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Tribune Tribulations

| August 1, 2006

There’s a heavy dark cloud draping the gothic spires of Tribune Tower these days, making Chicago ground zero for one of the country’s major media sagas.

It involves Chicago’s very own, the venerable Chicago Tribune, and includes all the ingredients of a hot story the newspaper itself would cover (and to its credit, is covering): corporate intrigue, proxy fights, billion dollar stock swaps and buy backs, valuable media assets, rich family trust funds, a defiant CEO, and of course, some juicy gossip.

The Tribune‘s tribulations come down to the Tribune Company‘s stock price dropping by almost 40 percent since 2003, and its second-largest shareholder, the newspaper family, the Chandlers, demanding the conglomerate sell many of its valuable media assets. These include several major market newspapers (including the *Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and Baltimore Sun), TV stations (WGN-TV Channel 9 in Chicago and more than 20 nationwide WB affiliates), WGN-AM radio, and a certain Chicago baseball team that rhymes with “Flubs.”

In an effort to block the Chandlers and gain more stockholder power, the Tribune Company is looking to buy 25 percent of the company’s outstanding stock, a deal with a $2 billion price tag.

All this may sound like a hissy fit between billionaires and a story better suited for the Wall Street Journal. However, the ultimate byproduct of this business-page boondoggle and the possibility of the Tribune losing some of its most Chicago-centric assets could affect the city.

Would it still be Chicago without the Tribune? Or, better yet, what would Chicago have been without the Tribune?

From its inception 160 years ago, the Chicago Tribune has had an immense presence on Chicago – politically and culturally. The paper has shaped the city’s progress and thinking through its vast media power to create and shift public opinion and policy. Its gigantic footprint hints at the chicken and egg question: “Which came first, Chicago or the Tribune“?

The Tribune has always been a conservative newspaper, and Chicago’s citizenry leans to the right despite its Democratic Party affiliations. Is that by accident, or through the more than a century and a half of the Tribune’s tight stranglehold on newspapers, radio, and TV in the city?

Driven by its storied and conservative editor and publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick, the Chicago Tribune aimed its coverage on national and international news (these days its entire first section is dominated by these topics) to establish the Tribune as a newspaper of record, and also place Chicago on an international stage. It’s difficult to proclaim these grand goals have been fully realized.

In all honesty, the publication simply doesn’t boast the “paper of record” status of the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal.

The paper’s and city’s innate conservatism has kept both stuck and snuggled in a parochial perspective. Chicago doesn’t have New York’s bravado, Los Angeles’ freethinking, or Washington, D.C.’s political power base. Among the country’s major cities, Chicago literally and figuratively lands in the middle. It sometimes attempts to heed Daniel Burnham’s ideal to “make no small plans,” but Chicago always seems to stop itself at the ledge. And it seems to be content with this position. Is this due to the Tribune‘s on-going paternal influence?

Well, let’s see, the Tribune Company has guided Chicago’s culture by giving us icons including Bozo, Ray Rayner, Garfield Goose, Jack Brickhouse, and Wally Phillips. Endearing, all of them, but hardly cutting edge. When the *Tribune finally got columnist Mike Royko, much of his acerbic bite was dulled, and heck, the Tribune Company even transformed the once rebellious baseball broadcaster Harry Caray into a warm-and-fuzzy grandpa.

WGN-TV Channel 9 promotes family-oriented programming versus more adventurous, controversial shows, and WGN-AM radio nurtures a “people helping people” format that makes Chicago feel more like Lake Woebegone than a vital international metropolis.

And what can be said about its balance sheet ownership of the Chicago Cubs for the last 25 years? Millions in revenues, zero in championships.

It will probably take a “Twilight Zone” episode to discover what Chicago might be like today without the Tribune towering over it for almost two centuries. It would be worth going back to the future to get that glimpse.

Despite this current turbulence, Tribune Company probably will manage to hold off the Chandler challenge and remain intact, and in the end, I’m sure Tribune CEO Dennis Fitzsimons will somehow blame his company’s financial instability on a goat or Steve Bartman.

Media 101: In addition to sensitivity training, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen also needs a class in journalism. Guillen’s homophobic tirade against Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti not only revealed his ignorance of the gay community, but also his lack of understanding of the media. Mariotti is a columnist, not a beat writer. A beat writer covers the team on a daily basis and needs to be at the ballpark. It’s a columnist’s job to gather facts and then give his opinions. Opinions don’t demand to see the balls and strikes. A beat writer writes about the event; a columnist writes about issues surrounding it. It’s not a columnist’s responsibility to defend, in person, every thing he writes. Just as Jay Leno doesn’t go to the White House every night to defend his anti-Bush jokes. Should Mariotti drop into the clubhouse on occasion? Yes. Does he have to? No. Someone tell Ozzie. And also tell him this “It’s Ozzie being Ozzie” excuse is worn through. Guillen should keep in mind the media is fickle. Remember, the Chicago media playfully indulged Mike Ditka – until he started losing.

– James Turano

Category: Columns, Media, Monthly

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