You know what’s hard work? Deboning whitefish. A machine can’t do it. So a guy stands in a chilled room — has to be chilled so the fish won’t spoil. He runs his bare — has to be bare, so he can feel the pin bones — left hand over the whitefish, while the right one pulls out the nearly invisible bones with a needle-nosed pliers.
I know this because I once watched it done. And what did the whitefish deboner talk about? How fortunate he was to have his job. How happy it made him.
That stuck with me, and explains why I winced, a little, at the Sun-Times’ new slogan: “The hardest-working newspaper in America.”
My first thought was: “How do we know? Did we study all the other newspapers? Because otherwise we’ve installed a lie atop the front page.”
Loyal employee that I am, or try to be, I groped for a bright spin: “mere puffery,” as my lawyer friends would say. Like “World’s Best Coffee.” Why not?
The Tribune called itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper,” for half a century (a boast fossilized in the call letters “WGN”) and that wasn’t true either.
So I understand why “hard-working” now appears on every page of our print editions. What is the task of this newspaper? Only absorbing everything happening now in the entire world with an emphasis on Chicago and Illinois.
Filter out the superfluous and present the essential events in a completely accurate and public form within a few minutes of their occurring. Do so, lately, in an environment where bald lies are boldly uttered at the highest levels while preserving a reputation for accuracy so great that our mistakes are remembered forever. “IT’S REAGAN AND FORD” a Sun-Times front page headline trumpeted about the 1980 presidential ticket. It wasn’t.
Oh yeah, do this while much of the money required to underwrite this challenging, endless task gets re-channeled to a variety of social media platforms that traffic the content we create with what’s left.
That’s a challenge. And it is work. But is it hard? I would argue no. Meaningless work is hard, I imagine. Being some faceless cog in a vast corporate bureaucracy is hard. I have to guess because I’ve never done it. Not since I got my first paying journalism job at age 9, delivering newspapers.
The Sun-Times printed a blank front page Monday to dramatize what life might be like should the newspaper settle below the waves of our churning media ocean. I wasn’t crazy about that, either. Sure, National Lampoon said, “Buy this magazine or we’ll shoot this dog.” But they were joking.
If it smacked of begging, then it also got readers to make the leap and start paying $7.49 a month to subscribe to the Sun-Times. And that’s a good thing. Good for us and good for you.
Money is the lifeblood of a newspaper. It sustains this active, living organism, a machine designed to view life with skepticism, one of the rare places where official nonsense, even our own official nonsense, can be squinted at and examined and questioned. Where a wisenheimer like myself can find fault with the motto of his own organization in public and have a reasonable expectation of still being employed tomorrow. It’s a rare trust, between me and them and between us and you. That’s what you’re paying for, really — what some of you are paying for, the rest are hitching a free ride on the bumper — news delivered fresh, hot and without fear or favor, opinion offered without first licking a finger and testing the wind.
More than a decade ago, I was agonizing over the future of the newspaper. And my younger son, then 9, said something I never forgot:
“The world wouldn’t be a world without the newspaper.”
Like our slogan, that’s a sentiment that sounds good but isn’t quite true. We would certainly have a world without newspapers — and perhaps we’re going to. A world crafted by government propaganda and corporate spin. A world designed by rich people and government paladins and the howl of the internet mob.
Maybe the next generation will accept that world with a shrug. I am of the generation that would not, and am glad there is a way to forestall the arrival of that unwelcome world. You can subscribe to the Sun-Times at suntimes.com/subscribe.