Fraught House | Bleader

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fraught House

Posted By on 04.12.11 at 08:30 AM

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The Tribune tried a different way of writing a story the other day. It's a way that has its advantages, but it's fraught with danger. And because those advantages actually rub a lot of reporters the wrong way, it can create a working environment fraught with sullen discontent.

Or to quote from an e-mail that originated inside Tribune Tower: "Note the Sunday business front story where the CEO of Goose Island gets his own story apparently.... Apparently, [editor] Gerry Kern wants more stuff like this in the paper.... But staffers are concerned that voices like these will a) be merely advertisements for corporate America b) should be Op-Eds or whatever and not on a news page and c) will lead to replacing reporters if the fucking business executives can just say what they want."

Last month Anheuser-Busch bought Chicago's Goose Island brewery for $38.8 million. On Sunday, April 3, John Hall, the founder and CEO of the craft brewery, defended himself in the Tribune against the charge of selling out. "Anheuser-Busch didn't buy us to change us," said Hall. "It bought us because we can do things its people can't."

The departure for the Tribune was the way in which Hall got to tell his story. The orthodox approach would have been for a business reporter, preferably one familiar with the brewery industry, to interview Hall about the sale and then place what he said in some sort of context. An alternative would have been a Q and A that let readers read the questions and read the answers.

Instead, business editor Mike Lev asked media writer Phil Rosenthal to interview Hall and then compose a story entirely in Hall's words. The byline said "John Hall, CEO, Goose Island Beer Co." The tag at the end of the story said "— As told to Phil Rosenthal."

"I put it into a narrative," says Rosenthal, who spent half an hour or less with Hall on the phone. "We're all looking at different ways of doing stuff." He prepared the piece and sent it to Hall, who marked it up a little and sent it back, and that's what went into the paper.

The dangers? Well, it's always a little dodgy to be reading something and not know exactly what it is. It was billed as Hall's story, but it was shaped by Rosenthal's questions. Then again, those would have been questions intended to elicit a story Hall wanted to tell, rather than to tease out any information Hall might not want teased. And if Rosenthal bore in hard, confronting Hall with holes in his narrative and demanding he come clean — well, that would have been totally outside the terms of the project, wouldn't it? A project, incidentally, proposed by the Tribune.

And what if Hall said something Rosenthal didn't think was true? Should he confront Hall with it? A reporter is trained to do just that, but it's outside the scope of a stenographer. Should Rosenthal bite his tongue and leave it out of the story? Maybe. But what if Hall wanted it in? Maybe it was the linchpin of Hall's entire argument for selling Goose Island, and Rosenthal could see that even if he was wrong he believed what he was saying with all his heart. A reporter in that situation normally writes that this is what my subject says and believes — but then continues, however, we need to consider the following facts to the contrary.

And most reporters are assigned a story because it's on their beat and they know the territory, and therefore when something is said that isn't true they spot it. Rosenthal was asked to interview Hall because he's a media business columnist and Goose Island isn't on his beat. When a reporter isn't expected to be skeptical, a high degree of innocence is useful. "If this was something I actually covered, there's no way I would do it," Rosenthal says. If in the course of their one-off conversation, Hall had said things that couldn't stand up to scrutiny, "that's for someone who covers him to say," Rosenthal tells me.

But this kind of story has its benefits too, and I'm not counting the febrile allegation that it makes it easier for publishers to fire more reporters. There are times when the best thing a reporter can do with a story is get out of the way and let it tell itself. Sometimes a reporter's voice is simply intrusive. And because Hall's story was told to Rosenthal, we know it was not composed in Hall's name by a PR agency, or by the Anheuser-Busch marketing department in Saint Louis.

"I think there is room, probably, for as-told-to stuff," says Rosenthal. "I'm not sure this was one of them. I came away with some thoughts about how and why it should be done and when it shouldn't. I don't think I want to do it on things where you're right on top of an issue. It's better on something more general. On work experience, my best job interview, on all kinds of recollections and anecdotes. Then it would be fine. There's a time and a place for everything. I'm not sure this was the one.

"[But] I was here to be an honest broker. My feeling was that if we want this guy to say whatever he's going to say, we should do it in a way where we know he's actually saying it."

It's a close call. A few days later, as Rosenthal pointed out, the NFL's lead labor negotiator had his say in the Tribune on the collapse of negotiations with the players. That's a subject that stirs our juices in a way the sale of a small hometown brewery doesn't begin to. And Jeff Pash, the author, was argumentative, while Hall had simply offered an explanation. Yet Pash's piece ran on the op-ed page, where we expect untrammeled argument, and it was OK there.

But the business section is a news section. If the only Goose Island piece it ran that Sunday had been one signed by the CEO, that would have looked bad, Rosenthal acknowledges. But it wasn't. It shared space with a longer piece on the booming craft beer industry.

"A lot of things are in the air right now," Rosenthal says. "My own take is that this is the kind of storytelling we're interested in."

On Tuesday morning, the Tribune provided a sort of last word on its as-told-to excursion. The paper might have given John Hall his unmediated say, but that doesn't make them BFF. Hall's son and brewmaster Greg Hall pissed into some beer glasses and the Tribune was right back at traditional reporting.

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