Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Can this handsome plaque be redeemed for food stamps?

Posted By on 04.15.09 at 02:54 PM

The word at the Tribune was that if you wanted to be nominated for a Lisagor Award this year you'd have to nominate yourself. Business writer Susan Chandler had done work she was proud of, so in January that's what she did. With her submission she sent along a check for $30, the fee to enter if you're a member of the Chicago Headline Club. The Headline Club replied that she wasn't a member any longer and owed another $20. In the past, the Tribune had kept up the memberships of its employees. But in the past the Tribune Company wasn't bankrupt.

In February Chandler was laid off. In March the Headline Club announced that she was a finalist for a Lisagor in the category of "best business or consumer reporting." A ticket to the April 24 dinner costs $80 -- if you're not a Headline Club member -- so Chandler doesn't think she'll go.

Don Terry is another member of the class of 20 editorial employees that the Tribune sent packing on February 13. And like Chandler, Terry is a Lisagor finalist. His category is best feature story, and his entry is a story he wrote last year for the Tribune Magazine -- which is now on such thin ice at the Tribune that some weeks, like last week, it doesn't appear.

When we were talking, Chandler raised an interesting question only time can answer: This is journalism's awards season, when work done in 2008 is honored. How many winners will in the meantime have been laid off from the newspapers they did the work for?

This Monday, the Pulitzer Prizes are announced. Editor & Publisher's Joe Strupp likes to handicap the field. In this year's survey, the only Tribune staffer Strupp mentioned among the front-runners was Paul Salopek, for his coverage of the American war against terrorism in the Horn of Africa. A few weeks ago the Tribune dismantled its foreign service and Salopek left the paper. 

And consider the position of Ann Marie Lipinski. She remains on the Pulitzer Prize Board, which she joined in 2003. But last July Lipinski, a vestige of the old regime, resigned as editor of the Tribune. So this year she's on the board with the incongruous title of vice president for civic engagement at the University of Chicago.

Wednesday Journal Inc. is a media company vastly smaller than the Tribune Company. It's not in bankruptcy, come to think of it, but it has plenty of its own problems, and last month it downsized. Ben Myers, editor of Skyline, found himself out of a job. Myers is a finalist for two Lisagors, and he was willing to pay for a Lisagor dinner ticket out of his own pocket though he didn't want to. But Dan Haley, publisher of the Wednesday Journal papers, called him and said the company would cover the cost. That's a gesture Susan Chandler says the Tribune has not made to her.

The Lisagor dinner is Friday, April 24. The current Tribune pay period ends that day, and the company, which has told its staff to expect a force reduction of 20 percent, or close to 90 employees, this month, has a history of executing its layoffs at the end of pay periods. The bookkeeping is tidier that way. If form holds, cashiered employees would get the news on Thursday and be told to come back in Friday to clean out their drawers. How many shopping bags and boxes might we see stuffed under the Tribune table as the grimmest Lisagor dinner in anyone's memory proceeds?

On this blog several days ago a presumably well-meaning agitator declared that the Tribune staff, its putative owners, should rise up, assert their authority, and tell editor Gerould Kern where to get off. "A mass, nonviolent uprising could work," argued "at.tribune." "I mean, what's Kern going to do if the owner/staff tells him to get lost? Hang around and run the risk that there's no Tribune the next day?" 

No one seems to think such an uprising is remotely possible. Not only do the putative owners have no legal say in the product, but they are too traumatized to act. From various sources I'm told this:

"People are so scared shitless they will not do anything to piss anyone off. . . . They literally drag themselves in here. The paranoia and anxiety is pretty thick, pretty thick. . . . Everyone's very distracted, very demoralized, and a lot of people have checked out mentally. . . . The creditors own the Tribune right now. We don’t own the Tribune. We never did own the Tribune."

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