Chicago front page nourishment: What are we getting?

Chicago front page nourishment: What are we getting?

A newspaper should provide pertinent information about the community it covers, facts and stories that will give its readers a complete understanding of the processes and events that shape their lives. It should, in short, provide nourishment for the mind.

And along with nourishment, a print newspaper -- at least for me -- always provided a binding community experience. The Bulls won a championship, and the newspaper front page told more than just the story: it gave us an image and a headline to remember, words and pictures we memorialized on t-shirts. High Five! Bulls are champs! or Two for two: Bulls still champs! or even the goofy, Pat Riley-induced Three-mendous!

Now, with the Tribune in tabloid format and the Sun-Times in even worse shape than the Trib, our city's newspapers no longer give us front page nourishment for the mind. With that gone, the paper's value continues to decrease, as does the circulation, and suddenly there is little reason to reach for the newspaper in its hard form.

Take a look at the image above, for instance. Those are today's papers as found on the newsstand. On the left is the Sun-Times, and their continuing watchdog coverage of the David Koschman case, the story of a 21-year-old Chicagoan who, after leaving the bars at Division and Dearborn in April 2004, got into an altercation with another group of drinkers, one of whom threw a punch that, 12 days later, killed Koschman. The Sun-Times has been chomping at this story since March as part of its Watchdog investigating, because the man who allegedly threw the punch is one Richard "R.J." Vanecko, a man with his own criminal history and, more significantly, nephew to our former mayor Richard M. Daley.

The Sun-Times' front page coverage of the Koschman case stops with the headline -- there is no actual story anywhere, which is standard operating procedure for the Tribune as well. The front page of these tabloids are merely the newspaper cover, with no amount of actual news required. The rest of the Sun-Times' front page is a two-inch headline reading STILL NO DEAL, referring to the White House debt negotiations between President Obama and John Boehner; a two-inch headline reading IT'S OFF?, referring to the engagement between Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and television personality Kristen Cavallari; and two advertisements.

The lead story on the Tribune is a vigil for a Lake Zurich teenaged girl who was killed last week in a hit-and-run, for which we are given a photo of two grieving girls accompanied by a headline. That accounts for most of the front page. Above it is a longer headline about the debt talks, and beneath it is a speculative headline reading Will Chicagoans show Obama the money in 2012?

There are important stories in Chicago today. You just can't find them in what should be the most obvious place to look, that being the front page of our two largest newspapers. At the Chicagoist, I learned that police shootings of civilians are "way up" in 2011. The Chicagoist takes their information from reporting by the Sun-Times, though that story is no longer on the home page at SunTimes.com. Also at Chicagoist is Rahm Emanuel defending his decision to lay-off over 600 city employees, another story that can't be found at the home page of either the Trib or the Sun-Times.

Over at the Chicago News Cooperative, readers can learn about the high number of "bosses" on the city payroll, a British developer's crazy plan for an old Chicago post office building, and a city council committee approving Mayor Emanuel's 20-year contract with Westfield Concessions Management to take over concessions at O'Hare Airport's International Terminal 5, among other important stories.

And by "important," I mean stories concerning people of power making decisions about money.

These stories and others like them shape our community and expand our understanding of how our city operates and where our tax dollars go. To find them, one must often look elsewhere than the two papers that are, supposedly, our biggest sources of written news. The Sun-Times does, at least, continue its Watchdogs reporting, banging away at stories like the Koschman case and the city's ongoing violence and shooting epidemic. Meanwhile, my beloved Tribune seems to give me less and less substance, the paper of my childhood becoming obsolete as I turn to the CNC, Chicagoist, and various Twitter feeds for the scoop on the Chi. A sad day in Chicago when newspapers leave us hungry for more news.

Jack M Silverstein covers music, sports, and community in Chicago, and can be found at ReadJack.com. His book "Our President" is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.

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  • Great article, my man.

  • And great blog title!

  • Thanks TR! We're excited to get this thing started...

  • There are a few issues with this post that I see.

    First and foremost, it strikes me as somewhat hypocritical. You ask for "stories that will give its readers a complete understanding of the processes and events that shape their lives." Yet you fail to even begin to provide that with respect to the increasingly tabloid-esque major newspapers in our city. As a result, this post just comes off as complaining, as opposed to real criticism, which should be a critical (obviously--boy does that sound redundant) investigation into the political and economic forces that have led to the situation in which we find ourselves. As it is, the impression one walks away with is that it's either the fault of the internet, or just that those particular companies are doing a poor job. But the actual story is vastly more complex than that.

    Second, and this is related to the first point, one gets the impression reading this that this is a problem unique to Chicago, which clearly isn't true, and again has the effect of isolating the Trib and Sun-Times from the broader forces at work.

    Third, although I agree that our papers have gotten worse in recent years, I think you idealize the way they were in our childhood, and your examples of fostering a sense of community--namely sports related headlines--kind of undercuts your point. Although I have no problem with the headlines you mention, the more important sense of community building isn't through shared sporting events, but through something like a shared understanding of the politics and true nature of our city, and the major newspapers weren't doing a great job of that back then either. The decline of solid journalism and the rise of tabloid-esque, decontextualized, poorly prioritized stories has been happening for a very long time---don't fall prey to the Golden Age fallacy so many of us are apt to fall into. I think it's just easy to forget the way it was when we were younger because back then we were less concerned with hard news.

  • Hi Torff. Thanks for reading! As always, you are a challenging and intelligent voice here on the boards. Here are my thoughts.

    You're right that I may have fallen into the trap of idealizing the past, or idealizing my childhood -- the Tribune has never been a perfect paper. Not when we were growing up, or our parents, or our grandparents, or even our great-grandparents. Publishers have biases, editors miss fact-checks, reporters don't get all sides of the story or get used by their sources, and so on. I always heard complaints from my folks, teachers, parents' friends or friends' parents and other adults that the Tribune was "too Republican," or that the Trib didn't cover Chicago baseball fairly and evenly because of their ownership of the Cubs, or that such-and-such a columnist is a moron, or that Rupert Murdoch shouldn't own newspapers, and so on.

    However, I always felt like the front page was at least a source for information and in-depth reporting. Even if that information were faulty or that reporting biased, I at least felt like I was getting something substantial to chew on, or disagree with, or out-and-out refute. You could compare the content on the front page of the Trib to that of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, because there was actual storytelling on that front page.

    Now the Tribune on the newsstand feels like a worse version of the Sun-Times. There's just no substance there, and that bothers me. It's bothered me ever since I saw the first Trib tabloid at a newsstand in Wicker Park. (I remember the location too: Cipollina on Damen.) Did you have the same reaction to the Trib going to the tabloid? Thoughts?

    As for Chicago vs. other cities, I didn't mean to imply that this was only a problem in Chicago. It's a problem all over the country, in part because this is a basic problem with newspapers, and in part because so many of these papers have shared ownership. So it's a problem in Chicago, but also in L.A., Baltimore, south Florida, Pennsylvania, and so on. This being a Chicago site that focuses on Chicago media, my attention is with the Chicago papers.

    The Bulls thing is where my brain goes, because those are the headlines that I've looked at most, because those were the newspapers that I hung in my room. You wrote:

    "...the more important sense of community building isn't through shared sporting events, but through something like a shared understanding of the politics and true nature of our city, and the major newspapers weren't doing a great job of that back then either."

    I have two thoughts here. First, while a "shared understanding of the politics and true nature of our city" is more important than the shared experience of a sports team, the sports team holds value as well as a community builder, something the papers did very well in the 80s and 90s when I was growing up, and do less well now.

    Second, while the newspapers may have been skewed and biased in their coverage of politics and community events during my childhood, I felt like there was content there on the front page. You could disagree with it, or you could be informed enough to know where the biases lay, but there was some amount of truth and depth in the front page reporting that is lost in the tabloid format, where the space is dedicated to headlines, pictures, and attention-grabbers over hard news, even when it was biased.

    Did my column fail to criticize? It certainly was not intended as an in-depth expose or primer on the decline of newspapers. My focus on "front page journalism" comes from the way I was raised to read, explore, and appreciate a newspaper, that there was substance on the front page, and that substance drove you further into the story. The paper wasn't supposed to attract you with its headlines and pictures, but with its content and details. And that standard starts on the front page.

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