Why the Sun-Times Deserves to Die

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This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

(UPDATE 9/23/09: This story continues in today’s post: “The Day Michael Miner Killed Commentary“.)

The Chicago Sun-Times deserves to die. Here’s why.

As has been widely reported, two weeks ago an investment group led by Mesirow Financial  CEO Jim Tyree made an offer to save the ailing Sun-Times, which entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March. In return for a mere $5 million purchase price, the investment group, STMG Holdings LLC, would receive control of all Sun Times Media Group assets including Chicago’s #2 newspaper, 58 suburban papers, and all associated websites–as well as $20 million in debt.

The potential sale was conditional on the tabloid’s union, the Chicago Newspaper Guild, accepting as permanent a 15 percent pay cut imposed at the time of the bankruptcy filing, as well as eliminating seniority rules and reducing severance packages. (Download a memo detailing the concessions the Sun-Times asked the union to agree to here in PDF format via the Chicago Reader.)

Last week, the union voted 83-22 to reject the permanent pay cut and other conditions, but Tyree and company say the conditions are not open to negotiation. Instead, the investment group is demanding “complete flexibility” to move ahead with a bottom-to-top restructuring of Sun Times Media Group.

In Thursday’s Reader, Michael Miner analyzed the state of the tabloid and had some surprising things to say–beginning with the admission that he reads the print versions of both of Chicago’s leading newspapers every day. (That immediately undercut his contemporary credibility for me, but I digress.)

More importantly, Miner suggested the Sun-Times heed the advice of Columbia Journalism Review managing editor Brent Cunningham to “embrace the new social media but assert itself as the leader of this ‘cultural conversation,'” writing:

“…(Cunningham) proposes this: ‘The nation needs someone to help initiate and lead the discussion of what kind of place America will be in the twenty-first century.’ It’s a lofty idea flattering journalism’s self-regard, but not necessarily wrong for doing so. ‘Such a mission,’ Cunningham goes on, ‘would mean radically realigning a newspaper’s resources and priorities toward the goal of broadening the discourse on important issues –even if it required narrowing the scope of what it covers…'”

The gist of Cunningham’s argument is that newspapers no longer have the resources to cover every breaking story, so they might as well report on fewer stories which they can then analyze in sharper focus. An interesting idea, but Miner goes farther in his telling of it. Taking broad bear-claw swipes at Sun-Times columnists (whom he calls out by name), he asserts that the paper’s salvation could be hastened by refocusing columinsts away from opinion pieces–that by Miner’s unwritten yet seeming assumption don’t matter much in the grand scheme of news media–in favor of news analysis.

I’ve said it before (and again, and again) and I’ll say it one more time: journalistic hubris is the single greatest contemporary threat to the future of journalism. By Miner’s measure, print journalism is somehow still worthy of “flattering self-regard”, even though its modern-day inability to attract regular readers in print is what put the newspaper industry on its deathbed in the first place.

Journalism lost its right to set the cultural agenda the moment web technology placed the multimedia means of disseminating news in the hands of any human with an Internet connection. Suggesting journalism should or in any way even could place itself in charge of setting the agenda in an arena of crowd-sourced social mores like the blogosphere or the Twitterverse is, on the face of it, ludicrous.

So is Miner’s idea of expendable commentary. He may still be reading his news stories the 1999 way, but the overwhelming majority of us here in 2009 get our news electronically. And when we’re done reading it, we spend the rest of our time reading our favorite bloggers and commentators. In fact, sometimes we read our favorite bloggers first…just like we used to do with our favorite columnists when our Clinton-era printed papers used to hit our doorsteps.

Cunningham is right in suggesting journalists refocus on analysis, but Miner’s dead wrong in believing the daily work of columnists is dispensable enough to “refocus” them. Fact is, news has never sold newspapers. News you can get anywhere. News analysis is another story. And last time I checked, unless it’s an all-knowing deity doing the writing, news analysis is nothing more than opinion. People tend to love opinion and gravitate towards those with a knack for sharing it. That’s why they have favorite newspaper columnists and bloggers–who, if anyone hasn’t figured out by now, are the native columnists of the Internet.

Opinion is also one of the reasons people read Miner. His Chicago Reader blog, News Bites, which has become the unofficial public forum for venting frustration about Jim Tyree’s unilaterally imposed conditions of sale, is not without a healthy dose of Miner’s own views on things. Yet Thursday’s article makes it seem like he’s calling for the death of commentary in order to prop up news analysis that is nothing but another form of commentary. Without commentary–Miner’s or anyone else’s–the media world would be a much more boring, much less monetizable place. Kill your opinion bearers (as Miner suggests in his article’s cheeky title) and you kill your cash cows, plain and simple.

Miner ends his column (*cough*) opining that “the press needs a better survival strategy than trying to glom onto a bigger slice of that banality” that he and Cunningham see as making up much of modern mainstream media. Translation: journalism has nothing to learn from opinion-mongering commentators and bloggers.

Do you know what I find banal? One journalist–like Miner–after another digging in their heels and bitching that the world changed and didn’t take journalism along with it, then denigrating the potential of any informational model that doesn’t sound like it fell out of a 1960s J-school textbook and blaming everyone else for their industry’s predicament. How many times does the world-at-large need to shoulder the blame for journalism’s failings before rank-and-file journalists actually turn a curious investigative eye into the willfully unexamined assumptions that undergird their field?

Civil society, social order, and humanity’s ability to tell right from wrong do not rise and fall with the tides of journalism. Morals do not cease to exist, ethics do not fail to apply, and Earth’s revolution around the sun does not fail to happen in a world where a small group of trained technicians is no longer trusted to diagnose the significance of everyday events. Yet a steady stream of journalists continue to write articles warning that life as we know it will come to an end if journalism isn’t allowed to remain in charge of telling you, Dear Reader, what you should consider important. How overly pompous and utterly boring can one field get?

What’s to blame for this deep-seated fear of change on the part of so many reporters? Is it really high-minded worry over the future of American civilization? Or merely self-interested fear of being handed a pink slip come next payday?

Either reason is annoying. To say society will fail without mid-century journalism around to safeguard it is the equivalent of calling Americans idiots and the Internet pernicious. Most people I know have a pretty sure grasp of right and wrong, and the last time I checked the Internet was doing a pretty good job of policing itself and promoting socially aware causes.

Personally, though, I think the above well-worn argument is just a red herring for rank-and-file reporters afraid of being out of work, potentially over the long term given mainstream media’s highly web-flavored metamorphosis. Considering how many other people have lost their jobs in the past couple of years in this country, pardon me if I’m less than sympathetic.

Which gets me back to the Sun-Times deserving to die. Well, doesn’t it? Its reporters union just voted overwhelmingly to dig its heels in and bitch at the world around it. Not content that at least they still have jobs, the Chicago Newspaper Guild has voted that it wants things back to the way they used to be, starting with their paychecks.

In this economy, how ungrateful can you get? Is journalistic hubris so blind that journalists are willing to be out of work en masse if the people trying to help them don’t accede to their demands? Does the union actually think it has bargaining power? Or really, any leg to stand on at all?

Let me give local journalists some perspective. The end of the world isn’t nigh for traditional journalism. It has already arrived. The giant asteroid has already hit and the city-sized crater is still glowing from the impact. The offers of advice, assistance, and aid you’ve been receiving have been coming from inside the survivors camp. Things are going pretty well in here. We have power, food, and the means to a new future, and we’d love to let you in. But if you keep telling us that we’ll have to do things your way if we open the doors, we may just let you rot out there. After all, it was your decision not to heed the emergency sirens and stay out there while the world was falling apart around you.

If Sun-Times unionized employees are so out of touch with reality–as their vote last week would suggest–that they prefer to remain outside the survivors camp, then they deserve whatever happens next.

The A.P. Stylebook offers no advice on where to send flowers when a newspaper dies.

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