A.fter a week of a relaxing family vacation, watching the cherry blossoms pop in Washington, D.C., I came back to work to the news that Tribune Co. had been sold and the Cubs are up for sale.
As I wandered through the newsroom Monday morning, a colleague stopped me
with a question. I figured it would have something to do with anxiety and all
the other emotions running through all of us employed by an organization where
big news was made about some awfully big changes around here.
"Have you talked to [Mr. So-and-So] about the lawsuit?" she asked, meaning
a lawsuit involving someone close to a powerful local politician.
The Cubs are on the block, Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune, had
been purchased, but what she was interested in was Mr. So-and-So (not his real
name, because if I printed his real name while she's still working on the
story, she'd have good reason to kill me).
"Well," she asked. "Have you talked to Mr. So-and-So? Are you going to
speak to him?"
Her desk was piled with documents and other papers, and bits of notes and
scraps of ideas and old phone numbers written in margins, and electronic
nuggets of information on the computer screen before her.
She wasn't intent on Tribune Co. news, or the Cubs, or Sam Zell, the
Chicago business tycoon who put the Tribune deal together to take the company
private. She wasn't consumed by any of that, but by something else: reporting
a story about powerful people.
The reason I'm telling you about this exchange -- one of hundreds like it
around here every day -- is because that's what we've been doing for more than
a century. The Chicago Tribune tells other stories exceedingly well, but we
don't tell our own story very well at all.
Here's what we do: report and analyze and confront the powerful who don't
like being confronted. We write about what we've learned, and sometimes we
hope to entertain you along the way. We're compelled to do this, as all
reporters everywhere are compelled, to find out the what and the how and the
why of things.
So the reporter isn't going to lower the demands she places on herself, and
neither will others, no matter what changes are made on the business side.
Whether this deal with Zell makes business sense is something I can't judge.
I'm not in business. In the short term, the deal ends the anxiety in the
newsroom and the gloominess that comes with uncertainty over possibly being
purchased by people who don't understand Chicago.
Now, things are certain: A Chicago guy has bought himself a media company
that puts out the Chicago Tribune.
The other news is that they'll sell the Cubs, which, as a White Sox fan,
doesn't bother me much. I've already had my revenge on the Cubs fans around
here when the White Sox lent me their 2005 World Series trophy and I took it
upstairs to the boardroom and dared the executives to touch it, and they
prudently refused to tempt the fates.
But the baseball team's sale is in the future, and the sale of the Tribune
has already taken place, and what's important today is that the paper
continues. You'll find dismal Opening Day baseball stories in the sports
section, and Police Supt. Phil Cline's resignation, forced by Mayor Richard
Daley because somebody had to fall for the videotaped beating of that petite
Northwest Side bartender by a vicious, drunken cop.
Though changes have been announced, this remains the Chicago Tribune.
This is the paper that has been the one constant in an ever-changing city.
It is the paper that fought slavery and supported Lincoln, and later bickered
with other presidents and gangsters and political bosses. It is the paper that
told Nixon to resign. It is the newspaper that called on another president to
send a politically independent fed to Chicago to go after Al Capone, and
Elliot Ness arrived and did his work. This is the newspaper that, only a few
years ago, angered the Illinois political establishment by calling for a
politically independent federal prosecutor to be sent to Chicago, to ferret
out the political corruption plaguing the state's taxpayers. U.S. Atty.
Patrick Fitzgerald has been quite busy since he arrived.
On the outer walls of Tribune Tower, there are fragments set in stone of
temples and monuments taken from historic sites from all over the world. These
are not mere souvenirs or trophies. They represent greatness and the great
ideas behind them. Writers and editors pass these reminders each day and can't
help but be informed by them, and we pass inscriptions carved into the walls
of the Tower's lobby.
My favorite is quite brief, and it is set above a door leading to the
elevators. I read this quote from Lord Thomas Macaulay every day and still get
goose bumps: "Where there is a free press the governors must live in constant
awe of the opinions of the governed."
But stones from palaces and temples and quotes don't make a newspaper. All
that can change. What makes this a paper I'm proud to work for are people like
my colleagues, like that woman who asked me the question, and who will keep
asking about the how and why of things in Chicago.