Follow @neilsteinbergThe Tribune Tower is a gothic horror show of a building, a retro throwback that bucked every trend in 20th century architecture when it was designed in the mid-1920s. While the Bauhaus was conjuring up streamlined structures in Germany, the Midwestern burgermeisters in Chicago held a widely ballyhooed architecture contest for the new headquarters of their self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Newspaper. Batting aside progressive blueprints from the likes of Walter Gropius and Adolf Loos, they chose a New York firm’s vision of what is in essence a 36-story medieval cathedral skyscraper, complete with flying buttresses, gargoyles and fleurs de lis. All it lacks is a crypt and a nave.
Despite being all wrong, it was the perfect choice. The Tribune Tower somehow seemed to fit the newspaper within — mighty, unsubtle, backward-looking, with chunks of ancient buildings seized around the world by the newspaper’s far-flung foreign correspondents brought home as prisoners, in tribute to American exceptionalism.
Follow @neilsteinbergWalk into Tribune Tower, and along with the bromides to freedom and the supremacy of the press was an enormous map of North America, as if the rest of the world didn’t matter, which it largely didn’t. With WGN — “World’s Greatest Newspaper” don’t you forget — adding first radio, then television to the mix, the Tribune Tower was meant to exude permanence, power, authority, control, with a bomb shelter in the basement, just in case.
RELATED: Tribune Tower sold for $240 million
As the building fit the fat, Republican avatar of the status quo for decades, so its sale, announced Tuesday, to a Los Angeles developer for $240 million, also seems apt for the current journalistic moment: Gut shot by the Internet a decade ago, tumbling for years in free fall and retreat, finally hitting the hard bottom with a splat, shaking itself back to life like a cartoon character, and crawling off to some obscure place a lot less public than the corner of Michigan and Wacker Drive, if not to die, then to morph into whatever decimated, enervated, shadow of its former self that daily journalism is well on the way to becoming. The amazing thing is it lasted this long.
Tribune Media CEO Peter Liguori, a former entertainment exec for Fox, explained the move with characteristic lack of sentiment: “Monetizing the significant assets of Tribune Media’s real estate portfolio is a strategic priority for the company,” he was quoted saying in the Tribune press release, “and we are extremely pleased with the outcome of this sales process.”
I bet they are. Grandeur is not a significant asset anymore, at least not in the communications biz. As long as three bulleted headlines squirt into your phone on command, you don’t care where they come from. Downtown Chicago, downtown Mumbai, it’s all the same. Heck, half the country doesn’t even care if they’re true.
No gloating here. No working journalist can take pleasure in this sale. “The end of an era,” television reporters will say, unaware of the threadbareness of the cliche.
A better metaphor would be a milestone on the newspaper Death March. We are having our fingers pried off the tangible world, the world of buildings and offices and desks and paychecks. All cooking in the same pot. The Sun-Times sold its less iconic, but equally hideous building to developers a dozen years ago, and Trump Tower went up on the spot where we once stood. Future home of the Midwestern White House, perhaps.
Newspapering has moved to the margins of our cultural conversation, and whether the Tribune is produced in a tall thin version of Reims Cathedral, or out of the giant windowless box of the Freedom Center printing plant on West Chicago Avenue, or in Naperville, or not at all, hardly seems to matter much at this point.