Thursday, September 1, 2016

Another milestone in the newspaper death march

It's in the middle, to the immediate left of the square dark brown building.
     How much do I hate the Tribune Tower? When I went to post this assignment, I realized, to my amazement and chagrin, that I have never taken a photograph of the building, not one, in all the years I've been wandering around, downtown, snapping. I can see the logic: "Eeeyew, yuck. Why take a picture of THAT?!" But that is overstating the case. To be honest, I never considered the possibility. But I did finally find it peeking out of this group shot.

      The Tribune Tower is a gothic horror show of a building, a retro throwback that bucked every trend in 20th century architecture when it was designed in the mid-1920s. While the Bauhaus was conjuring up streamlined structures in Germany, the Midwestern burgermeisters in Chicago held a widely ballyhooed architecture contest for the new headquarters of their self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Newspaper. Batting aside progressive blueprints from the likes of Walter Gropius and Adolf Loos, they chose a New York firm’s vision of what is in essence a 36-story medieval cathedral skyscraper, complete with flying buttresses, gargoyles and fleurs de lis. All it lacks is a crypt and a nave.
     Despite being all wrong, it was the perfect choice. The Tribune Tower somehow seemed to fit the newspaper within—mighty, unsubtle, backward-looking, with chunks of ancient buildings seized around the world by the newspaper’s far-flung foreign correspondents brought home as prisoners, in tribute to American exceptionalism.
     Walk into Tribune Tower, and along with the bromides to freedom and the supremacy of the press was an enormous map of North America, as if the rest of the world didn’t matter, which it largely didn’t. With WGN—“World’s Greatest Newspaper” don’t you forget—adding first radio, then television to the mix, the Tribune Tower was meant to exude permanence, power, authority, control, with a bomb shelter in the basement, just in case.
     As the building fit the fat, Republican avatar of the status quo for decades, so its sale, announced Tuesday, to a Los Angeles developer for $240 million, also seems apt for the current journalistic moment: Gut shot by the Internet a decade ago, tumbling for years in free fall and retreat, finally hitting the hard bottom with a splat, shaking itself back to life like a cartoon character, and crawling off to some obscure place a lot less public than the corner of Michigan and Wacker Drive, if not to die, then to morph into whatever decimated, enervated, shadow of its former self that daily journalism is well on the way to becoming. The amazing thing is it lasted this long.

     Tribune Media CEO Peter Liguori, a former entertainment exec for Fox, explained the move with characteristic lack of sentiment: "Monetizing the significant assets of Tribune Media's real estate portfolio is a strategic priority for the company," he was quoted saying in the Tribune press release, "and we are extremely pleased with the outcome of this sales process."
     I bet they are. Grandeur is not a significant asset anymore, at least not in the communications biz. As long as three bulleted headlines squirt into your phone on command, you don't care where they come from. Downtown Chicago, downtown Mumbai, it's all the same. Heck, half the country doesn't even care if they're true.
     No gloating here. No working journalist can take pleasure in this sale. "The end of an era," television reporters will say, unaware of the threadbareness of the cliche.
     A better metaphor would be a milestone on the newspaper Death March. We are having our fingers pried off the tangible world, the world of buildings and offices and desks and paychecks. All cooking in the same pot. The Sun-Times sold its less iconic, but equally hideous building to developers a dozen years ago, and Trump Tower went up on the spot where we once stood. Future home of the Midwestern White House, perhaps.
     Newspapering has moved to the margins of our cultural conversation, and whether the Tribune is produced in a tall thin version of Reims Cathedral, or out of the giant windowless box of the Freedom Center printing plant on West Chicago Avenue, or in Naperville, or not at all, hardly seems to matter much at this point.


  1. Brings to mind the saying "The higher up you climb, the harder you fall". A sad day for the newspaper business, but the building itself was never appealing or welcoming to me. It seemed to aspire to be a fortress of impenetrable power, but I never stepped one foot into it; I envisioned bats flying out of it at night.


  2. It wasn't just the Internet that gut-shot the Tribune. It was that greedy little troll Sam Zell.

    As for the building, it may have been over the top, but at least it had some character. One of the very few things I agree with Tom Wolfe about is disdain for Bauhaus boxes.

    Bitter Scribe

  3. It's neighbor across the street, the Wrigly Building, has a wedding cake aspect that can seem out of place in a modern cityscape, but it's irregular proportions and crossways siting give it some interest. But Tribune Tower, a simple column topped by a brutal misapproriaton of some historical archetectual glories, seems to be two different buildings, an unattractive combination of severe and fussy. "The world's most beautiful building," the Colonel's favorite descriptive, it definitely ain't.

    Tom Evans


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