Once The Heartbeat Of Newspapers, Chicago Is Death Row
After no well-heeled savior emerged to save the Tribune from a job-slashing hedge fund, the local news industry in America never has been closer to extinction. Wasn’t it thriving not too long ago?
“SPORTS WITH AN ATTITUDE!” came the blast from the billboards. The slogan was etched in tattoo graffiti, part of a campaign to hype my arrival in Chicago, and I guess the ad agency wanted me to terrorize fans in the No. 3 market with perpetual vitriol. Every time I drove past my smiling, 31-year-old mug near Wrigley Field, Soldier Field and sites throughout the metropolis, I laughed … and cringed … and all but peed my pants.
What the hell was the Sun-Times doing to me? Setting me up to fail before I’d started? Ensuring that my body parts would be found in the lake? Was I hired just to fit some absurd campaign? And who decided I had an attitude, anyway? As it was, the cantankerous columnist Mike Royko was taking shots at me, and Chet Coppock was introducing me on his talk show by asking when I’d win a Pulitzer Prize. Before long, Mike Ditka was calling me “Dummy-otti,” Michael Jordan was eyeing me like Craig Ehlo, and an alderman named Brian Doherty was grabbing the back of the neck at my post-work hangout, O’Callaghan’s on Hubbard Street, and not letting go for about 20 seconds.
Wasn’t this absolute madness?
Actually, looking back, this was the newspaper business at its best — never more vibrant, impactful or fun. Chicago was the heartbeat of print’s dominance in America, and I was the new hired gun, slung like a Billy Goat cheeseburger onto a two-paper downtown griddle that instantly heated up. The hard-working tabloid, headquartered in a tugboat-shaped building on the river, was dropping a bomb on the Tribune, at the time a stuffy, nose-in-the-air broadsheet in a neo-Gothic tower where sports columnists liked playing with words. I preferred playing with minds, a game made easier by the Tribune’s clumsy ownership of the Cubs. And the Tribsters didn’t like being uncomfortable, from the top of the Tower to the sports department, where NBA reporter Sam Smith wrote a best-seller called “The Jordan Rules” and charged his bosses a price for excerpts he’d gathered on their dime — which got Smith in trouble when I was fed excerpts by his book publicist and rushed news items into the paper, at no charge to my employer, before the Trib could publish its purchased material.
Sports With An Attitude, baby.
If you’d said then that the Chicago newspaper business would be gutted in 2021 — barely breathing, lacking impact and doomed to continued irrelevance and eventual extinction — I’d have let the alderman keep choking me. But the situation is as real and gnarly as ink on fingers. Just as that city was the head of the industry snake in the 20th century, the demise of the Tribune and Sun-Times symbolizes the death of print — and local news — only three decades later.
Now owned by the evil hedge-fund vultures at Alden Global Capital, which acquired Tribune Publishing despite pleas from employees for deep-pocketed civic saviors to step in, the Tribune newsroom is braced for mass layoffs and a severing of whatever editorial quality remains. This is what Alden does, killing journalism to lift profits, and the Tribune, New York Daily News, Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel are among nine new papers who’ve joined dozens of other dailies on death row. Many familiar bylines will be sacrificed at the Trib, replaced by young and inexpensive content providers, or robots if available. And much as I’d like to think my old paper will seize an opportunity, the Sun-Times has been hooked to intensive-care machines for much too long, without an editor-in-chief since September and unable to send even one staffer to Indianapolis — 3 1/2 hours away by car, with a $4.50 fast-food stop on the way — for an Illinois-Loyola showdown in the NCAA basketball tournament.
We could ask Sister Jean Schmidt, Loyola’s 101-year-old sideline inspiration, to pray for Chicago’s papers. But rosary beads are best used for causes that still have fighting chances.
“Alden ownership,” wrote Tribune reporter and union leader Gregory Pratt, “would be a disaster for Chicago, democracy and society at large.”
Tweeted veteran Tribune media writer Phil Rosenthal, boldly risking his job by adding Alden to the company’s missteps: “Tribune’s 1st self-inflicted wound was merger with L.A. Times parent in 2000. Deal added Chandler family reps to board. They agitated for a sale to unwind their trusts and get their money. Then came Sam Zell, bankruptcy, TV/real estate split from print, Michael Ferro & now Alden.”
And this from Tribune humor columnist Rex Huppke, not in the joking mood: “This is terrible news for the Chicago Tribune and all our sister newspapers. It’s also terrible news for the communities these papers cover and, I’d argue, for the country. … I can’t be bothered with people who view newspapers as businesses to be squeezed for profit, or as disposable investments. None of us got into this to make money.”
It’s nothing short of an American tragedy, really. In a city of considerable wealth and corporate influence, not one heavy-hitter thought the Tribune was salvageable. Jeff Bezos energized the Washington Post. Patrick Soon-Shiong bailed out the Los Angeles Times. John Henry, the Red Sox owner, preserved the Boston Globe. Glen Taylor, the Minnesota Timberwolves owner, rescued the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis. But no one wanted the Chicago Tribune — not the Pritzkers, not the Wirtzes, not Ken Griffin and his $22 billion net worth, not Boeing or Walgreens, not Oprah Winfrey and her Chicago pedigree and not even White Sox/Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who already meddles in editorial operations without having to spend a penny. Soon-Shiong, a prominent Tribune shareholder, could have voted no and slowed Alden but chose to abstain. In its heyday, the Tribune was as prestigious as any U.S. newspaper. But while the New York Times and Wall Street Journal were prescient in recognizing the future of news — a digital transformation, followed by subscriptions — the Chicago dailies were asleep at the switch in the 2000s, thrust into turmoil by crooked, profit-skimming owners at both shops.
This is where I enter again, more than a decade into my 17-year run there. Frustrated by a primitive website, I repeatedly asked Sun-Times executives when they might embrace the technological advances of a new millennium to ensure long-term viability. “We’re a print operation,” came the reply, every time. They either couldn’t see the future — free-falling circulation, vanishing print advertising — or didn’t want to invest in it. More likely, the latter.
Knowing that I drove traffic in a voracious sports town and continued to view the Tribune the way Aaron Rodgers treats the Bears, the Sun-Times offered me yet another three-year extension in 2008. But though the financial numbers far exceeded my dreams in a labor of love, I was reluctant to sign. The bosses had jumped into bed with team owners I was trying to cover — I needed three showers a day, removing all the dirt — and the sports staff was a dissension-torn mess. I was sick of breaking up fights between writers, sick of in-house lies told about me to junk websites, sick of resentment about my daily role on ESPN’s “Around The Horn” — sick of the sickness. I wanted the editors to take charge of their debacle, starting with a stronger commitment to digital.
I agreed to sign the extension with a caveat: We would have a competitive website presence at the Beijing Olympics, where our staff of two would try our damndest against the Tribune’s legions. Next thing I knew, as if being pranked, our pieces from China weren’t being posted for hours. Then things got dirty: Because of so-called deadlines that couldn’t be stretched even a few minutes, I was asked by editors to write two fictional pieces — one with Michael Phelps winning, another with him losing — that were filed before his race for plug-in purposes. All the while, Dave Morgan and Yahoo! Sports had set up shop near us in the media center, showcasing the future of digital journalism — no fake stories, just a professional coverage plan executed with precision by several writers and editors over a couple of hours.
Eventually, I found myself on the Great Wall of China, having an epiphany. A year after dealing with heart pain on assignment, I was not about to let this god-awful operation kill me. We finished the three-week job. On the plane ride home, I crafted a polite, peaceful resignation letter to the publisher, who, of course, didn’t inform an editor-in-chief who was caught by surprise when the Tribune found out. Reporter Jim Kirk, who wound up running the newsrooms of the Sun-Times and L.A. Times, was the first to tell Michael Cooke that I was opting out and handing back about a million bucks. Cooke asked Kirk if it was a joke.
In truth, it was the day the Sun-Times began to fade.
This wasn’t considered good form, telling the competition that I refused to “go down with the ship.” The editors urged the great Roger Ebert — I’d met him only once — to crucify me the next day and call me “a rat.” But screw the Sun-Times. I’d devoted my life to the place, writing more pieces during those 17 years than any sports columnist on Earth, and the people on high had no interest in anything but extracting profits and cashing out. Sure enough, the paper was in deep trouble within a year. And since then, a frighteningly thin, hard-to-find product is published with a few dozen staffers from rented offices near a Goodwill donation store, kept from its funeral by periodic contributions via Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz and other locals. The Sun-Times finally got around to upgrading its site, then inexplicably attached it to a paywall. If few were reading the online content when it was free, who’s going to pay for it?
Today, the two sports sections are run by amateurs who kowtow to owners such as Reinsdorf and, of course, Wirtz. Observes Chicago media critic Jim O’Donnell, among those who’ve remained independent in a market of sellouts in his seat at the suburban Daily Herald: “The entrenched sports power people are controlling the market and the message to a degree they could only have dreamed of as recently as 15 years ago.”
Shortly after I entered the digital ranks as a national sports columnist, my journey slipped into the surreal. One of my writing heroes, Frank Deford, was interviewing me on a Wrigleyville rooftop for an HBO “Real Sports” segment. Topic: The demise of newspapers. When I pointed to a nearby Starbucks and said several people inside were reading news on laptop computers, Deford was incredulous, holding up a copy of the Sun-Times in protest as I dismissed the print paper as obsolete.
Frank passed away four years ago. “One of my favorite segments,” Patrick Byrne, HBO’s media relations director, told me in a note. “You were spot on.”
On a recent podcast, a host asked me if it was “ironic” what has happened to the print industry since my declaration. I corrected him on his word usage. “I was RIGHT,” I said, remembering how I was ripped by media people after the HBO show, as if I’d divulged the industry secret no one wanted to face.
I take no glee from my foresight. But I will realize, to my own dying day, that the Deford interview happened only a pop fly from where a “SPORTS WITH AN ATTITUDE” billboard once was perched.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Is There Still a Place for Baseball Talk on National Sports Shows?
“Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.”
Last week at the BSM Summit, I hosted a panel focused on air checks. I wish I could say we covered the topic thoroughly, but we got derailed a lot, and you know what? That is okay. It felt like real air checks that I have been on both sides of in my career.
Rob Parker of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio was the talent. He heard thoughts on his show from his boss, Scott Shapiro, and from his former boss, legendary WFAN programmer Mark Chernoff.
Baseball was the topic that caused one of our derailments on the panel. If you know Rob, you know he is passionate about Major League Baseball. He cited download numbers that show The Odd Couple’s time-shifted audience responds to baseball talk. To him, that proves there is not just room for it on nationally syndicated shows, but that there is a sizable audience that wants it.
Chernoff disagrees. He says baseball is a regional sport. Sure, there are regions that love it and local sports talk stations will dedicate full hours to discussing their home team’s games and roster. National shows need to cast a wide net though, and baseball doesn’t do that.
Personally, I agree with Chernoff. I told Parker on stage that “I hear baseball talk and I am f***ing gone.” The reason for that, I think, is exactly what Chernoff said. I grew up in Alabama (no baseball team). I live in North Carolina (no baseball team). Where baseball is big, it is huge, but it isn’t big in most of the country.
Now, I will add this. I used to LOVE baseball. It is the sport I played in high school. The Yankees’ logo was on the groom’s cake at my wedding. Then I had kids.
Forget 162 games. Even five games didn’t fit into my lifestyle. Maybe somewhere deep down, I still have feelings for the sport, but they are buried by years of neglect and active shunning.
Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.
Me, and millions of sports talk listeners like me, look at baseball like a toddler looks at broccoli. You probably aren’t lying when you tell us how much you love it, but damn it! WE WANT CHICKEN FINGERS!
A new Major League Baseball season starts Thursday and I thought this topic was worth exploring. I asked three nationally syndicated hosts to weigh in. When is baseball right for their show and how do they use those conversations? Here is what they had to say.
FREDDIE COLEMAN (Freddie & Fitzsimmons on ESPN Radio) – “MLB can still be talked nationally IF there’s that one player like Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani can attract the casual fan. MLB has definitely become more local because of the absence of that SUPER player and/or villainous team. I wonder if the pace of play will help bring in the younger fans that they need, but the sport NEEDS that defining star that is must-see TV.”
JONAS KNOX (2 Pros & a Cup of Joe on FOX Sports Radio) – “While football is king for me in sports radio, I look at baseball like most other sports. I’m not opposed to talking about it, as long as I have an angle or opinion that I am confident I can deliver in an entertaining manner. A couple of times of any given year, there are stories in baseball that are big picture topics that are obvious national discussions.
“I think it’s my job to never close the door on any topic/discussion (except politics because I don’t know anything about it).
“But also, if I’m going to discuss a localized story in baseball or any other sport for that matter – I better have an entertaining/informed angle on it. Otherwise, I’ve let down the listener and that is unacceptable. If they give you their time, you better not waste it.”
MAGGIE GRAY (Maggie & Perloff on CBS Sports Radio) – “While I was on WFAN there was almost no amount of minutia that was too small when it came to the Mets and Yankees. On Maggie and Perloff, our baseball topics have to be more centered around issues that can be universal. For example, ’Is Shohei Ohtani the face of the sport? Is Ohtani pitching and hitting more impressive than two sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? Do you consider Aaron Judge the single-season homerun king or Barry Bonds?’ Any baseball fan or sports fan can have an opinion about those topics, so we find they get great engagement from our audience.”
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Who Can Sports Fans Trust Once Twitter Ditches Legacy Verified Blue Checks?
The potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
As of April 1, Twitter will finally make a dreaded change that many will view as an April Fools’ prank. Unfortunately, it won’t be a joke to any user who cares about legitimacy and truth.
Last week, Twitter officially announced that verified blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that have not signed up for a Twitter Blue subscription. Previously, accounts whose identity had been verified were allowed to keep their blue checks when Twitter Blue was implemented.
But shortly after Elon Musk purchased Twitter and became the social media company’s CEO, he stated his intention to use verification as a revenue source. Users would have to pay $8 per month (or $84 annually) for a Twitter Blue subscription and blue checkmark verification. Paying for blue checks immediately set off red flags among users who learned to depend on verified accounts for accredited identities and trusted information.
The entire concept of verification and blue checks was simple and effective. Users and accounts bearing the blue checkmark were legitimate. These people and organizations were who they said they were.
As an example, ESPN’s Adam Schefter has faced criticism for how he framed domestic violence and sexual misconduct involving star NFL players, and deservedly so. But fans and media know Schefter’s tweets are really coming from him because his account is verified.
Furthermore, Twitter took the additional step of clarifying that accounts such as Schefter’s were verified before Twitter Blue was implemented. He didn’t pay eight dollars for that blue checkmark.
The need for verification is never more vital than when fake accounts are created to deceive users. Such accounts will put “Adam Schefter” as their Twitter name, even if their handle is something like “@TuaNeedsHelp.” Or worse, some fake accounts will create a handle with letters that look similar. So “@AdarnSchefter” with an “rn” in place of the “m,” fools some people, especially at a quick glance when people are trying to push news out as fast as possible.
Plenty of baseball fans have been duped over the years by fake accounts using a zero instead of an “o” or a capital “I” instead of a lowercase “l” to resemble Fox Sports and The Athletic reporter Ken Rosenthal. That trick didn’t get me. But when I covered Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report 10 years ago, I did fall for a fake Jim Salisbury account that reported the Philadelphia Phillies traded Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. Capital “I,” not lowercase “l” in “Salisbury.” Pence was, in fact, traded to the Giants two days later, but that didn’t make my goof any less embarrassing. I should’ve looked for the blue checkmark!
But after April 1, that signifier won’t matter. Legacy blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that haven’t paid for Twitter Blue. Some accounts that were previously verified might purchase a subscription to maintain that blue check. But those that were deemed legitimate prior to Musk taking over Twitter likely won’t. (There are also rumors that Twitter is considering a feature that would allow Twitter Blue subscribers to hide their blue check and avoid revealing that purchase.)
That could be even more true for media organizations, which are being told to pay $1000 per month for verification. Do you think ESPN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post will pay $12,000 for a blue check?
We’ve already seen the problems that paying for verification can cause. Shortly after Twitter Blue launched, accounts pretending to be legacy verified users could be created. A fake Adam Schefter account tweeted that the Las Vegas Raiders had fired head coach Josh McDaniels. Users who saw the “Adam Schefter” Twitter name went with the news without looking more closely at the “@AdamSchefterNOT” handle. But there was a blue checkmark next to the name this time!
The same thing occurred with a fake LeBron James account tweeting that the NBA superstar had requested a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. There was a “@KINGJamez” handle, but a “LeBron James” Twitter name with a blue check next to it.
Whether it’s because fans and media have become more discerning or Twitter has done good work cracking down on such fake accounts, there haven’t been many outrageous examples of deliberate deception since last November. But the potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
If that seems like an overstatement, it’s a very real possibility that there will be an erosion of trust among Twitter users. Media and fans may have to take a breath before quickly tweeting and retweeting news from accounts that may or may not be credible. False news and phony statements could spread quickly and go viral across social media.
Even worse, Musk has announced that only verified Twitter Blue accounts will be seen in your “For You” timeline as of April 15. (He can’t claim it’s an April Fools’ Day joke on that date.)
Obviously, that carries far more serious real-world implications beyond sports. Forget about a fake Shams Charania account tweeting that Luka Dončić wants to be traded to the Lakers. It’s not difficult to imagine a fake Joe Biden account declaring war on Russia and some people believing it’s true because of the blue checkmark.
We may be nearing the end of Twitter being a reliable news-gathering tool. If the accounts tweeting out news can’t be trusted, where’s the value? Reporters and newsmakers may end up going to other social media platforms to break stories and carry the viability of verification.
When Fox Sports’ website infamously pivoted to video in 2017, Ken Rosenthal posted his MLB reporting on Facebook prior to joining The Athletic. Hello, Instagram. Will someone take their following and reputation to a fledgling platform like Mastodon, Post, Spoutible, or BlueSky, even if it means a lesser outlet?
If and when that happens, Twitter could still be a community but not nearly as much fun. Not when it becomes a matter of trust that breaks up the party.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.
There’s a Lesson For Us All in Florida Atlantic’s Elite 8 Broadcast Struggle
“It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.”
Ken LaVicka and Kevin Harlan probably don’t have a ton in common. Both of them were announcing an Elite Eight game over the weekend, that is one thing tying them together, but their experiences were wildly different. Harlan is on CBS with a production crew numbering in the dozens making certain all goes smoothly. LaVicka, the voice of the Florida Atlantic Owls, is a production crew himself, making certain those listening in South Florida heard the Owls punch their Final Four ticket. At least, that was LaVicka’s plan.
The Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Men’s Final Four. Even while typing that sentence, it still seems odd to say. Do you know how many college basketball teams are thinking “how can Florida Atlantic make the Final Four and we can’t?” These are the types of stories that make the NCAA Tournament what it is. There is, literally, no barrier stopping any team from this tournament going on the run of their life and making it all the way.
Everyone listening in South Florida almost missed the moment it all became real for the Owls. With :18.6 to go in Florida Atlantic’s Elite Eight game against Kansas State, the Madison Square Garden Ethernet service to the front row of media seating went completely dark.
It was on that row that Ken LaVicka was painting the picture back to South Florida. Well, he was until the internet died on him.
Nobody does a single show away from their home studio anymore without trying to avoid the nightmare of Ethernet failure. Gone are the days of phone lines and ISDN connections, all the audio and video is now sent back to the studio over the technological miracle that is the internet. It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.
Take that anxiety and multiply it by 1,000 when that Ethernet line is connected to a Comrex unit for the most important moment of your career. LaVicka had the great fortune of a Kansas State timeout to try something, anything, to save the day. In his quick thinking, he spun around and grabbed an ethernet cable from row two which, as it turns out, still had internet access flowing through it’s cables. That cable, though, was the equivalent of an iPhone charging cord; never as long as you need it to be.
One of LaVicka’s co-workers from ESPN West Palm held the Comrex unit close enough to the second row for the cable to make a connection and the day was saved. LaVicka was able to call the last :15 of the Florida Atlantic win and, presumably, get in all the necessary sponsorship mentions.
It was an exciting end to the FAU v. Kansas State game, a great defensive stop by the Owls to seal the victory. LaVicka told the NCAA’s Andy Katz he tried to channel his inner Jim Nantz to relay that excitement. The NCAA Tournament excitement started early this year. In the very first TV window 13 Seed Furman upset 4 Seed Virginia with a late three pointer by JP Pegues, who had been 0-for-15 from beyond the arc leading up to that shot. It is the type of play the NCAA Tournament is built upon.
It was called in the manner Kevin Harlan’s career was built upon. Harlan, alongside Stan Van Gundy and Dan Bonner, called the Virginia turnover leading to the made Furman basket with his trademark excitement before laying out for the crowd reaction. After a few seconds of crowd excitement he asked his analysts, and the world, “Did we just see what I think we saw? Wow!” Vintage Kevin Harlan.
One reason we are so aware of what Harlan said, and that he signaled his analysts to lay out for the crowd reaction, was a CBS Sports tweet with video of Harlan, Van Gundy and Bonner in a split screen over the play. It gave us a rare look at a pro in the middle of his craft. We got to see that Harlan reacts just like he sounds. The video has more than six million views and has been retweeted more than 6,000 times, a lot of people seem to like it.
Kevin Harlan is not in that group. Harlan appeared on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast after the video went public and said he was embarrassed by it. Harlan added he “begged” CBS not send the tweet out but to no avail. Harlan told Deitsch “I don’t know that I’m glad that they caught our expression, but I’m glad the game was on the air. I think I join a chorus of other announcers who do not like the camera.”
There’s a valuable announcer lesson from Harlan there; the audience is almost always there for the game, not you. Harlan went on to describe the broadcast booth to Deitsch as somewhat of a sacred place. He would prefer to let his words accompany the video of the action to tell the story. Kevin Harlan is as good as they come at his craft, if he thinks that way, there’s probably great value in that line of thought.
We can learn from LaVicka, as well. You work in this business long enough and you come to accept technical difficulties are as much a part of it as anything. They always seem to strike at the worst times, it is just in their nature. Those who can find a way to deal with them without everything melting down are those who can give their audience what they showed up for. Those who lose their mind and spend time complaining about them during the production simply give the audience information they don’t really care about.
The Final Four is an unlikely collection of teams; Miami, San Diego State, Connecticut and Florida Atlantic. You all had that in your brackets, right? Yep, the Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Final Four and Ken LaVicka will be there for it. Now, if the internet will just hold out.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.