Street Smart Chicago

Partners and Companions: Life Spent in the Care of “Hill Street Blues”

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hill street-orig castBy Martin Northway

Pink Floyd’s “Money” was haunting the airwaves, Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks” was making the soon-to-divorce lonelier still, and Barbra Streisand’s “Woman in Love” and John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” only intensified our despair.

These remain my “divorce songs.” Hearing them instantly summons memories of the winter of my discontent, separated from my wife and two children. I am propelled back into the offices I shared with a business colleague, clandestinely bivouacked until early mornings when I broke camp like a Scout, erasing evidence of my nighttime residency accompanied by my radio sound track.

I finally rented a flat, and friends began stepping up, extending me tender mercies. One such was Lynne. We had worked together at the newspaper in our small but bustling county seat deep in Southern Indiana hill country. On the TV she had seen trailers for a promising new cop drama. She knew of my ties to Chicago during college and my early working years, and though “Hill Street Blues” was supposedly set in a generic northern city, its production links to the Windy City were not cleverly hidden. Read the rest of this entry »

Wizards in Exile: A College Radio Station Locks its Creators Out

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FM radio listeners know what to expect: plenty of pop, assorted classic rock and oldies, hip-hop and R&B, along with a few talk shows here and there. More obscure genres like punk and gospel might have their own stations, but in general FM is a rare place for the marginal, the alternative, or the eclectic—which is exactly why Chicago’s 88.3 FM station WZRD “The Wizard” stands out.

For more than thirty-eight years, WZRD broadcast a diverse array of music, news and opinion, giving airplay to emerging punk bands (as well as chant, blues, international and more) and provocative thinkers like Noam Chomsky. Founded as a student club at Northeastern Illinois University, WZRD proved a mainstay in the world of FM radio.

That is, until June 29. Read the rest of this entry »

Thought Police: Anti-Social Media

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By Hildy Johnson

Legendary journalist Mike Wallace, who spent a formative decade in broadcasting in Chicago before moving on to a career at CBS in New York, died Sunday at ninety-three. Long before he became known as the dad of that Fox News guy, Chris Wallace, original “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace pioneered, along with producer Don Hewitt, a tradition of hard-hitting television journalism on their show that connected back to Edward Murrow and forward through Watergate, only to die somewhere along the time that Geraldo Rivera hit the scene. Most memorable was their devising of the televised ambush interview, wherein they would stake out, with cameras running, a subject who’d refused to respond to their request for an interview through traditional means, catching them at home or at work. As often as not, the refusal to answer their questions would be more damning than if they’d just sat for the interview. In a 2005 conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross (rebroadcast this week), Wallace said they eventually retired the technique when it became more about the theater than about getting to the truth. That might be the case, but in a world where seats of power and wealth have successfully built thicker walls between them and an increasingly timid press, this is a particularly effective tool in leveling the playing field in the public’s favor. At least Michael Moore keeps the ambush in his toolkit.

Speaking of ambush, I bet former Chicago bartender Jessica Elizabeth Harr is wondering what just rocked her life. Consider the scenario. Read the rest of this entry »

Thought Police: Lost Voice

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By Hildy Johnson

Like just about everyone of a certain age who got into the alternative newspaper racket, I found my inspiration from the Village Voice. I’d moved to New York in my early twenties for a Wall Street training program and, though then far to the right of its political sensibilities, found VV’s untidy collection of powerful voices irresistible. Its writers not only took on the powerful (“New York’s Worst Landlords”) but also each other, in its letters column, which often made for the liveliest reading in the paper. After its founding by Norman Mailer and a couple of his pals, it went through a series of owners, including Clay Felker and Leonard Stern; even Rupert Murdoch, who counted among them, could not tame this unruly publication.

As billionaires seem to have a knack to do, Stern sold the paper, along with several others he collected around the country, at the peak of the market in early 2000 to an investor group. With the media economy soon in free fall, things did not go well for the new buyer, and before long, New Times, a Phoenix, Arizona-based group of alt weeklies led by Jim Larkin and Mike Lacey, had merged the two companies, forming the national powerhouse the two rival chains had long coveted. Read the rest of this entry »

Thought Police: Olden Daze

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By Hildy Johnson

With the nation awash in the lingering effects of war and recession, it’s boomtime for nostalgia in the cultural world. “The Artist” and “Hugo,” two films that romance the very earliest days of cinema, won big at this year’s Academy Awards on Sunday. And here in Chicago, recent publication launches give credence to the notion that there’s no time like the past to seek the future of print media. Couple that with the concurrent demise of the Chicago News Cooperative, an attempt to develop a new model for creating journalism, and we’ll soon be firing up those old linotype machines.

The two new undertakings—the rebirth of The Chicagoan magazine, from the creator of the now-defunct Stop Smiling magazine, and Printers Row, a new literary weekly from the Chicago Tribune—fall under the influence of Dave Eggers, a onetime local who turned bestselling riches from his novel, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” into a mini-empire of publishing enterprises known for creating outstanding literary works that often combine clever ideas with a highbrow smirk and a lush, retro design. Read the rest of this entry »

13 Ways of Looking at Occupy Chicago: The Aesthetics of the Movement

City Life, Essays & Commentary, Loop, Media, Politics 3 Comments »

Photo: Erica Weitzel

By Monica Westin

1. “Grant Park: three years later” was the initial vision for this article—a snapshot of the stark difference in Chicago’s political and emotional temperature between the downtown celebration of Barack Obama’s election night in 2008 and the Grant Park arrests in mid-October of this year. But this comparison doesn’t begin to get at what’s interesting about Occupy. Because of what I will call its “aesthetics” as well as its size (at last count, more than seventy American cities have an Occupy protest, not counting the strength and scope of related protests abroad), the protest, or movement, depending on how you look at it, is very much that—an amorphous, sprawling political form that looks different from every angle and every subject position, like Wallace Stevens’ blackbird. That American mainstream media is unable to cover Occupy in any kind of coherent, proficient way is well-documented, but even as a single observer it was nearly impossible for me to take any kind of clearly articulated position about Occupy Chicago without immediately realizing I could make a strong case for an opposite view of the phenomenon (and usually I had heard someone do so in an interview). Read the rest of this entry »

Government 2.0: How Mayor Emanuel is Using Social Media to Engage Chicagoans

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Kevin Hauswirth/Photo: Brooke Collins

By Ella Christoph

Even before he took office, Mayor Rahm Emanuel knew he wanted a social media director—a position Richard M. Daley did not have. Appointed on Emanuel’s inaugural day, Kevin Hauswirth was not hired to earn votes for Emanuel during the election. Hauswirth, formerly an instructor of communications and advertising director for Roosevelt University, was tasked with the job of supplying Emanuel with a constant digital pulse—a live feed, so to speak—on the city. Rather than just tweet updates and YouTube press conferences, Emanuel wanted to hear what voters had to say over the Internet as well.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Leaning Tower: Can journalism survive the newspaper’s tribulations?

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Illustration: Jeremy Sorese

By Brian Hieggelke

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
—Flannery O’Connor quote chiseled into Tribune Tower inner wall, as quoted, twice, in “The Deal From Hell”

What would it mean if history lost its first rough draft?

The inevitable doom of the great American newspaper seemed imminent just a couple years ago, as company after company tumbled into bankruptcy, or worse, turned out their lights for good, many with legacies longer than a hundred years. Even the mighty New York Times was teetering, grasping at a quickie loan from a wealthy Mexican billionaire, and finding itself the source of speculation that its lifespan was measured in months, rather than years.

Here in Chicago, the bloodbath was a flood, with the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Reader and, most astonishingly, the Chicago Tribune all filing for bankruptcy within a six-month period straddling the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009. With the entire economy teetering on the brink of depression, it was a surreal time.

An interesting confluence of events this month brings the recent past and uncertain future of journalism back into the spotlight, with the release of the acclaimed documentary film, “Page One: Inside the New York Times” and, most notably in these parts, the release of James O’Shea’s “The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers.” As if on cue, the Chicago Tribune graciously launched a major redesign on June 15, undoing many of the most egregious affronts to its audience perpetrated under the regime of its notorious former CEO Randy Michaels. Michaels himself even jumped back into the news hole last week, resurrecting what seemed to be an already decomposing career with a buyout of local radio stalwarts The Loop and Q101. Read the rest of this entry »

Reinventing Journalism: Inside the Chicago News Cooperative

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James O'Shea/Photo: Jose More

By Brian Hieggelke

James O’Shea’s new book, “The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers,” chronicles his career at the Tribune Company, where he rose to managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and, finally, editor of the Los Angeles Times. We spoke at length about his book and, in a section too long for print but published here, about his latest endeavor, the Chicago News Cooperative.

Let’s talk about the Chicago News Cooperative. It will be two years old this fall.
You know, this in a way is sort of an R&D experiment. How can you finance quality journalism? Some people pay $2 for the New York Times on weekdays and $6 on Sunday, they aren’t the problem. It’s how are you going to cover City Hall and how are you going to pay for it because nobody’s going to say to you ‘I’m going to buy an ad on an exposé on Mayor Emanuel.’ They want nothing to do with that. We did find out people will pay for information. We did that ‘Early and Often’ political site for the election cycle. You paid 175 bucks for online reports delivered to you via email that you didn’t get if you weren’t a member. We got advertising revenue, we got maybe 300 or 400 people to pay for it—which wasn’t as high as I wanted, but when I tell people that number they say ‘well that’s pretty good.’ We’re now building an education site. We’re going to start trying to get some advertising revenue, but we’re still a nonprofit 501c3 heavily dependent on donations. If you cannot figure it out within a three-to-five year period, some way of sustaining yourself or taking fairly steep leaps toward self-sustainability, foundations and nonprofit is not the answer. You’ve got to get to the point where you’re going to have multiple streams of revenue, but foundations are not going to underwrite you for five years to produce news. They’re just not going to do it. Read the rest of this entry »

Press Relief: A quick scan of the new Tribune

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By Hildy Johnson

More later, perhaps, but quick notes on the new Tribune, broadsheet edition:

It sure did feel heftier, as promised, but that sixty-two-page property-tax-sales insert added much of the weight to the ninety pages of news sections. Coincidental timing or?

The redesign is handsome and telegraphs “serious newspaper” instead of “almost like television, but…” or “almost like the Web, but…” or “almost like the RedEye but…”. The black-and-white skyline in the nameplate, a faux engraving, evokes the publication’s longevity while hinting that it, too, is a landmark like the skyscrapers. The typeface change, from Nimrod (an unfortunate name given the paper’s recent leadership) to Mercury Text is subtle but seems ever-so-slightly friendlier to the eyes of an aging population.

The absence of an ad on page one? Thank you. This page is your ad, for your product, Mr. Tribune.

The serious tenor and design of page one is partially offset by the colorful image of steak sauces above the nameplate, which reassure readers that, “Yes, we’re  more serious now, but there’s still fun content within, where it belongs.” This is probably the most carefully considered page one in years, if not decades: Investigative story to show how serious we are, check. Consumerist Metra study to remind suburbanites that we really really love them best, check. A story about moms and another about the declining life expectancy of women to appeal to the challenging female newspaper reader, check. Read the rest of this entry »