Saturday, April 30, 2005

Double trouble in Chicago

Lightning struck twice last week at the Chicago Tribune, which unbelievably and implausibly printed the pictures of two perfectly innocent men who were identified mistakenly as indicted mafia killers.

This wouldn't have happened if a guy like Art Petacque were on the job. But Art died in 2001 and the likes of him don't work at newspapers any more. I'll tell you more about Artie in a moment. But first, here's the tale of the Trib's embarassing double exposure:

Covering the culmination of the biggest mob investigation in years, the Trib on Monday mistook the file picture of a nice businessman named Frank Calabrese for a mobster of the same name. On Wednesday, the paper ran a page-one photo of a gent on a bicycle who was identified erroneously as the fugitive Joey "The Clown" Lombardo. The paper forthrightly confessed its errors, but the damage has been done.

While many of my disheartened friends and former colleagues at the newspaper undoubtedly are wondering how this could have happened, I would submit that the answers are straightforward.

1. The vast newsroom has been computerized, bureaucratized, stratified and balkanized to the extent that dozens of editors, writers, photographers, graphic artists, copy editors, news editors and others are isolated in carpeted, sound-absorbent silos where they fulfill the narrowly defined, tightly constrained, largely abstract tasks required to expedite the production of the next day's issue. Accordingly, interpersonal collaboration is kept to a minimum and no one sees the big picture.

2. Because the cubicle-bound newsroom professionals are physically, intellectually and psychologically far removed from the sights, sounds and smells of a story, they have no genuine feel for the things they are "covering." To put it bluntly, there's not a whole lot of street smarts left in the place.

The first problem can be fixed. But I don't know what they're going to do about the second.

The Tribune, like so many other metro papers, is so big, has so many moving parts and is so hierarchical that no one is in charge. The place just oozes along.

The bureaucratic breakdown was painfully evident last fall when the Trib went to press with a story on the front of the feature section about what the author said was the growing acceptance in polite company of the vulgar word beginning with the letter C that colloquially refers to a woman's private parts.

Notwithstanding the layers of editors at Tribune Tower, thousands of copies of the story were printed before the newspaper's top editor heard about it. To her credit, Ann Marie Lipinski hauled a platoon of underlings to the mailroom, where they spent the balance of the day feverishly yanking the offending sections out of the paper before it could be distributed to readers.

That incident was manifest evidence, evidently ignored, that the Tribune needed to improve communications in the newsroom. The double-whammy this week not only underscores the unresolved problem but also exposes a greater concern:

The Tribune's staff really doesn't know the city. How can a newspaper survive if it is a stranger in its own town?

Which brings us back to the late Art Petacque of the Chicago Sun-Times, who won the Pulitzer Prize with colleague Hugh Hough in 1974. Profane, decidedly unpolished and often downright annoying, Artie wouldn't fit well in today's quietly humming, corporate newsrooms. He came up in the days when hopeful, working-class copyboys auditioned for positions as reporters by chasing down pictures of freshly murdered coeds.

Failure was not an option. Plan A was to knock on the front door and ask the bereaved family for a recent photo of the victim. If the request was rejected, Plan B went as follows: The reporter would set a fire on the porch, knock on the door to alert the residents and then jump into a bedroom window during the ensuing mayhem to grab all the available pictures.

Those methods, of course, are ghastly and inexcusable. But the old ways, repugnant as they are to modern sensibilities, did produce aggressive, resourceful, street-smart reporters who knew the cops, the crooks, the judges, the politicians and everyone in between.

If Artie had been around when Joey the Clown was indicted, he would have barged up to the news desk and told the editors which photo to use and what headline to write. If he didn't like the available pictures, he would have demanded a better one from the cops -- and gotten it, excloo, presumably without setting anyone's porch on fire.

The guys in Art's generation did things and made bargains we wouldn't countenance today. He ran a pest-control business on the side and sometimes exterminated roaches in the home of an up-and-coming police captain to cultivate a degree of reciprocal professional courtesy. He soft-peddled items for certain favored contacts in hopes of getting juicier stories in the future. That worked rather spectacularly when the chief judge of the traffic court called to say he was about to be indicted for corruption. When Artie asked why the judge leaked the story on himself, the jurist said didn't want a good scoop to go to waste.

As Art and the rest of the guys of his generation retired, they were replaced by well-educated, mostly middle-class professionals. For the most part, we weren't inclined to go to the places and do the things that gave Art the hunger, the grit, the contacts and the gut that made him the go-to guy when the cops clammed up on a big story.

When investigators were exhuming bodies from the crawl space under the home of killer John Wayne Gacy, Art reported a higher number of victims than had been observed by the reporter on the scene. Challenged by the the night editor, Art said he would check his sources and call back. "My number is right," Art soon reported triumphantly. "The (expletive deleted) coroner was holding back a few bodies for the later editions."

The lack of moxie and absence of well-placed sources was painfully obvious earlier this year as the once-crackerjack newsrooms of Chicago tried to cover the murder of two members of a federal judge's family. The coverage in both the Tribune and Sun-Times was rote, bland and, as it turns out, mostly wrong. Is anyone worried about that?

For the considerable good gained in graduating modern journalism to respectability, we have lost the common touch that once connected newspapers viscerally with their readers. Sadly, it looks like they lost a lot of common sense, too.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm compelled to write you this because 1. It's in your lead and 2. You oughta know better :)

"Lightening" ought to be "Lightning."

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah, and also: awesome post. I loved that article. And the post said so many right things. I'm gonna try and get all my young media-biz friends to read this.

5:38 PM  
Blogger fletch_n_gristle said...

I worked for Art Petacque in the summer or 1998 - that brought a big smile to my face.

7:19 AM  

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