Lame Newspaper Justification at Chicago Sun-Times

Traditional newspapers are under intense pressure from a financial perspective. Newspapers provide much of the material that is linked to on blogs and other websites but they make little money for providing this service, while Google (owner of Blogger, which runs many sites on the internet) is a financial and stock market titan.

In addition to the financial threat, newspapers have a more “existential” crisis as they attempt to justify their role in the new world. They are often “scooped” by blogs and other media, which feature focused, partisan and expert writers on specific topics, as opposed to the “generalist” model used by traditional journalists.

In Chicago the Sun-Times has been rescued from bankruptcy by Jim Tyree of Mesirow Financial, who paid $5M and assumed $20M in debt for an enterprise with $200M of revenue / year. This rescue was accompanied by significant work rule changes from the unions that run the Sun Times, which are supposed to enable Tyree to restructure the enterprise to become profitable.

With all of this drama, the Chicago Sun-Times had an excellent opportunity to re-establish their voice and champion their role as journalists and their importance to the city. Let’s hear what they had to say in an column by Neil Steinberg titled “Hard choice lets city keep 2 newspapers“…

If the Trump Tower toppled into Wabash Avenue this afternoon because its builder secretly mixed Cream of Wheat in with the concrete, the Chicago Sun-Times… would instantly rush people over… to talk to people stumbling out of the twisted wreckage. More important, it would set reporters to work, figuring out just how that Cream of Wheat got into the cement, and what we could learn from the fiasco.

The question that the Sun-Times needs to answer is WHAT would be missed if they were to exit the scene, and HOW that would impact the citizenry of the City of Chicago and the other cities that they serve.

This completely feeble example is so far off base that I don’t even know where to begin. The most important value of journalism is to get AHEAD of stories before they become disasters, so that the disaster is averted. This means that they learn about an industry or topic, watch what is occurring, and raise the alert to the public before the event significantly impacts the population.

If Trump fell over, we don’t need the Sun-Times – a million news organizations would rush over, especially the glib TV news crews that would thrive on images like this – and the Sun-Times personnel would just be lost in the shuffle. Even E News would probably be there, talking about how this impacts Donald and his girlfriends and TV shows.

The story that the Sun-Times SHOULD have been touting would be their ability to learn about Illinois politics and local corruption and expose it so that the city could reduce taxes and / or improve services for that same amount of taxpayer money. And the corruption is everywhere, along with high taxes, poor services, underfunded pensions, and too many more issues to list. THIS hard, thankless work (the politicians will fight them tooth and nail) is in fact valuable, and if the Sun-Times threw their efforts into this and pared off the things that they do poorly (cover pop stars) this could be an important role and mission statement for the paper.

They need to do something that would be MISSED in the media landscape if it was gone, and pare away everything else that doesn’t support this goal.

Even sports will be a hard one to sell if they don’t get better; ESPN has wall-to-wall coverage and then local fan sites pop up filled with insanely knowledgeable fans who can speak more directly to their potential audience.

Meanwhile, while the Chicago Sun-Times misses the opportunity to define themselves along with most of the “traditional” media, there was a long article in the New Yorker that is highly recommended titled “Call Me – Why Hollywood Fears Nikki Finke” that discusses the enormous impact that her essentially one-woman web site “Deadline Hollywood“. From the article in the New Yorker:

Finke is fifty-five, and a longtime entertainment-business reporter. She runs the Web site Deadline Hollywood Daily out of her apartment in west Los Angeles; in three and a half years she has made D.H.D. Hollywood’s most dreaded news source. Marrying tabloid instincts to a strong Puritan streak, Finke portrays many of the town’s leaders as jackasses who golf at exclusive preserves, elbow underlings aside to hog the spotlight, downsize those underlings while lining their own pockets, and generally besmirch the fabric of civilization. Jeff Zucker, the C.E.O. and president of NBC Universal, is “one of the most kiss-ass incompetents to run an entertainment company”; Charles and James Dolan, who own Cablevision, are a “clown parade”; and Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom, is a “crazy old coot.”
A combination town crier and volcano god, Finke evokes in her readers both anxiety and respect. One top studio executive says, “Nikki’s blog you have to check, and the others you have to delete from your in-box. She’s very, very, very accurate, extraordinarily so—you have a supposedly private conversation with two other people, and it’s on her site within an hour.” She usually posts five to ten stories a day, some of them just press releases or minutiae about elections at the Writers Guild, but many of them transfixing: anonymously sourced accounts of clandestine negotiations; photos of newly fired executives with red X’s slapped across them (after she’d broken the news of their impending demise); boasts of “TOLDJA!” when something happens that she predicted, or, anyway, half predicted; and helpful career advice (“Stick it where the sun don’t shine, you asswipe,” she recently counselled a CBS publicist).

Whatever you think of Finke and her site, you can see that this is impactful journalism. She completely understands her field of choice, and since she is credible she receives tons of tips, and she isn’t afraid to eviscerate her subjects in explicit terms. The traditional dispassionate journalism isn’t turning heads anymore – this is what journalism would look like if it started from scratch, today, which in a way is closer to the bomb-throwing pamphlets back in Paine’s time, as an example than the boring teleprompter reading of the evening news.

If you are also interested in journalism and the history of newspapers, I highly recommend the PBS documentary “Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times” which chronicles the rise of the LA Times and a very interesting review of the start of Los Angeles.

Cross posted at LITGM

6 thoughts on “Lame Newspaper Justification at Chicago Sun-Times”

  1. I think we’re looking at an industry that, much like the American Auto industry, became used to soft times when freak conditions created natural monopolies. With the enforced uniformity of narrative created by broadcast news and the wire services, newspapers forgot how to exploit local knowledge to provide unique knowledge.

    With journalist identifying so strongly with the left, they ceased to provide any value to consumers for political news national or local. Non-leftists don’t bother to buy newspapers because they know they won’t find the information they want about the political process and leftists don’t want to pay money to hear a sermon directed at the choir.

    People will pay good money for useful information but newspapers and media in general has forgotten how to do that.

  2. Well, let’s remember that Steinberg is a not-too-bright typical liberal who by the way is a confessed wife-beater.

  3. A lot of journalism is trapped by legacy. Some bits of news are best seen, heard, read about, or put in an OLAP data cube for analysis. The Sun Times is focused on reading with pictures to put in some spice. That’s not working.

    Visual news presentation is dominated by TV. Hearing news is dominated by radio. What’s the dominant OLAP news provision media? There is none. The newspapers could move into that, give access to their data banks for subscriber analysis as a fringe of subscription up to a certain number of reports and charge extra for reports thereafter.

    Unfortunately I just don’t see them doing it which means somebody’s going to have to reinvent the wheel and build up a brand to do it, creating enough cash flow to pick off the old newspaper assets as they go through bankruptcy.

  4. Companies that are successful at one stage of a technology are rarely those that survive & thrive at the next stage. Vacuum-tube makers weren’t the leaders in sold-state electronics. Integrated steel companies weren’t the ones to exploit the mini-mill. Steam locomotive manufacturers didn’t wind up dominating the diesel space. Etc.

    Even aside from political bias, it would have taken extraordinarily brilliant management to move an old-media company successfully into the Internet age…and extraordinarily brilliant management is by definition rare. The political bias has made the situation much, much worse.

  5. If the Trump Tower fell over the news paper (and TV media) would be asking the victims and onlookers how they felt, providing breathless and technically inaccurate play-by-play of what happened, and filling the rest of the pages with opeds about how the already downtrodden and underprivileged have been hit hardest by this calamity.

    What a GOOD paper SHOULD be doing is instead discovering much earlier that cream of wheat had been mixed into the concrete of the Trump Tower, alerting the public to the danger and causing a landslide of public opinion eventually resulting in regulatory action closing down the building for inspection and investigation.

    Any idiot can catalog the obvious and disseminate their observations to the world. A true journalist brings to bear expert knowledge and the fruits of a lot of terribly boring leg-work to present important facts to the world that were not obvious.

    There was a time when one could make a living off of cataloging the obvious and disseminating it to the public, because not everyone had access to all of the relevant obvious information and it was difficult and expensive to disseminate it. But those days are ending. Every individual in the industrialized world is rapidly acquiring the capability to broadcast information accessible to the world, near instantaneously. As it turns out, papers had been using the scarcity of broadcast media as a primary income stream as well (via advertisements), and those days are also coming to an end.

    These trends have been causing the public to scrutinize the newspaper’s core, non-trivial values (non-obvious, investigative journalism, non-trivial subject matter expertise, voice, and, arguably, opinion). In so doing it has come to light that the vast majority of papers had been resting on their laurels, doing very little legitimate, original “elbow-grease” journalism. And so papers are being squeezed from both ends. They are being out competed in the dissemination of obvious news on the one hand (lowering the perceived value of papers to potential subscribers), while on the other hand they are being out competed in serving as an advertising platform from individuals (want-ads, replaced by craigslist, eBay, and others) and from large corporations (due to dwindling readership).

    In my opinion the way to beat these trends is to go lean and mean and return to the roots of journalism. Drop the newsroom full of wire regurgitators, “personalities”, and j-school grads who know more about the bizarre and unusual requirements of a print news organization than about any relevant real-world subject. Replace them with a tight team of bright, passionate folks who are experts in a particular field first and gifted with word-craft second. Don’t cover or regurgitate any obvious news, don’t bother publishing anything other than brand-spanking new, not to be found anywhere else reportage from your team. Cover a few beats that nobody else is covering (local beats, technical or niche beats, beats that require a lot of boring or difficult leg-work to make any sense of) and do it well. Put it all on the web for free and make money off advertising. Be like Michael Totten, basically.

    As we see above, print journalism has become so moribund that they can’t think of a better example than to point out how they would report on the obvious, relay obvious information, and perform obvious investigations that would duplicate the efforts of many others.

    Print journalists should get off your asses, dump the baggage of historical accident, get out in the field, and start actually doing real reporting for a change. It’s that or heave a sigh as they and their industry falls into the dust bin of history.

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