Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Eric Zorn takes the buyout

Eric Zorn at L. Woods.

     Impossible to say how many times Eric Zorn wrote the column I was too scared to write.
     Or didn't think to write. Or meant to write then forgot. Or got distracted by some trivial bullshit and wrote about that instead, while Eric concentrated on the Big Important Thing I was missing. Or kicked open the same door I had been gazing at, uncertainly.
     He did it again a week ago Sunday, in a lovely tribute to his parents, at first. He began with his mother knowing the words to the summer camp standard "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt" better than she knows him—thank you dementia!—slipping in this wonderfully sly description of of the tune as a "nonsense ditty about the four-named apparent victim of identity theft"—if the cleverness flew past you, remember the "that's my name too!" part.
     Identity theft.
     Head-bowed respect at that one.
     After lovingly and accurately addressing this heart-breaking malady that I can't even allude to in my own column because my mom would be mad at me, using facts and perspective, he pivots the column to his family, an update on his wife and kids. A sense of dread rushed in, so strong that it became hard for me to keep reading. Because I knew what was coming. It was like how an object gets heavier and heavier as it nears the speed of light. Or watching a horror movie you've seen before. This is the part where he goes down the dim hall. There's the door. You know what's in the closet. I literally stopped reading the column, fled over to my blog to write this now, to put it off what I knew was coming, what has to come. A columnist doesn't bring his family onstage for a round of applause unless this is goodbye, and since I don't want it to be, I'm sticking my head in the sand here for a while. A sort of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. If you don't open the box, the cat is alive.
     Of course I knew him first through his writing. I remember covering some suburban trial, and then reading his piece and thinking, ruefully: "Eric Zorn was in the same room with me, and I didn't know it!"
     We eventually met, more than 25 years ago. My second book, "Complete & Utter Failure" had just been published by Doubleday, so this would be in the mid-1990s.  He liked the book and wanted to meet its author. We had lunch outdoors on Broadway, I believe. I remember thinking, "He's very tall," the sort of in-depth intellectual observation that has fueled my writing ever since.
     At first I was frequently combative. Insecure people are often combative. I nicknamed him "The Professor," for his deliberate consideration and tendency to draw in experts. I don't like to do that, because it involves both more work and someone talking who isn't me.  That did not keep me from starting my third book with a vignette about Rob Sherman I lifted, uncredited, from an Eric Zorn column. 
     Our lives sometimes seemed to parallel each other. When Kent was born, I had the Tempo section with the column about the birth of Eric's twins, folded up in my back pocket as we rushed to the hospital. Reading material.
     We kept in touch. Some years I got the sense that, for Eric, that was like pulling up a lawn chair next to a car wreck and gazing, finger ruminatively tapping on his lips. I remember sitting with him at Harry Caray's, sucking at my lunchtime Jack-on-the-rocks, nodding at a waiter. "Why yes, I will have another." That could not have been fun for him.
     We became better friends after Jeff Zaslow died. Maybe now I was a friend short and needed another. Maybe it was that 600 mile round trip we took together in a day, driving to his funeral and back. We stopped at Eric's parents' house in Ann Arbor and I met them, the people he wrote about. A very long day, but we talked and got through it.
     I could still keep up a tone of joshing competition. In 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I used Eric as a ventriloquist's dummy to mock terrorists. I'm not sure what he or anybody else felt; I found it deliciously funny. But we were more allies than competitors now. We'd meet at lunch at L. Woods, between our two homes, compare notes, bitch and brag. He and his wife Johanna and Edie and I even went out for burgers at Hackney's once, the kind of convivial normality that usually eludes me.
     Last summer, during the pandemic, the only house I went over for lunch was his. And he came over to mine. We sat there, talking, because really, how many newspaper columnists are there? How many white-guy-in-their-60s newspaper columnists, who can discuss the sudden frenzied undergraduate drama that has infected our profession? In April, Eric wrote a thoughtful column on slain 13-year-old Adam Toledo and was roasted alive on Twitter. "You might as well have shot him yourself," I said, as a crowd of growling ivory tower academics and wet-from-the-womb radicals skipped around him as if he were a maypole, jeering. Credit the ingenuity of humans: it takes a kind of genius to turn tolerance into just another form of cruelty, and racial sensitivity as a pretext to dismiss and trivialize opinions that don't precisely mirror your own.
     We can talk later about Zorn jutting out his chin and accepting responsibility for John Kass, by taking time off for his kids. "Then-City Hall reporter John Kass pinch hit in my column space while I was gone." OMFG. That's like me tossing off in the middle of a post about 1980, "That was the year I reached around Mark Chapman outside the Dakota and shot John Lennon, thrust the gun into his hands and disappeared into the crowd."
     I can forgive Eric Zorn leaving the door unlocked so John Kass could sneak into professional column writing, rendering Tribune punditry into a nauseating mess, like some drunk intruder crapping on the sofa. Because really, the sort of people who value a Kass ... well, I suppose their coin is good too, and a newspaper is a universe, or should be, or used to be, and if running astrology charts, "Love is..." and a gerbil-on-a-wheel of mouth-breathing right wing fuckery keeps readers happy, well, so be it. 
     I guess I can't put it off forever. And I suppose I could be mistaken. No, actually, I can't be. I've been writing a column for a while myself, and know how this shit works. Calling your family up one by one for an update, by name, like the end of "The Sound of Music," means something. Let's go see what it means.
     A cliffhanger. Eric gets to the point where he brings up "the crazy times here at work' and just stops.
      "No space left for that particular topic today!" he writes. "But stay tuned."
     My God, that's like the rocket in the last episode of "The Prisoner." I initially thought it was a very Steinberg move, to divide your farewell into two parts. But I flatter myself. What a sharp piece of writing.
     I started to tweet it. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck..." I began, then, feeling a rare pang of decorum, changed into, "Damn damn damn damn," about 10 times, then castigated Alden Capital. See, this is what they're tossing away. Stripping away the heart and liver of the Chicago Tribune, a civic institution since 1847, its frequent revanchist politics be damned. Hoping that the violated near-corpse blunders blindly forward for a few years while they make their money.
     I don't blame Eric. I wouldn't have done any different. The moment the buy-outs were offered, I was on the phone to him. I wasn't even certain why — the way you automatically reach out to someone whose house burned down. I couldn't give him my house but I felt like giving him something. Advice? My go-to advice is always "Keep the day job." That year snaps by so fast and then you're a person who used to work at a major newspaper.
     But the inevitability of the Alden Capital vivisection changed the calculus. Jumping through a window is bad, but if somebody is coming up the stairs to shoot you, then by all means, jump through the window and run away, bloody but alive. The choice was take the big trough of cash now, eight weeks' pay plus a week for every year, and leave, or stay and be fired in a month with far fewer muffins in your basket when you're turned loose into the dark forest.
     I wrote this, tweeted my distress at his leaving, and then sat back to watch the furor rise. And a shocking thing happened. Nothing. Crickets. Readers didn't even perceive that the column was his clearing his throat to say goodbye. "Half resignation letter, half suicide note," I explained to a colleague. My wife didn't see it either. Nobody seemed to, at least nobody I could see on social media. For the first time in my life I felt like calling up Robert Feder, the media critic, and rattling his cage. Are you on vacation? Didn't you read that? Well, make some noise, because apparently nothing is real until you say it occurred.
    That was enough to raise doubt. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was working out some deal with whatever human beings might be associated with Alden. Maybe someone there actually cares what kind of newspaper they publish.
     With that thought in mind, I couldn't inject myself into the dynamic and who knows, somehow fuck things up. Maybe negotiations are going on. So I put this on the shelf and waited, checking in on it every few days, like looking in on rising dough. That's why it's so long. Kept adding bits. 
     I waited for Wednesday's column which was ... about Bitcoin. Maybe the Alden folks won't let him go. Realize the Trib needs some intelligence and decency to balance the acid malice and juvenile irresponsibility of John Kass.  
     When everyone else figures it out, or he makes his formal announcement, then I'll pull the trigger. Which is why you're reading this today and not 10 days ago. It wouldn't matter anyway. The thing Eric and I do, comment intelligently in a well-written fashion, isn't what's driving the conversation anymore, not the way wild extremism does. Fanatics glitter in the spotlight while moderation creeps off to die alone in the shadows.
     How does it feel? Like a brontosaurus, under a darkening sky, up to its knees in a bog, slowly chewing a big mouthful of decaying vegetation, gazing uncomprehendingly at the heaving ribs of a stegosaurus that has toppled over on its side and is breathing hard, eyes staring, fixed. 
     Something like that.
     Ah, I see Eric has formally announced it. Robert Feder of course has the news. Time to pull the trigger. 
     I'm not sure how much of this protracted reaction is due to the obvious harbinger of my own professional mortality. Somewhere between a bit
 and a lot. Then again, Eric getting someplace first and doing it well usually meant that I had no need to go there at all. So maybe I've got a few years left before it's my turn, and the big thumb of doom squashes me down too. When Mary Mitchell retired, the paper held her a bash at a swank West Loop club, with a live band and an open bar and the mayor and special custom-made cookies and moist-eyed tributes. The place was mobbed. Clearly, I thought, Mary must be the greased hub upon which the city spins.
     "You're setting the bar pretty high for when I retire," I shouted over the crowd noise to the then-editor-in-chief.
     "You're never retiring," Chris Fusco said, and I peeled away, wondering if that was a complaint, a compliment, a plea, an augury, or some combination of the four.


  1. Thanks, Neil! Let’s lunch again soon and for years to come.

    1. Absolutely! I read this over and thought, "Christ, it's not like he's DEAD or something."

    2. Hey EZ move to social media. Blog or podcast you are still loved.
      Best wishes.

  2. That was the nicest, most heartfelt near eulogy I've read in a long time. You know when you said, "Like a brontosaurus, under a darkening sky, up to its knees in a bog, slowly chewing a big mouthful of decaying vegetation, gazing uncomprehendingly at the heaving ribs of a stegosaurus that has toppled over on its side and is breathing hard, eyes staring, fixed."? That was great.

  3. Goddamn, this was a gut punch.

    I became acquainted with Eric when he reached out to me because he liked some of the columns I had written for a suburban newspaper chain. I was so pleased and flattered by the attention. When the chain folded, he showed up at our offices and asked for me, quoting me in his column on the closing.

    A great guy and one of my two favorite local newspaper columnists. (I don't have to say who the other is.)

    So of course those Alden douchebags want to get rid of him. He's expensive, after all, and all he does is generate content, which is just words, which they can get somewhere else cheaper. I wonder (without much concern) if they're going to force Kass out as well.

  4. I just cancelled my Chicago Tribune subscription.

    1. Wait and see. Support those who stay. They will be working harder, with fewer friends to commiserate with.

    2. Those who stay? Like Kass? No thank you VERY much.

      (Yes, I know. Heidi Stevens. Mary Schmich. A couple others I'm not thinking of. But ffs, KASS. Boils my blood just reading his ignorant HEADLINES.)

  5. A beautiful tribute. Thank you for every word.

  6. Beautiful tribute to a living legend

  7. Neil - I don't read you often, but you've penned quite a fitting tribute to EZ. WEll done.

  8. I knew, too, and went through the same emotional/mental gymnastics. When the buyout deadline was extended, I thought perhaps there was hope. I love my papers, and I think it is an intellectual abdication not to read them. Whether I agree with columnists or not, I respect the discipline and the work ethic that puts them at a keyboard Every Goddamn Day. My sister has early dementia and after teaching for 35 years, she cancelled hers. I scolded her that she was giving up. For the money expended, there is a world of companionship, wisdom, information and community in the pages of a daily paper. The vultures at Alden and elsewhere have ruined newspapers that have been a constant in informed lives. I am heartsick at the loss. I will miss Eric, Heidi, Steve and God knows who else. To be my age at this moment in journalism's crossroads is harrowing and sad.

  9. You wrote what I couldn't. Again. Thank you. Eric deserves the praise you gave him here. He will be missed.

  10. As I read EZ's column about his family, it certainly set off alarm bells that he must be on his way out -- "stay tuned" was not definitive, but certainly not encouraging. But I was hoping for the best. Then I read your "damn" tweet, Neil, and thought "oh, he must know something that's not on the page." Seeing here that you had simply deduced what was not on the page is interesting, though I guess not surprising, given your perceptiveness.

    This is a fine and fitting tribute. Personally, while I enjoyed the "Professor" jabs back in the day, I liked it better when the two of you seemed to have become buddies. Like Bitter Scribe, you've long been my two favorite columnists, so it certainly made sense to me.

    So often, when there's something fucked up about the world and one ponders "why does it have to be like this?", it becomes readily apparent that the reason is "money." Watching in real time as Alden destroys the Tribune in order for rich assholes to further feather their nests is just the latest example of such fuckery, alas. Though crippling an important institution like the Trib in this off-the-rails media environment is chilling, indeed.

  11. 👏👏👏 (Energetic and sincere, not slow and sarcastic)

  12. One of your best Neil.
    Great tribute.
    Great analysis of the state of journalism.
    The brontosaurus description will be applied appropriately, many times in the future.

  13. Sad. One of the few reasons to read the Trib is leaving. Great almost obit.

  14. I guess the asteroid is coming for the dinosaurs.

    Hold on as long as you can, Neil. I still need to read as much intelligent writing as I can.

  15. If the Trib forces Zorn out but keeps Kass, they will have well and truly sunk beneath contempt.

    1. Of course they keep Kass. He is what they are all about.

    2. Ummm...

      By now I assume that we have all digested our Sunday Tribunes this morning, and I have to say that I am surprised not at how Alden is gutting the Tribune, but at how quickly and thoroughly they're doing it. I stopped reading after the third columnist sign-off in today's paper.

      I don't understand how this idiocy benefits their investors. It's like sinking the cruise ship and then trying to sell trips to Bermuda.

    3. Kass is gone. Look at Sunday’s paper.

  16. Great column. Eric did get to do what he loves and was very good at and gets to go out on top. That's something to celebrate. What a great tribute.

  17. Wow. Thank you for so eloquently letting us in on your stream of consciousness thoughts. Your praise of Eric was intimate and oozed humanity from every direction. And, as is your style, a modest(?) dollop of self-deprication fit perfectly. You have both provided so much over the years to us loyal devotees. We thank you.

  18. Excellent!!! So damn sad, tho!!!!! Look forward to reading both of you all the time! Sucks!!!

  19. It's good to see your blood boiling again, Neil. I too will deeply miss Eric.

  20. Well said, and you speak for many.

  21. Thanks for writing about EZ. His columns were intelligent and sensible. So sad to see the Tribune go the way of so many newspapers, thinner and, well, not very smart.


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