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The [Wednesday] Papers

Is the Chicago Tribune better than it has ever been?

I don't think so either. In fact, it's not even close.

But that's the line editor Ann Marie Lipinski is peddling.

Lipinski made the improbable claim last week in a puff-ball interview with MarketWatch's Jon Friedman.

Here is what the paper has lost since Lipinski became editor in 2001:

* An editorial cartoonist of its own. The paper has never replaced three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Jeff MacNelly, who died six years ago.

* A Tempo columnist. Bob Greene stunk, and the paper was right to boot him, but he hasn't been replaced.

* The Inc. gossip column. Killed and not replaced.

* A political columnist. The paper never replaced Thomas Hardy, whose job was also once held by David Axelrod.

* David Greising's business column, which may have been the best newspaper business column in the country. Management killed it after studying a shaky batch of market research.

* Steve Rosenbloom's snarky sports column. Along the way, the paper "solved" its longstanding sports columnist problems by bringing in the bland and predictable Mike Downey. This is the sports section that once featured Bernie Lincicome and Bob Verdi.

* The Tempo section replaced retiring theater critic Richard Christiansen, who was an institution, with Michael Phillips three years ago. Phillips just moved to the movie beat replacing Michael Wilmington, who followed Dave Kehr and Gene Siskel. Better?

* Amy Dickinson was hired to replace Ann Landers.

* Tempo on the whole has regressed into a random collection of detritus.

* Ditto for the Metro section, which is as dull and directionless as I've ever seen it. In fact, is there a section of the Tribune today that can honestly be described as excellent?

* The Incredibly Shrinking Book Review is incredibly shrinking, and sucking wind. (And for better or worse, KidNews has shrunk from a weekly section of its own to a single back-page, and WomanNews is no longer its own section but a few pages stuffed inside Tempo.)

* The Sun-Times owns the Hired Truck scandal, just as it owned the licenses-for-bribes scandal and the Pat Huels scandal. The Tribune's Andy Martin, with Laurie Cohen, did terrific investigative work on Millennium Park and O'Hare airport. Now Martin is in the Washington, D.C., bureau covering the agriculture department, and no one has stepped up to replace him here.

* Pulitzers. I don't put much stock in awards, but the newsroom has only one Pulitzer under Lipinski's editorship, and that was for last year's painfully overwritten three-part series by Julia Keller on the tornado that struck downstate Utica. (Cornelia Grumman won a 2003 Pulitzer for editorial writing.)

What has the Tribune gained under Lipinski?

* Q.

*RedEye.

Amazingly, Lipinski told Friedman that "We think of ourselves as being a fairly innovative institution. It's in our DNA."

I'd like to see the market research on that. The Tribune is reputed to be a great many things, but "innovative" is not one of them. (This coming from an editor who once alienated her sports section by insisting only one column could be placed on the section front, down the left-hand side only, with no jumps, explaining that a column literally meant a column of type. Thankfully, that policy has since been rescinded.)

Lipinski's foolish boast about how great her paper is was not her only misstep in the Friedman interview.

Her response to the recent incident in which Cubs President Andy MacPhail called the paper's beat writer, Paul Sullivan, on the carpet?

"'Nobody called me about it,'Lipinski said."

But it happened! It doesn't take a phone call to the editor to make it true.

"[S]ome of the people in the Cubs hierarchy kind of think that we're just another subsidiary of theirs and we're supposed to kind of be like their house organ," Sullivan told The Score's Mike North.

If Lipinski has any concern about that, she hasn't shown it.

Sullivan also alleged that MacPhail's attacks were personal, and the Sun-Times said MacPhail lobbied to get Sullivan off the beat.

The real question for Lipinski is why she didn't call up MacPhail and read him the riot act.

Instead, Lipinski told Friedman that complaints like this were "par for the course."

What, complaints from MacPhail? Or complaints about the paper's coverage of the Cubs?

In either case, her cavalier attitude is distressing.

Lipinski also says she has no patience for "parochial" media-beat writers. "I don't edit the paper for you," she says of them. "Every one shouldn't look like The New York Times. Newspapers need to be more distinct, look different than one another and take more risks."

I'm not sure just which media writers she is referring to, but the Tribune newsroom is far more parochial - and their editors obssessed with The New York Times - than media writers who live outside the bubble and have perhaps a larger worldview.

"Lipinski particularly loathes the media critics who go "flying into Des Moines, Los Angeles and Miami, bringing their own perception of what a newspaper ought to be," Friedman writes.

Again, I can't imagine just who these critics are - from American Journalism Review? - but if they exist, what they do is no different than reporters on other beats flying into other cities to assess and report on newsworthy institutions and events. Just like reporters from Lipinski's own staff.

And it's just within the realm of possibility that local media critics may have something to offer as well.

Finally, Lipinski says of her ascendancy to the editorship, "I never did aspire to this." Newsroom veterans certainly don't believe that - and there wouldn't be anything wrong with it if she did. But few things are as disheartening as newspaper editors spinning like the particular kind of PR people and pols we try to separate ourselves from.

Madigan's Mess
I wonder what former Tribune CEO John Madigan is thinking these days. Madigan, who retired in 2003, engineered the acquisition of Times-Mirror that may yet go down as the deal that undid the company.

"Buying Times Mirror was predicated on synergies flowing from newly created TV-newspaper duopolies in markets such as Los Angeles and extracting extra juice from advertisers with its new national footprint," BusinessWeek said last week. "In 2001, then-CEO John Madigan told BusinessWeek he expected Tribune Media Net - a unit created to sell cross-platform and cross-property ad packages - to lure an incremental $200 million in national advertising in 2005. In 2004 the company netted an incremental $85 million from such sales - and has since stopped quantifying Tribune Media Net's performance, says a spokesman."

Suitors
Is Ernie Banks going to buy the Cubs?

Mark Cuban?

Oprah?

No.

Though Oprah has possiblities: After the Game sessions in the bleachers where fans and players can talk through their angst, and free books under everyone's seats.

The Cubs are not a core asset, but being forced to sell one of sports' dearest franchises would be an ego blow just short of losing the entire company for Trib execs.

Then again, I suppose it may come to that. But I don't think we're there yet.

Shareholder Revolution
On the other hand, it wouldn't be a total surprise if the company sold off its entire broadcast unit, except WGN. Which prompts one Beachwood reader to write:

"The notion that they will give up on the TV/Newspaper thing is interesting; sometimes the financial markets can deliver victories that media reformers can't."

The Dr. Phil Please Rescue Ann Coulter Campaign
This copy of an e-mail sent to the Dr. Phil show in response to my Ann Coulter item yesterday came in over the Tip Line. Feel free to use it yourself:

"I read in The Beachwood Reporter an idea that you should have Ann Coulter on the show to work through her myriad emotional problems, and I think that's a fantastic idea, both for the nation and for your television program. If she would agree, it would be a win-win-win proposition for Dr. Phil, for Ann, and for all of us who live in a nation polluted by her writings. Please consider it."

The Beachwood Tip Line: Better than it's ever been.



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Posted on June 14, 2006


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PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Public Lands Matter.


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