Michael H. Ebner: The Downsizing of the Chicago Tribune--And What It Means

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Michael H. Ebner is the James D. Vail III Professor of American History Emeritus at Lake Forest College in north suburban Chicago. He has published op-ed essays and book reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, and Philadelphia Inquirer. The Chicago Tribune also included him on its all-star Team of college professors.]

As I contemplate the downsizing of the Chicago Tribune -- some 80 editional positions eliminated thus far this month -- it brings to mind how my grandfather – Herman Metsky – introduced me to newspapers. What I vividly recall is that repeatedly, circa 1950, he sought to instruct me on the wiles of Colonel McCormick, the iconic publisher of the Tribune who anointed it as "The World’s Greatest Newspaper." My grandfather always invoked a comparable epithet to tarnish him: " . . . the most dangerous man in America." I cannot recall anything more about my grandfather’s political sensibilities. What I do recollect is that we regularly dissected the unfolding of baseball seasons, much of our fodder furnished by newspaper sportswriters and columnists. But as I came to understand more about Robert R. McCormick, I now surmise that Herman Metsky aligned himself with the likes of Franklin Delano Ro osevelt and Harry S Truman. Colonel McCormick vilified them both and they returned the sentiment. Remember the image of Truman – beaming – as he held aloft a Tribune bearing the premature banner headline "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Yet Herman Metsky and Colonel McCormick each shared a passion for virtues of the daily, big-city newspaper. Both devoted their entire working lives to the industry. While the Colonel presided over the Chicago Tribune, Herman Metsky sold newspapers one-by-one on the streets of Newark, New Jersey. I think his career began – age ten or so -- at the moment he immigrated to the United States from Czarist Russia in 1905. Pulling himself up one or two rungs on the ladder of American mobility, he began as a street vendor of newspapers and never left his calling. Later he rented a green shed at a busy retail corner and ultimately he operated a modest shop in an aspiring middle-class neighborhood. Every time I encountered my grandfather at that shop he plied me with two or three different newspapers. I found myself enthralled, at a rather tender age, reading them avidly. And I never abandoned the daily habit.

Neither Colonel McCormick nor Herman Metsky, one an industrialist and the other a street-level retail vendor, would find even an iota of comfort in what is about to happen to the Chicago Tribune. Having lived more than half of my life in the place labeled Chicagoland by Colonel McCormick, I have grown to esteem the newspaper upon which he lavished so much passion. While routinely I do not concur with its editorials, here and there I discover momentary convergence with a specific opinion. Rather it is the acuity of the reporting and criticism that I relish most of all as a reader of the Tribune. Day after day I contemplate the distinctive journalistic voices of its reporters, columnists, and critics whom I have learned to value for their keen insights on any number of topics I rue the impending fate of the Chicago Tribune. The analytic side of me comprehends the plight of the Tribune Company. It is burdened by diminished revenues, caused by sharply descending trend lines in circulation as well as advertising plus rising production expenses. Nor can the new ownership dilute its investment -- itself encumbered by a cash-starved financial package -- in the face of the twenty-first century realities of a vastly transformed mass-media industry. But emotionally I recognize that all of the rhetoric about transforming newspapers will yield a gloomy scenario for loyal, longtime readers. Despite assertions from the new owner, corporate executives, and editors, a reduction in physical scale and staff will not magically evolve into an improved twenty-first century daily newspaper.

The community of Chicago Tribune readers is experiencing the ebb tide of the illustrious print era in American journalism. The origins of this occurred just prior to 1900, a consequence of technological innovations in the production of daily editions. Readers first became aware of such advances during the Spanish-American War in the spring of 1898. Its hallmarks included: flashes of late-breaking dispatches with occasional extras; the introduction of discrete news sections (e.g., business, sports); higher standards of reporting; and more and more reliance upon action photographs. Alas, at the beginning of the twenty-first century readers find themselves amid the dimming -- if not extinction -- of this luminous journalistic heritage.

Herman Metsky and Robert R. McCormick, each a dedicated twentieth-century newspaper man who thought he understood something about the cultural authority of the press, surely would be dismayed to behold what now seems unstoppable. Understandably the root causes – notably the skyrocketing ascent of the World Wide Web – would seem entirely incomprehensible if viewed thru their eyes. But I suspect that my grandfather no less than the Colonel would comprehend why many, many readers of the Chicago Tribune soon will find a reason to grieve

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