Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"These are not dark days"

Photo courtesy of Tasos Katopodis  

     On Oct. 29, 1941, Winston Churchill returned to his alma mater, The Harrow School. To welcome him to their venerable institution, founded in 1572, the boys sang their school song, including an additional verse, written in his honor:

                           Nor less we praise in darker days
                                The leader of our nation,
                           and Churchill's name shall win acclaim 
                                 From each new generation.*

     The prime minister took exception to the phrase "darker days," even though, the past year, Britain had been facing the Nazi onslaught, alone. 
    "These are not dark days, these are great days," Churchill said. 
     I thought of Churchill when I saw this very Churchillian bulldog, Penelope, wh0 belongs to Tasos Katopodis, the fiance of Sun-Times photographer Jessica Koscielniak.  After a reporter, Jordan Owen, wondered why the Today Show has a puppy but the Sun-Times doesn't, Jessica tweeted this photo of Penelope standing guard on some circulation racks in our old 9th floor newsroom.
    I saw her tweet and it got me thinking. 
    That newsroom is gone, the staff squeezed into a smaller space on the 10th floor. Instead of a conference room, the morning news meeting is held in a corner, our staff, like beleaguered rebels plotting resistance in a cave, figuring out the next day's paper standing up, on the fly.
     Not the ideal circumstance.  But then, the ideal circumstance has seldom been an option at the Sun-Times. That would be the Tribune, and we see what they do with their vast resources; sometimes a lot, other times, not so much.
     Must be nice. We, we've always had to fight with one hand tied behind our backs. But fight we do, soldiering on, we making do with less (and less and less). Yet we fill our role, an important role, monitoring what's going on, sharing what we find out with the city, the world. We do our duty, sometimes by excelling, sometimes by merely existing to excel another day. 
    Friday night I was at a show, and caught sight of Hedy Weiss, our drama critic. Thirty years of theatrical experience, out on the town again to critique yet another performance. And Fran Spielman in City Hall. And Natasha Korecki, welcoming Bruce Rauner to Springfield with a Bronx cheer that managed to put both the new governor and his 10th home in their proper places. Tom McNamee, leading our lean, mean editorial board. Tim Novak, Chris Fucso, Dan Mihalopoulos whetting their axes, ready to take the next corrupt fat cat down. Richard Roeper, seizing the mantle of our fallen Roger Ebert — how many people would even dare to try that? Mark Brown, Mary Mitchel, Rick Telander. Carol Marin. Carol's kind of my canary in a coal mine. She's a class act, and excellent at what she does, and at a point where she doesn't need to work anywhere she doesn't feel comfortable. So if she's working here, we must be okay, we must have something going.
     I could go on, but you get the picture. It can be a hard place to work, but as I keep telling myself; we still have a lot. The forces of technological change batter us like wave after wave of German Junkers. The bombs drop, the explosions rock, the smoke clears, and those who are left standing blink at each other in wonder, dust ourselves off, root around in the rubble, and begin placing brick upon broken brick, same as always. 
     Or maybe this is just me, maybe I'm trying to put a bright shiny gloss on a bad situation. How can I not? The Sun-Times is where I live. The one place that, when I was just starting out, lifted a wing, gave a whistle and invited me to nestle in. The vestige of an economic system that once prized the sort of tangential stuff I do. My column doesn't break news. I don't cover sports. It's really half philosophical rumination, half cathexic obsession over the minuscule, half vaudeville.
     Yes, three halves...impossible. Fittingly impossible, since the whole thing's impossible, almost a miracle.  No one would ever create a newspaper today. Web sites come and go, announce their bold intentions, flicker for a year or three, then are gone. We live in a time that is a continual monsoon of words, a surfeit that gets worse and worse. Talk used to be cheap. Now it's free. Free is a hard business model to thrive upon.  We exist in a narrowing band between worth less and worthless.
     So thriving is out, for the moment. But we endure. I'm certain someday it'll all vanish and will then seem as if it had been a dream. But not yet. Not today. The Sun was launched Dec. 4, 1941, to be a liberal, pro-Democrat, pro-Roosevelt counterbalance to Col. McCormick's far right wing, isolationist, practically pro-Fascist Chicago Tribune. Pearl Harbor came three days later. Bad timing from the start, our business model immediately mooted. But we did not give up. 
     Which is what made me think of that Harrow School speech. An incredible bit of oratory. Churchill picking that dire moment to talk about imagination.
     "You cannot tell from appearances how things will go," Churchill began.   
Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are, yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist, certainly many more than will happen, but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. 
      I don't want to be an apologist for the paper; we do not always live up to our own expectations or our readers' expectations. I sure don't. Sometimes I read my own column the next morning and slap my forehead at what I should have said but didn't, or did say but shouldn't have. I am chastened but not devastated because tomorrow is always another day. No time to beat ourselves up because we have another chance to get it right. That's the glory of a newspaper. Always another day, even knowing that nothing lasts forever, no matter how much we might want it to. ("How many summers," the poet Mary Oliver asks, "does a little dog have?")
     The Sun merged with the Times, a feisty photo tabloid, and printed its first edition Feb. 2, 1948. So 67 summers, so far. And I have been there for 27 of them. I like to think it was not time wasted.  Good summers, with another looming over the horizon. I have no idea what this year brings, but I know what I'm trying to bring to it, every single day, the spirit that Churchill evoked to the boys at Harrow:
    This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
    But who is the enemy here? Technology? That can't be. Technology always wins. Technology is our friend. It gave us the printing press, we can't complain now that it is taking it away. The economy? The economy is always right. If people want to play Angry Birds and not read what's happening at City Hall, well, maybe Angry Birds is more important.     
     No. Never. Never never never. That can't be true. I refuse to believe that is true. Which would make, not people, but the indifference that can grip them the enemy. Fitting, because twas always so. Battling indifference is the essence of journalism. To take a subject that readers know nothing about and care even less, whether global warming or corruption or a puppetry festival, and try to get them to know some and care some. To say, "Hey, wait a minute. This is interesting. This is important. Pay attention to this." The new battle is just the old battle returned. I'm proud to be part of an enterprise dedicated to fighting that fight, for as long as it can, come what may. 
    And now we have a dog, our own Sun-Times puppy. A dog always helps.

     * Churchill material is from the excellent, "Never Give In! The Best of Winston Churchill's Speeches," Selected by His Grandson, Winston S. Churchill (Hyperion: 2003)


  1. I was thinking the same question?
    Are things that bad?

  2. Some great lines with a graceful pirouette at the end. I'm always envious, but if you say that you knocked this off between 11:15 and 12:05 last night, I'll just turn around 3 times and lie down to die.


  3. Of course not. I can't write very well at night (cue the catcalls). Yesterday morning, between 10 and 11.

    1. It has the feel of something you put a lot of thought and work into. Just looking up the Churchill quotes, assuming I knew where to look, would take me more than an hour.

      By the way, the thought just came to mind that the Sun and I were probably conceived about the same time, given the gestation period for a newspaper to be 3 months or so.

  4. Well, the fact is that people in general have *always* preferred to play Angry Birds (or Mario Bros., or Pong, or pinochle) over reading about City Hall. And it's perfectly understandable. Angry Birds is a lot more fun. But of course that doesn't make Angry Birds more important, and newspaper-style journalism isn't any less important now than in the past. But it also now must stand alone in the marketplace in a way it never had to in the past, when it was subsidized by the other stuff in the newspaper bundle. All those years we assumed that people were flocking to our City Hall stores, when we really had no way of knowing -- we were wrong. They never were.

    I've been examining this problem for 20 years, and my conclusion, reached in the past couple of years, is that the only hope for the kind of serious (and essential) journalism performed by regional and urban dailies is non-profit financing. The sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we can get cracking on setting up the infrastructures for it, and stop having to rely on soulless corporate mercenaries like Gatehouse Media and Lee Enterprises, and soulless, clueless owners like Michael Ferro.

  5. A touching column and I hope the ST goes on for a long time. I like the internet too but it's still not the same as the paper.

    Mrs. A

  6. Mr. Steinberg is being too kind to the Tribune - it's amazing how so much resources go into such a mediocre, lifeless read. Roger Ebert characterized the Sun-Times best - there's a spark there that somehow survives through the crazy changes of ownership and S-T writers who jumped to the Tribune became boring in short order.

    One thing that saddens me about the Sun-Times and newspapers in general is how many readers they may have lost due to crummy delivery service. In the suburbs it's fine (from all reports I've heard) but in the city it's pathetic: the paper is supposed to be delivered by 6:30 AM but often doesn't arrive until well after 7. Endless calls to customer service do no good (they always remind me I can read the paper online). Metropolis Coffee tells me they never get their papers (the papers share the same deliver service) on time. You'd think the newspaper industry is in enough trouble without such self-inflicted wounds.

    1. Well said about the dull Trib, anon. And so true about the delivery service (Will County) and long hold times if you call in a prob. And I don't like to read it online, but in hand.

      Mrs. A

    2. P.S. and the Trib doesn't rock the investigative boat.

    3. A-n-A,

      "Mr. Steinberg is being too kind to the Tribune..." Well, there's a first time for everything! ; )

      "a mediocre, lifeless read" I realize that this is a popular opinion, but I find it to be an overstated generalization.

    4. Jakash, don't be a jakash

  7. The first Churchill quote brought to mind something from Francis Bacon. "It was a high speech of Seneca that the good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished, but those which belong to adversity are to be admired."

    And about Mary Oliver's little dog, Tennyson famously noted that "after many a summer dies the swan."

    Also, bravo for ignoring the physically possible and capsuling your work into three halves. And for driving me to my dictionary to recall the sense of a bit of psychoanalytic jargon.

    Like your other readers, I too enjoy the Sun-Times and would regret it's passing.

    Tom Evans

    1. His quote about imagination also echoes Seneca, who warns against worry about woes that may or may not come. I imagine that, as a straw-hatted lad at Harrow, Churchill was fed lots of Seneca, and in Latin yet. Lucky man.

    2. Kudos to you and Mr. Evans for the intellectual stimulation.

    3. Mr. S, if you were in high school in Il, you could have gone to Fenwick in OP. Latin used to be required. And you didn't have to be Cath. to go there.

  8. I think one more historical change might be worth noting: When The Sun-Times' sister paper The Daily News (which my family subscribed to at the time) went out of print in the late 1970s, the Sun-Times inherited some staff (e.g. Royko), some of its spirit and many subscribers.

    I was eight at the time, so that's how I became a lifelong (so far) Sun-Times reader.

  9. A question no one seems able to answer...

    When the last newspaper is dead, where will the blogs, aggregators, etc. get their content?

  10. "We exist in a narrowing band between worth less and worthless." Wow. I don't even know what to say about that, but it's a helluva sentence.

  11. How is the dog at home that you mentioned in a column?

  12. Frontline had a great program Tues. eve, they will rerun on a different PBS station later-on how Trump got to the White HOuse. Crazy like a fox indeed. Last week they had good segments on how the right railroaded Pres. Obama.


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