Birthdays can be about the future, too

(Written for the Chicago Tribune’s house organ as the date of the newspaper’s 150th anniversary approached on June 10, 1997.)

Over the last 150 years–as we’ve been hearing for at least the last 150 days–the Chicago Tribune has been able to maintain a remarkable duality of character.  Without betraying the importance of our stability and reliability to its audience, community, and employees, the Tribune also has demonstrated that dramatic change also can serve all those constituencies in powerful, meaningful ways.

The Tribune didn’t just go into radio and television as sidelines.  It embraced these new media as ways to better inform, entertain, and serve people throughout Chicagoland, bringing them news, entertainment, and advertising not just day by day, but hour by hour.  And after WGN Radio and WGN-TV were strong enough not just to survive, but to thrive, the newspaper turned its energies toward continual change in what it was doing for readers and advertisers in the world of what we lately have been calling “ink on paper.”

I’ve been at the Tribune since 1971–long enough to have lowered galley proofs to the composing room in a bucket attached to a pulley, to have learned to read upside down and backwards, to have ridden the back elevator to the reel room level when there actually were reels there, to have taken dictation on deadline from correspondents who had written out their stories in longhand.  And also to have seen Teletype machines replaced by telecopiers (early fax machines), replaced by bulky portable computers with cassette tapes for memory, replaced by smaller portable computers with no memory to speak of, replaced by tiny portable PC’s with tinier modems and enormous storage capacity.

And to have seen all this change take place with the quality of the newspaper, and the quality of the services we provide, at the forefront of our decision-making process.  And that’s just on the editorial side.  At the same time, we’ve developed systems for our advertisers, our suppliers, and our other partners that have made it easier to do business with us and to reach our audience.

So when given the opportunity to help the Tribune figure out how to take advantage of yet another new medium, the Internet, I did what countless newspaper people before me have done in similar situations:  I began asking questions, synthesizing the answers, and working to arrive at a point of view.  And, of course, I did something that countless Tribune people before me have done, as well:  listened intently, and listened often, to the ideas, opinions, and knowledge of other Tribune people–and tried to recognize which of their inspirations and insights we should try to act upon first.

You see, that’s so much of what successful evolution is about–identification of the most successful adaptations, and the adoption from among many possible survival strategies the ones that have the potential for the longest-term viability.  In the Tribune universe, I’m finding that most of those adaptations grow directly out of the key success factors that the newspaper identified a couple of years ago, and that our whole organization is putting them into practice every day.

And so, at the end of another relentlessly interactive day at the Internet Tribune (or the beginning of the next; it’s not always easy to tell the difference), I see the Chicago Tribune once again seizing an opportunity for change on behalf of all of us–readers, employees, advertisers, stockholders alike–and making both today and tomorrow better for the effort.  We are anticipating the future and capitalizing on it today because, for 150 years, our predecessors have been doing it better than those at any other media company I know.


About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.