As top editor of the Chicago Tribune for eight tumultuous years, Gerry Kern led the city's premier legacy news organization through a protracted bankruptcy, a major downsizing of staff and a solid commitment to local news, investigative reporting and digital advancement.
Now, five years after he retired, Kern, 71, is watching from the sidelines as 40 more journalists — including many of the paper's marquee stars — exit with buyout packages from the company's new hedge fund owners. In the words of current Tribune editor Colin McMahon, it represents "a tremendous loss of talent, passion and grit."
Much of what Kern championed during his tenure, especially in the area of opinion leadership on the editorial page and among op-ed columns, has been imperiled by the latest staff reductions.
“My heart goes out to my former colleagues in the Chicago Tribune newsroom," Kern told me Tuesday. "I understand full well the trials they are experiencing, and I completely understand why many have chosen new directions for their careers. I wish them every good fortune."
Kern, who joined the Tribune in 1991 after 15 years at the Daily Herald, moved up to editor in 2008 at the dawn of the Sam Zell era. To his credit, Kern shielded his newsroom from the worst of the Tribune Tower circus upstairs. Then he managed to get out just as the Michael Ferro nightmare was unfolding.
To his beleaguered former comrades, Kern offers words of encouragement and hope.
"The Chicago Tribune grew up with Chicago, telling its story and holding its leaders and institutions accountable every step of the way. I have no doubt that the journalists remaining at the Tribune will continue this tradition of public service. I am cheering for their success," Kern said.
"Journalism in major metropolitan areas will remain under enormous pressure until the industry can develop new revenue models sufficient to support it. Simple to say, hard to do. Those models may be non-profit or for-profit or both.
"Over the past 15 years, the newspaper industry’s advertising revenue has declined by more than two-thirds, much of it migrating to digital giants such as Google and Facebook. That goes a long way to explaining the speed of the dissolution of American newsrooms at the metropolitan level, tearing a huge hole in democracy’s safety net formed by journalism. This must be repaired to preserve a healthy, functional society," he said.
"A lot of innovative work and experimentation is taking place around the industry — the new 'green shoots' of journalism — but it will take a long time to fill the present gap. In the meantime, I hope people of good will who care about their communities and the nation as a whole will continue to subscribe to newspapers, almost certainly in digital form primarily, to help keep these enterprises alive.”
In other Tribune buyout news:
Susanna Homan, editor-in-chief and publisher of Chicago magazine, who confirmed last week she was taking a buyout, announced her new role Tuesday: She’s joining the nonprofit no-kill shelter PAWS Chicago as CEO. “I adopted my dog Gus from there in 2013, so this is a heart-centered move for me,” Homan said. “Everyone who knows me knows how much I admire its incredible founders, Paula and Alexis Fasseas. And as the years have gone by, I’ve been so impressed with the work they’ve done far beyond their beloved pet adoption center. Since PAWS Chicago’s founding 24 years ago, nearly 300,000 low- or no-cost spay/neuter surgeries have been performed with the goal of turning Chicago into a No Kill city, which has helped reduce the pet euthanasia rate in Chicago by 91 percent.” Homan, a Chicago native and former social columnist for the Sun-Times, launched Michigan Avenue and Splash magazines before she was named editor-in-chief and publisher of Chicago magazine in 2016.
Steve Johnson, an exceptionally gifted writer and discerning critic, added his name to the Tribune's buyout exodus Tuesday. Born in Chicago and raised in Derry, New Hampshire, Johnson joined the Tribune as an intern straight out of Brown University in 1986 and held multiple positions, including distinguished runs as media columnist, TV critic and arts and culture writer. "It's all added up to hundreds of thousands of words, most of them coherent, many of them not embarrassing to re-read," Johnson tweeted. "It’s also added up to a professional writing career I did not expect would last this long in one place. It changed enough to keep it challenging, and the work always felt like it mattered. I am sad to be setting it all aside as I leave the Tribune in Friday’s departure wave, but circumstances, well-documented by now, conspired against said career making it to 45 years, or even 40. I’ll be dictating my memoirs into a Dixie cup connected to a string and, significantly, seeking other work. (Call me.)"
Not everyone who's taking a buyout will vanish from the pages of the Tribune altogether. The bylines of some departing staff columnists — including Heidi Stevens and Steve Chapman — may continue through deals with newspaper syndication companies. "I've so enjoyed the work of Heidi Stevens, from her first Balancing Act column to this splendid goodbye," Tribune editor Colin McMahon tweeted Tuesday. "Crushed to see Heidi go. But thrilled that she will still write for Tribune Content Agency," referring to Tribune Publishing's syndication company. Chapman's column on national and international affairs is distributed by Creators Syndicate.
Alden Global Capital is coming under scrutiny for saddling Tribune Publishing with hundreds of millions in debt after promising it would fully finance its acquisition of the company with cash on hand. A report by NiemanLab Tuesday said the New York-based hedge fund not only misrepresented its cash position but failed to disclose a secret investor meeting, possibly running afoul of federal securities laws. (Here is the link.) So far the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has not taken action.
Tuesday’s comment of the day: Janet Joliat Dahl: These people have poured their lifeblood into those pages. It is their passion. They HAVE to take the separation, because they will all be furloughed with NO payout. When a hedge fund tells you that they appraise your value strictly as the economic burden to THEM and not in appreciation of your work, you get the message. The loss is of an institution that has been a source of information, investigation and civic support for generations. The voices that are featured are not simply there to echo ONE viewpoint, they are there to challenge us to expand our minds. Differing views expand our understanding. Who EVER cheers for the end of a vital free press? It is what keeps society accountable. People who WATCH their news, or grab it in tweets and social media are only grasping the epidermal layer of what is happening in the world. We need journalism to continue the tradition of examining the world from 360 degrees. I am hoping that the newer generation of Tribune employees will continue to dig, speak truth to power, and become people whose observations we enjoy.