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Some covering fire in defense of the Tribune

An Illinois newspaper association wants journalists to step up and try to stop a hedge fund from dismembering our competition. Should we jump for joy? Not at all.

As the Tribune Tower is being broken up into condominiums, the newspaper that once occupied it faces an existential threat by Alden Global, a vampirish hedge fund notorious for ruining newspapers.
As the Tribune Tower is being broken up into condominiums, the newspaper that once occupied it faces an existential threat by Alden Global, a hedge fund that has purchased other newspapers and made dramatic cuts.
Getty

One does not often get beseeched or entreated. I can’t remember seeing the word “rally,” not as a noun referring to a gathering, but as a verb, demanding we come together and fight. But there it was, in a posting headlined, “NINA STATEMENT ON ALDEN GLOBAL PURCHASE OF THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.” Right in the opening sentence:

“The Northern Illinois Newspaper Association today calls for journalists, news organizations, units of government and the general public to rally around Tribune Company employee efforts to maintain the integrity of one of our nation’s great news organizations. This statement follows reports that Alden Global, a New York hedge fund, has bought a 32 percent stake in Tribune Publishing.”

“Journalists?” Hey, that’s me!

My first thought — God, this is embarrassing — was, “Is the Sun-Times even a member of NINA?” We tend not to join that sort of thing. Save the $250. I checked NINA’s membership. The Hinsdalean. The Woodstock Independent. The Rock Island Argus. Thirteen publications and three individuals. The heart breaks.

Whew! I thought. Off the hook.

Such a petty reaction made me reconsider. What did it even mean to “rally” around the Tribune? Send thoughts and prayers? Lash out at Alden? That loathsome vivisectionist of newspapers, buying them up, selling off assets, hacking away expenses, leaving behind a stripped corpse. Tribune writers are lining up to do that already, ignoring that Alden exists in a gold-plated empyrean of wealth far above the influence of public image. “What matters infamy if the cash be kept?” Juvenal writes.

What hasn’t been said? There’s the Michael Ferro angle. Ferro sold out to Alden, a petty act of vindictiveness that hasn’t gotten enough scorn. I knew him, slightly, had lunch with him. He had his own wacky notions of where the paper should go — reporters would wear Google glasses and livestream news events that algorithms would automatically chop into videos. Maybe that’s still coming.

After a couple #MeToo accusations were leveled at Ferro, he took his ball and went home, torching the Tribune on his way out the door. But what does kicking at his absent shins do?

The two papers were once fierce rivals. The Sun-Times took pride that our always scrappy, eternally strapped skeleton crew could whup the lofty Tribune, looking down on us through a lorgnette from their aerie atop the gothic horror of Tribune Tower.

Yet the prospect of Alden just opening the seacocks and sinking the place still sickens. Like seeing the Water Tower broken up and sold off as gravel. Yes, the immediate thought — “Now we’ll be the class paper in town” — did float to the surface, like an oil slick. But the truth is we’re all cooking in the same pot.

Luckily, the Sun-Times is currently owned by labor unions and civic-minded individuals who have a stake in Chicago and believe producing a quality newspaper will help the city, help them and make money as well.

That’s the best way we can rally behind the Tribune — by doing what we always do, being the best paper we can be. If Alden sinks the Tribune, its readers will simply row over to us.

I wish I could claim that as my own keen observation. But it wasn’t. It was Eric Zorn’s.

“The competitive environment here in Chicago is going to make it a lot harder” for Alden to scuttle the Tribune the way it wrecked papers in other cities, the veteran Tribune columnist told John Williams on WGN radio last week. “In a smaller town, like St. Paul or a Denver, they don’t have the options. They don’t have a Sun-Times. ... They can’t do that here, because people will leave the Tribune and go to other places.”

I hope it doesn’t come to that. A worse Tribune would mean a worse Sun-Times, because we feed off and motivate each other. Eric’s insights become my own, and I hope I’ve inspired Eric over the years, if only as a cautionary tale.

Maybe none of this matters. The importance of journalists uncovering and analyzing news relies on readers who want to know what is going on. If more of the electorate joins the Great Orange Beast in proclaiming that reality is whatever he finds most flattering right now, then we are all lost, newspapers and democracy and everybody in it, all going down together.