Essay: My lay-off and the golden age of journalism

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Essay: My lay-off and the golden age of journalism

In the 1990s


By Patrick T. Reardon

This essay was originally posted on the 5th anniversary of my lay-off, April 23, 2014. Aside from adjusting the first sentence, I haven't changed it.

Ten years ago this month, I was laid off by the Chicago Tribune.  I had company.

More than 50 other editorial employees were let go the same week I was shown the door.  And another 70 or so had been sent packing during the previous nine months.

In 1987

For me, the lay-off didn’t come as a shock.  Earlier in the week, I’d had lunch with a colleague who’d asked me if I was worried about the announcement about staff cuts that we knew was imminent.

“Anyone who doesn’t realize that he’s walking around with a big target on his back isn’t paying attention,” I said. 

The next day — my day off — I was proved right.

As if shattered by a laser beam

I spent the rest of that day and most of the next in the office, packing up my files and books and tying up loose ends.  And it was then that I realized one jarring result of the cutback — a kind of atomization of those of us involved.

The day before, we had been part of the body of the Tribune.  Now, though, it was as if each one of us had been shattered by laser beam — separated from that body and knocked to little pieces.  As if each of us was a cancerous tumor.

We were isolated and alone, no longer a part of the community of workers that we had shared for years and decades. 

As a group — well, those of us who were losing our jobs weren’t really a group.  We all felt the deep loss, but there wasn’t a feeling of a shared loss.  We were isolated from each other, each trying to figure out what was going to happen next, and knowing that, whatever did happen, it wasn’t going to involve any of the people we’d worked beside for so long.

If I had been…

In the weeks and months to come, I’d say to people that, if I had been Tribune management, I would have laid me off.  I was older (59 at the time).  I took my four weeks of vacation and was putting my medical benefits to greater and greater use.  And, because I’d had a long and successful career at the paper, I was making good money.

Also, my bosses at the paper were less and less interested in my greatest areas of expertise.

I’d spent much of my career at the paper doing analytical reporting and months-long examinations of broad social issues, most of them having to do with urban affairs.  But the Tribune, in bankruptcy court and facing the free-fall drop in its ad revenues, couldn’t afford very much of that sort of coverage any more.

In more recent years, I’d written a lot about authors, books and the book industry, but here, too, the paper was scaling back.  There was much less room for stories of any sort, and space was needed for articles about such subjects as social media that might attract younger readers.

So I wasn’t shocked to get the call while I was out to lunch that Wednesday. But I was saddened.

“I’ve seen wonders…”

Through the successive waves of lay-offs, a tradition had developed at the Tribune.  The laid-off person would send an email out to the entire staff to say good-bye.  Most were fairly short.  One of the best was from Pete Fuller: 

“-30-“

Mine was a little longer than most:

From: Reardon, Pat

Sent: Thursday, April 23, 2009 10:28 AM

To: zzCTC.ALLEDITORIAL

Subject: Farewell from Pat Reardon

Friends —

It has been a tremendous privilege to work with all of you.  Being a part of the Tribune has been a defining aspect of my life.

I have been given great opportunities.  I’ve seen wonders and met fascinating people, inside and outside the Tower.

To paraphrase Lincoln, I got married while at the Tribune.  Both of my children were born and grew to adulthood while I was at the Tribune.  I wrote three books while at the Tribune. I grew up at the Tribune.  And I was given permission to — no, was paid to — learn about Chicago and the world and literature and myself.  It was a great treasure.

Now, in leaving, I have only fond memories.  It’s been 32 years of doing what I love.  I wish you all well.

Pat

The golden age of journalism

I was lucky.

My career as a newspaper reporter and writer spanned the golden age of American journalism. 

I started in the business in 1972 as a reporter with the Austinite and Northwest Passage newspapers in Austin on the Far West Side of Chicago. 

My first day at work was about a month after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C.   Over the next two years, the news media’s coverage of the escalating scandal, led by newspaper reporters, was a key factor leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

In the 1970s, Americans got their news from a vast array of sources.  It was, for instance, the dawn of news radio, a kind of aural ticker-tape providing “up to the minute” information on weather, traffic and breaking news.

For major news, however, television was the 800-pound gorilla.  You knew it was an important story when regular programing was pre-empted by the three television networks and/or the one or two local stations to provide live coverage of a disaster or a speech or some other event.  The hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee, chaired by U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina), riveted viewers for weeks.

In contrast to the great Cyclops eye of television were the myriad magazines, many of them serving the mass market.

For news, there were Time, Newsweek, Life and U.S. News and World Report.  General interest publications included the Saturday Evening Post, Harpers, Readers Digest, the Atlantic and the New Yorker.  Niche publications, such as Sports Illustrated, were on the newsstands, but even these tended to serve as wide an audience as possible.

Television, radio and magazines, for all their flashiness, were rooted in the workaday wire services of the Associated Press and United Press International and in the shoe-leather coverage of the nation’s vast network of newspapers — city newspapers, neighborhood newspapers, dailies, weeklies. 

(There was even a blog decades before the invention of blogs — I.F. Stone’s Weekly, an influential newsletter from that independent Washington, D.C.-based reporter.)

Second-day leads

In Chicago, there were two morning newspapers, the Tribune and the Sun-Times

In the afternoon, there were the Daily News and the American (later called Today), both of which were already having a difficult time making deliveries because of the great migration to the suburbs after World War II and the clogged roadways that were one result.  Also, people arriving home from work in the late afternoon were more likely to want to watch the 6 p.m. news on television than to read a paper.

The afternoon papers were specialists in what was known as the second-day lead. 

Say, for instance, that, on a Monday morning, the front page of the Tribune reported that Mayor Daley — the first Mayor Daley — wanted to build an airport in Lake Michigan.  To catch up with this development, the Daily News might write a story which led with federal officials saying that such a plan would violate clean water regulations.

These second-day leads were an early version of analytical journalism.  In the heyday of this form of journalism in the 1980s and 1990s, reporters and editors found that, if they did enough significant independent research into a topic, they would develop enough expertise to be able to comment directly on the issue — without needing to rely on “experts” or “officials.”

This began to broaden the definition of “news.”  It no longer was something simply that happened or was said.  It could be something that, through a lot of research, a reporter could discover — a fact or an insight that hadn’t previously been noticed by anyone.

On the roof of the Sears Tower in April, 2004

“News”

The idea of “news” throughout the previous two centuries of American journalism had been fairly elastic.

The earliest newspapers were partisan instruments, generally owned by men with a political axe to grind.  (Today’s Fox News is an example of a modern throwback to those days.) Abraham Lincoln was elected 16th president of the U.S. in 1860, in part, with the help of Joseph Medill, the owner and editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Some owners, such as William Randolph Hearst, treated their newspapers as toys, using them to start wars or back their own candidacies for public office.

Throughout the 19th century and most of the 20th century, newspapers held great power as the main source of information about what was happening locally, nationally and globally.  Most cities had several, and the papers sought to develop a personality that would attract a large audience.  Some were sensational.  Some sought to be comprehensive.

The wild and wooly days of journalism began to fade after World War II.  This was the era of objectivity and accuracy.  “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

The Tribune moved slower than most papers in driving political slant out of its news columns.  And it wasn’t until 1969 that its new editor Clayton Kirkpatrick was able to bring objective reporting to all of the paper’s news stories.

A broader definition

By this time, by the 1970s, there was a broader definition of journalism developing. 

One emphasis was on analytical reporting.  Another was on describing events and situations with a novelist’s eye, and explaining social and political issues with an expert’s perspective. 

Story-telling became the goal — not just in long reports, but even in daily news coverage.  The inverted pyramid fell to the wayside as reporters attempted to give each article a beginning, middle and end.

This turned out to be perfect for me.  During my career at the Tribune, I worked on more than a dozen projects that involved months of research and resulted in multi-part series.  Some I did on my own, but most were with a team of other reporters. 

These reports were investigative in the sense that we were conducting wide-ranging interviews and digging deeply into data and records. 

Although the goal was sometimes to find a “gotcha,” mostly we were trying to understand complex and difficult social questions, such as poverty and racism. In this sense, the reports were more analytical, explanatory and descriptive than accusatory.

The subjects of those in-depth reports and investigative series included:

Chicago’s public housing

The urban underclass

Chicago’s failed school system

The middle-class migration out of the city

The rebirth of the Chicago River

The inner workings of a Democratic ward boss’s organization

The unbridled destruction of potential landmarks throughout Chicago

The social and cultural shifts behind the disappearance of the city’s taverns

The surprisingly significant impact of alleys on city life

The emotional, cultural and historical factors behind suburban sprawl

The hidden political agendas at work in a Chicago City Council meeting

In addition, I was one of a team of some 50 Tribune writers, reporters, editors and photographers who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for “Gateway to Gridlock,” a series of stories about the nation’s over-crowded skies.

A “bully pulpit”

Beyond my work on in-depth projects, I was the Tribune’s urban affairs reporter for several years and covered urban issues much of the rest of the time. 

Later, as a feature writer, I wrote magazine profiles on such fascinating people as David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s top campaign aide, and Rosemont Mayor Donald Stephens.  With the Tempo section, I got to know great writers and historians, ranging from Robert Caro to Terry Pratchett to Sandra Cisneros, from Haki Madhubuti to John Keegan to Carol Anshaw.

And I reviewed more than 200 books for the Tribune over a 15-year period, winning a couple Peter Lisagor awards for arts criticism.

The emphasis on analytical reporting gave me the chance to examine subjects that were being over-looked by officials and the public and to bring to light problems that needed addressing.  I remained an objective reporter, but, because of the expertise I developed, particularly in the area of urban affairs, I could write with authority.

I thought of my job as a “bully pulpit,” to borrow Theodore Roosevelt’s phrase — a great platform from which to do good.

I saw my job as doing good. I saw it as telling the truth — to the extent any of us can get at the truth.  I wanted to use my talents and my expertise to hold a mirror up to readers so they could see themselves and better understand who they were.  It wasn’t always flattering.

And I got paid to do all this.  Paid well.

A crew of Tribune news reporters who covered the non-sports aspects to the 1986 Super Bowl in New Orleans for a week.

Subscriptions, newsstand sales, display ads, classified ads — the money poured in to the Tribune, and was spent on people like me, reporters and photographers who were sent around the city and around the nation and around the world.

A symptom

Recently, I was talking about the golden age of journalism, and someone asked me when it ended.

“When I got laid-off!”

I said it jokingly — yet also seriously.  My lay-off was a symptom of what was going on throughout the established news media in the face of unprecedented competition.

Traditional news organizations could no longer afford to do as much as they had done.  They could no longer take up as many difficult reporting challenges, but had to lower their sights in many cases.

After the turn of the century, that money stream began to dry up as the Internet cut into circulation, drastically reduced the willingness of businesses to buy display ads and all but killed the golden cow, the classified section.

Newspapers shrank.  They narrowed their focus.  The Tribune cut its foreign and national bureaus, raised its newsstand and home delivery prices, enticed older workers to accept buyouts and laid off more than 100 staffers.  Including me.

A passion for reporting

Many people look at news coverage today and shake their heads.  I’m more sanguine.

While the Internet has cut and threatens to kill the traditional newspaper, I like the opportunity that the Internet gives to people with a passion for reporting. 

Anyone can start a blog, and, if you’re supplying interesting, accurate and relevant information, you’ll attract readers. 

No question, you may not make much money.  Or any money.

Still, I think there will continue to be people who are on fire with a desire to learn about what’s happening and to tell others what they’ve found.  Unlike me, they won’t have a massive news operation at their backs and paying their salaries.

For love

I suspect that, as things develop, these independent reporter-bloggers will be like most actors, dancers, singers and musicians in today’s world.  They’ll have a day job, and do their reporting as an avocation.

For the love of it.

That’s why I thrived as a reporter.  Because I loved to report, and I loved to write.  (And, around the office, I wasn’t alone in that feeling.)

The pay was great. But, as I told many people throughout my career, I always felt like the baseball player who once said, “I can’t believe they pay me to do something I love to do.”

It was a great treasure.

Patrick T. Reardon

4.1.2019

Originally posted 4.23.14.

4 Comments

  1. Adrienne Drell says:

    Beautifully put Pat. You captured many of my own feelings on how the world of journalism has changed.
    Thank you for crystalizing it. Adrienne Drell

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Thanks, Adrienne. It was a wonderful ride, wasn’t i?

      • Seran says:

        Thank you
        An insightful and beautifully written piece. I really enjoyed reading it. So brilliantly explained about the way things were in journalism and the progression to where we are now! It’s harder to find good journalism now. Seems to be just about the headline and the first paragraph! I’m not sure if this progression has been a good thing!
        Please share more of your life adventures and amazing experiences

        Seran

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