A People With Passion series
October 21, 2011: Jane Hirt
In the 13th installment of Jack M Silverstein's Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, Chicago Tribune managing editor Jane Hirt discusses her start at the Tribune on the sports desk in the early 90s.
I got here through sheer luck, probably, being at the right place at the right time. I graduated in December of ’89, and I started here just a couple weeks after I graduated. I was a post-graduate intern on the sports copy desk. I sent my stuff out everywhere – I wasn’t looking necessarily for Chicago. It was just one of the places that I expressed an interest in. I had visited here before. In high school my French club came here, and I do remember walking down Michigan Avenue once and looking at the Tribune Building. Who would think that 22 years later that’s where I would have spent my career.
They offered me the internship and of course I said yes. But in my earnest, honest, Nebraska way, I admitted to the recruiter that I’d never read a sports section in my life and I really didn’t know anything about sports, and are they sure that this was the right internship for me? And she said, “Yes, yes. We don’t necessarily need someone who knows a lot about sports. We need someone who knows a lot about language and grammar and spelling, and a good editor in the news section is also a good editor in sports.” So I went on the desk, and wow. I immersed myself in sports information. I went out and bought a sports almanac. I subscribed to sports publications. Back then, there was a newspaper called the National, and I got it every day, dutifully purchased it.
The guys on the sports desk were great. They were veterans. I was the only woman, and the youngest by far. They were very cool to me, and they helped me learn the ropes. I had to learn how to spell players names. I’d never heard of them before. (Laughs.)
So on the desk, this is like, who? Holtzman? Verdi? Sam Smith?
Yeah, those were the writers I would edit. Phil Hersh is still here and I remember editing his stuff. That was a really cool time, because I remember getting to edit the Bulls. Michael Jordan was there. At first I was assigned the baseball card column and the horse racing stories, but I must have gotten better because I soon got to read the cover Bulls stories. I remember when baseball season started I had a really hard time. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I don’t think I’d ever even seen a baseball game.
It was trial by fire and I must have done okay, because after about five months they called me in and said, “We’d like to hire you full time. You’re going to be on the national foreign desk.” The National/Foreign copy desk. And that’s where I ended up spending the next 13 years.
I loved sports. I have so much respect for the amount of work that gets done on an excruciating deadline. Unbelievable turnaround on stories. And your audience knows every stat. You have to be right or people will know. They know exactly when that certain play happened, in which inning, so we would watch TV and watch the games so that when the stories came in, we would know the game too and could correct any errors. I to this day think that sports deadline work at newspapers is the most impressive.
It made me realize that the most completely edited story in the world is no good if it comes five minutes after deadline. I learned how to edit confidently and fast. To really pay attention to details in games, because I knew that would be in the story. I also remember the sportswriters were very familiar with who they were writing about, so sometimes in their stories the sportswriters would use the coach’s first name. Like, “Joey said,” and I’d have to know what the coach’s last name was. (Laughs.)
On the National/Foreign,’91 to ’02. I left National/Foreign to go to RedEye. One day they said, “We would like you to serve on a committee to figure out how to get younger readers to read the paper.” There was someone from editorial, someone from advertising, someone from circ, and we as a committee came up with the idea for RedEye.
We actually wanted it to be free in the beginning. After we pitched it, then Ann Marie Lipinski, who was the editor of the Tribune, asked if me and Joe Knowles would be co-editors. And that’s how I got involved at RedEye. Joe was there for the first three years with me, and then the last three years I was editor by myself.
At RedEye I learned how to target an audience, how to know your reader and really be relevant to them. I probably brought that to this job. But doing a startup like RedEye – I would recommend that everybody at least once in their career be involved in a startup. It is so challenging and so rewarding and so hard – I think it’s the hardest job I ever had to do was helping lead the startup – but I learned so much. I found out what I was made of.
Enjoy this interview? Click here for a longer version as Jane discusses her path to journalism and considers the question "What will readers still pay for?"
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff, Gapers Block founder
September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano, Chicago News Cooperative, video producer
September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner, Playboy, former CEO
September 15, 2011: Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter, publisher
August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune, editorial board and columnist
September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter, editor
August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist, editor
August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)
August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist