The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

Paving the road to the Web (or just spreading gravel)

On Jan. 19, 1995, I called to order the first meeting of a 10-person Chicago Tribune committee charged by our bosses with figuring out the Internet.

By March 29 … yes, just twenty years ago … we were done.

(Must have been the head start: Since 1992, the company had been running Chicago Online, a service on America Online that was about to become profitable … thanks to the number of hours its users were spending not so much reading the news, but chatting with each other.)

Of course, our merry little cross-functional band knew full well we weren’t done. But we were done enough to pitch a vision and a business plan, and to argue for the organizational bandwidth needed to hire about 18 new staffers. And then to turn them loose.

We also knew that even if we persuaded the bosses to go for our ideas, we could still screw it up. “An uncompetitive or uncompelling product invites ridicule, or worse, complete uninterest,” I wrote. “Reputations are made and lost on the Internet as quickly as technology changes; what once was ‘innovative reuse of content’ is now ‘shovelware.’ A substandard or merely mediocre product not only puts at risk our reputation for technological innovation; it also provides an opening for competitors.”

But enough quoting from source material, whether the prose be deathless or deadly. Here’s just the executive summary of that lengthy document … now-outdated or merely quaint verbiage unchanged … just as it looked when it officially saw the light of day in the Medill Room on the second floor of Tribune Tower. (Actually, it was a dimly lit room; can I blame that for the fact that I didn’t see just how fast it was all going to happen?) Click the image immediately below to navigate to a more readable PDF version that also includes the final two paragraphs that noted we’d need not only to hire new folks, but also to actually retain them.


Only one member of that committee, the intrepid Eric Zorn, remains at the Tribune. Props here to the rest, alphabetically: Barbara Boyer, Carolyn Crafts, Larry Druth, Kurt Fliegel, Judith Hoffman, Ann Marie Lipinski, the late Jim Szott, and Dave Wortsman. Whatever we didn’t get done in the years that immediately followed was my fault, not theirs.

Stop the presses! Cooper Rollow was a legend!

For a good part of the 20th Century, it was not at all unusual to find one particular person front and center at important moments in the life of Chicago, in the business of media, and in American sports.

That person was not an athlete or a mogul, as such a person almost certainly would have to be today. He was the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Cooper Rollow

Cooper Rollow catches some rays in Pioneer Court next to Tribune Tower.

“He was so influential,” said one of my former colleagues at a gathering I attended on Saturday night; “it was the biggest job in the country.” “I couldn’t believe the famous people who came in,” said another. “He was a celebrity,” nodded a third.

We were sitting on a Lake Forest patio, about 5 miles from Halas Hall, and we were deep into the first of two days of talking mostly about Cooper Rollow, who died March 29. He was sports editor of the Tribune from 1969 to 1977, which means he was the boss when I began my 11 years in that department in September 1974. But the celebrity part goes back a good ways before that.

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“Watch the fake!”: Reporting and muckraking, 40 years on

The late Sun-Times columnist Sydney J. Harris was well known for an occasionally appearing column that probably would not have been nearly as resonant in the Age of Google: “Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things.” Here’s an example of one of the items in such a column from 1980, courtesy of … what else … a quick Google search:

“If a cat died in ancient Egypt, family members were required to shave off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning.”

(Though you can see why the feature was memorable, it does seem kind of hard to divine the search query that went awry.)

At any rate, I had something of a Sydney J. Harris moment this afternoon while visiting the North Park University Web site. First I stumbled upon a photo gallery of North Park’s first nine presidents, a little short on eyebrow-shaving stories but full of other alumnus-pleasing anecdotes. And then the big payoff: North Park has scanned in every back issue of the student newspaper all the way to 1921-1922, more than 90 years’ worth.

Which of my stories would I try to find? Continue reading

Where is Randy Youngman?

Back on March 1, I published the tale of how my brother Randy came to leave the Orange County Register after more than a quarter-century of covering sports and writing columns there. Partly, I suspect, because there was no official information on his disappearance from the columns of the paper, within hours “Sliding away” became the most-read item in the 18-year history of this Web site. Since then — in the grand tradition of the long tail — my analytics tell me that at least a couple more people find their way here as the result of a Google search nearly every day.

Randy Youngman

The younger Youngman

Today it occurred to me that I should look at it a little more rigorously, then provide an up-to-date answer to the question, “Where is Randy Youngman?” (while noting that, last week, it was a pretty easy question for me to answer: he was staying in my house on a trip to Chicago for his North Park University class reunion).

Everyone loves a graph, right? Continue reading

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