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Ill. Gov. Scandal Proves Newspapers Still Relevant, at Least for a Few Days

We write a lot in this space about the Big Three Detroit automakers, about how they were once an American monopoly and how they've struggled with newer, sometimes-better, competitors in an attempt to hold onto market share.

There are plenty of U.S. industries like that, and newspapers are one of them. Much like the auto industry, newspapers were a monopoly for much of the 20th century. You had to be moron to run a newspaper and not make scads of money, to paraphrase Warren Buffett, who still owns the Buffalo News and is the lead director of The Washington Post.

But for the past two decades, newspapers have been losing readers, ad revenue and attention to new competitors, ranging from the Internet to cable television to iPods to -- most humblingly -- not getting news at all.

No one pretends that if newspapers went out of business it would have the same impact of the Big Three going down -- a loss of up to 3 million jobs, maybe -- but newspapers are part of the fabric of this nation, and have an important role in a democracy.

So it's a rare and gratifying gift to some of us these days, and especially in this economy, when the relevance of newspapers -- and read that as "news organizations," meaning Web sites and TV -- prove to still be relevant.

That gift came today in the sudden and shocking takedown of Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich and his alleged dealings with the Chicago Tribune.

Remember, the paper's parent company, Tribune Co., filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, saddled with too much debt.

Since real estate billionaire Sam Zell engineered an employee-owned transition to private status in December last year, Tribune's eight major daily papers and 23 TV stations have experienced hundreds of layoffs, as the company has tried to cut costs. The remaining journalists have feared a loss in the quality of their file, the most important of which is public accountability reporting -- holding elected officials to task for their actions.

Yet, in the middle of this year of chaos, there was the Chicago Tribune performing its own exhaustive investigation of the Illinois governor, as the FBI was doing the same thing.

So effective were the Trib's reporters and editors, the FBI asked the Trib to hold off from publishing a story or two for fear they would wreck the agency's investigation of the governor. The Trib agreed to hold some stories, but not others.

So on one side, you've got the federal government fearing the relevance of a newspaper.

Then, on the other side, according to the FBI's criminal complaint, you've got the governor's office complaining to the Tribune ownership -- that's Zell -- about Tribune editorials critical of the governor.

The complaint alleges that the governor's office asked Trib ownership for a quid pro quo as the struggling newspaper company attempted to sell its Chicago Cubs: If you fire a certain editorial page staffer, we'll give you the state financing you want for the Cubs.

Quoting the criminal complaint: "On November 6, the day of a Tribune editorial critical of Blagojevich, [gubernatorial chief of staff John] Harris told Blagojevich that he told Tribune Financial Advisor the previous day that things 'look like they could move ahead fine but, you know, there is a risk that all of this is going to get derailed by your own editorial page.' ”

Imagine how badly folks in the newspaper industry would feel had the FBI wiretapped Harris telling the governor: "Don't worry about the Trib's editorial page, boss. It's irrelevant. No one reads it."

We note that none of this likely will help Tribune through its bankruptcy. And The Ticker does not indulge in schadenfreude.

But for just one day in the midst of an industry decline, it's nice to feel relevant again.

-- Frank Ahrens
The Ticker is Twittering!

By Frank Ahrens  |  December 9, 2008; 3:53 PM ET
Categories:  The Ticker  | Tags: Blagojevich, Newspapers, Sam Zell, journalism  
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This guy was so corrupt that apparently a blind and deaf person could have done an investigation of him. After all, it's Illinois, right? The same corrupt political environment that gave us the affirmative action phony.

Posted by: LarryG62 | December 9, 2008 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Sadly, the Trib has fired, and continues to fire, newsroom staff, including some of their best investigative reporters. The paper now looks no better than USA Today as they try for a "peppy" layout and shorter stories. It's a sad comedown from the days when their national and international reporting was respected.

Posted by: jpantsios | December 9, 2008 5:17 PM | Report abuse

There is nothing unusual about news personnel willing to cooperate with law enforcement or government for the obvious public good. My older colleagues who reported during World War II would honor embargoes for obvious military advantages to our side. FDR himself told Edward R. Murrow personally the details of the attack on Pearl Harbor during a conversation at the White House that infamous Sunday evening. Even though FDR made no restrictions, Murrow did not publicly report the full details until after the war ended. I myself as a police and criminal justice reporter 50 years ago would honor investigators' requests to withold certain facts until later for the good of the case; with the consent of my editor, of course. The public often forgets that the Unites States is our country too. My suggestion to keep newspapers relevant: Follow the lead of the movie industry in the 1950s. Instead of competing with TV, they joined them. Newspapers could find an equal advertising revenue and publish a cutting edge product if they both went online and found a niche (for example, commuters) for the their paper print product. Some good newspapers, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, have done just that.

Posted by: TESimonton | December 9, 2008 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, the business model for news dissemination is broken. Nobody can compete with Craigslist for class ad revenue and display ad has more productive avenues for eyes with better demographics. Something must arise to pay people for breaking news stories. Some efforts require professionals. Meanwhile, citizen/newjunkies are making a more democratic effort in the news business.

Posted by: edbyronadams | December 9, 2008 6:44 PM | Report abuse

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