say with authority that I’m excited for the trend.

In fact, CW4Kids (the channel my kids generally watch on Saturday mornings —man, the pickings are slim for Saturday cartoons these days) recently made room for on-air interstitials promoting papercraft versions of their main characters. My kids, who have seen me cut a paper or two, went a little nuts, and suddently we had a family activity for about three weeks. Thanks to the good folks at cubeecraft.com, we had scads of 4Kids characters (and a little more):

Oldest Boy could have a job in window dressing some day. Notice the artfully arranged "chaos emeralds" around Sonic.

Oldest Boy's choices include selections from Gogoriki, Chaotic, Dinosaur King, Marvel comics, and that videogame hedgehog.

Note Second Son's beloved Wrigley Field (pattern courtesy papertoys.com)

Note Second Son's beloved Wrigley Field (pattern courtesy papertoys.com)

Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence. Boo. Boo. Boo, the Princess Buttercup!

What else for Only Daughter? Girls and pinks and kitties.

Between cubeecraft.com and papertoys.com, there must be a paper-cutting project you’d be interested in. All you need is a printer and an X-Acto blade. Try it, before Hollywood swoops in with “Papercraft: The Movie” and kills the trend once and for all.

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Trek or food?: The Tribune makes a genuine funny

A little while ago The Chicago Tribune seemed to take a page out of The Onion’s book, and it began indulging itself in attempts at snarky humor on its Tempo page. Not fake news, just lighthearted satire about puffy in-the-news items.  I don’t have an example that comes to mind, mostly because the attempts were never really that funny. No mainstream paper can be subversive, so its jokes are predestined to be pretty weak.

Recently, the jokes started infiltrating page 3 of the front section, displacing real headlines with “wacky” observations of celebrity behavior and don’t-it-make-ya-laugh news events. A fairly depressing moment in journalism history.

But they went and surprised me last Friday. I laughed. I emitted actual audible bleats of amusement while reading a funny, funny piece called “Trek personality, NPR personality or food additive?” In a multiple choice test, could you tell the difference between Khan Noonien Singh and Mandalit del Barco?

"Kaaaaaahn's!"

"Kaaaaaahn's!"

Khan. Definitely Trek. Kahn’s, on the other hand: Definitely food. (Fine encased meats from a Cincinnati meat packer.)

Well done, Tribune. Well done.

The joke reminds me of this fantastic  post passed along to me via the indefatigable Sam Bennett with instructions from Lianablog for divining your NPR name. Get a smart-sounding, culturally inscrutable handle in two simple steps:

1. Shove your middle initial somewhere in your first name.

2. Choose the smallest foreign town you’ve ever visited as a last name.

Reporting from Evanston, Illinois, I’m Jandrew Partenkirchen.

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