The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

Don and Lou, and Lou and me

Lou Grant meets the future of newspaper technology, 1977

Lou Grant meets the future of newspaper technology, 1977

My former Tribune colleague Don Terry, who is reporting these days for the Chicago News Cooperative, has written a feature for the Columbia Journalism Review in which he views the current state of the newspaper business partly through the prism of a 32-year-old television show. As you will have surmised from the headline and image above, that show is “Lou Grant,” which for five years gave viewers a whiff of both The Front Page and the front page.

“Lou Grant” is pretty much the last TV series I ever watched, other than the Steven Spielberg-produced cartoon “Animaniacs.” That I watched it at all was an accident of scheduling: it began airing on Tuesday nights, and I was off from my job in the sports slot on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. That I stayed with it was probably due to the fact that its depiction the fictional Los Angeles Tribune newsroom seemed to get a lot of things right, as I was reminded first by Don’s piece, then by going to Hulu to watch the premiere episode last night.

If you’re interested, it would be far more effective to get the flavor of “Lou” from Don’s piece than to have me recreate a sliver of it, so go there (and you certainly should go there before going to Hulu. Of course, you’d expect me to say that; after all, I downloaded a Hulu player in December of 2007 but had never even fired it up).  From the remove of 32-plus years, though, I was particularly struck by the image above.

Lou is waiting to interview with an old pal for a job that he doesn’t understand will be city editor of the Tribune. Asked to wait, he turns around and comes face to screen with one of those CRT’s that, before too long, would replace the clattering typewriters in the newsroom, but for then was sitting, blank and mute, on a table outside the managing editor’s office.  He pauses.  He bends over.  He reaches to tap its keyboard. (I can’t seem to tell if it’s a Harris or an Atex or an Ontel or some other animal entirely.  He can’t seem to tell if touching it will singe his fingertips.) He looks up at the ME’s secretary, grins sheepishly, and walks away from this “machine,” as he refers to it shortly thereafter.

Before long, in the tradition of large metro newspapers everywhere, he is ensconced at the city desk without the benefit of a moment’s further training beyond that which he brought in the door minutes earlier.  He doesn’t need to be schooled in using that ungainly box, because the skills of his trade are working the phone, smelling the news, and flipping an underreported, overwritten story back at a hotshot reporter.

The good news is, those skills are still important; they are not going to come and go like the ungainly, literally dumb terminal Lou was inspecting above. (Of course, you don’t need quite as supple a wrist for the flipping part as you used to, if you’re quick on the double-click.) I’m thinking I’ll be reminded of other skills not to forget when I fire up the Hulu desktop for Episode 2, perhaps even before another couple years have passed.

Dead trees and dying cities

The New York Times’ decision to add pages of metropolitan-area news to copies of the papers circulated in San Francisco (last week) and Chicago (Nov. 20) is, if nothing else, an interesting juxtaposition with its nearly contemporaneous announcement of 100 layoffs in the newsroom. By contracting with newly formed local news entities, it doubtless will acquire high-quality content at less cost, and with less long-term liability, than had it staffed up to do the same thing (or had transferred folks to the hinterlands).

Official word came today that in Chicago, several of my former Tribune colleagues are launching the Chicago News Cooperative – not only to supply stories to the Times, but also to repopulate some of the beats and coverage areas that have been affected as the Chicago papers have laid off staffers, reduced newshole, and changed their focus and approach. (When current Tribune editor Gerry Kern delivered the Crain Lecture here at Medill recently, the editorial changes at the Tower were among the topics he addressed; the text of the lecture is here, and here is an interactive video that includes both his remarks and the slides he used to illustrate them. The video requires Microsoft Silverlight. The fact that I delivered the introduction to the lecture may be reason enough not to download Silverlight and view it.)

Of course, the number of Starbucks available to sell the Friday and Sunday NYT in Baghdad-by-the-Bay and Beirut-on-the-Lake might also be a reason for the Times to start its metro news initiative in those two cities.  But I think an answer even deeper than journalistic idealism or straight competitive instincts is lurking in the cover story of the November issue of Harper’s, by Richard Rodriguez: “Final Edition: Twilight of the American Newspaper.” (It’s not available online except to subscribers.)

Wrinkle in Time (detail), by Steve Mills: Cover art from the November issue of Harper's.

Wrinkle in Time (detail), by Steve Mills: Cover art from the November issue of Harper's.

Rodriguez got my attention back in June when he gave an interview to New American Media on “The Death of the SF Chronicle” that included the following: “I don’t think the Chronicle is dying so much as I think that San Francisco is dying. When a metropolitan newspaper of that magnitude  stops publication it indicates that there has been a death of the metropolitan ideal.”

This piece in Harper’s expands on his theme of “the death of place,” but also is far more expansive on the Chronicle in particular, newspapers in general, and most especially of San Francisco.

Continue reading