The horror came in the early morning.
There were only a few of us in the Tribune Tower’s editorial offices that September morning when one reporter began to scream, a little after 8 am, “Where’s a TV? We need a TV.” And so a television set was found in an editor’s office and we gathered there and… well, you know.
The paper’s headline the next day, Sept. 12, 2001, was: “Our Nation Saw Evil.”
Not all of you, of course, remember that day vividly, since an entire generation has reached adulthood with no firsthand memory of the day the terror came. But all of us know what happened on 9/11, when the world was altered forever.
[Follow along with all of our 175th anniversary coverage]
Through it all, the Tribune too would change. It would change corporate form, undergo a series of owners, buy other newspaper properties and sell the Cubs; see reductions of its staff and changes in the ways it came to readers. But as it had every day during its long history, it would give you the news — news of the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, social upheaval, the ceaseless attacks from terrorists, foreign and domestic, and all the other local , national and international news that has peppered the first decades of the 21st century.
Arguably the biggest change for the Tribune was the way in which you received the news. People began to abandon their traditional way of getting the Tribune as ink on paper and started consuming their news (and all the other things the newspaper offered) via the internet, on computers and phones. The newspaper business across the planet would struggle through these years, having been caught off guard by the power of the internet. Many papers were slow to adapt and made mistakes (we had our share) and many papers would shrink and vanish.
But we carried on, and here are some numerical examples of how things began to transform during the first decade of this century.
The terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001, brought 2 million readers to the paper’s website. And on Aug. 29, 2005, news of Hurricane Katrina ravaging New Orleans brought 3.1 million to the site; Feb. 14, 2008’s campus shootings at Northern Illinois University (5.6 million); the presidential election on Nov. 4, 2008, (8.2 million) and Nov. 5, 2008′s news of Barack Obama as president-elect (15.3 million).
By late 2009, chicagotribune.com was typically getting more than 100 million page views a month from 10 million unique readers. The number of those receiving the paper the old-fashioned way steadily decreased, following a national trend, with surviving papers striving to make up for vanished print readers with digital subscriptions and online advertising. Now, the vast majority of readers access our stories on their phones.
This metamorphosis into a news source on multiple platforms has allowed the Tribune to reach more people than at any time in its history.
Some of those — some of us — who were there on that terrible 9/11 morning are still here. Others would department. Many did so happily, retiring to the pleasures of writing books or tearing up golf courses. But the first decades of this century witnessed a large number of people who left as victims of the financial belt-tightening that bedeviled the newspaper business. A ruthless economy and changing tastes have no sentiment, no regard for history.
Those who remained have also moved. We departed the Tribune Tower in June 2018 so that its new owners could redevelop the building into condominiums. When moving day arrived, the paper’s then-Editor Bruce Dold said to an assembled staff, “Let’s toast to this newsroom, to the tower, and to the future of the Chicago Tribune, the future of journalism.”
That, I think, was the gist of it: There was a future, and it started immediately under a new roof in Prudential Plaza. After less than three years in those snazzy offices we were on the move again in early 2021 as a pandemic raged, into office space carved from the Freedom Center printing and distribution facility. We will soon be leaving there, the building and adjoining riverside property soon to be home to a casino complex.
But a newsroom is more than four walls, and the best reporting has always been done on the streets, something more important than ever as the Tribune endeavors to diversify its report. Most people I work with have taken this nomadic existence, this continued rebirth, in stride and for me, I hear Bob Dylan: “He’s not busy being born is busy dying.”
We have all been busy because the world has been spinning: Through the financial crisis of 2008, mass shootings from Newtown, Connecticut, to Uvalde, Texas, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the cultural reckoning of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements , worsening climate change in the Great Lakes and beyond, the ongoing tragedy of gun violence in Chicago and the repeated armchair commentary (“Worse than Afghanistan,” Donald Trump likes to say).
No matter how you were reading, the paper delivered joyful details of the White Sox winning the World Series in 2005 and, even more exuberantly, the Cubs ending the team’s 108-year drought by capturing the crown in 2016, on a night “more nerve -wracking than a presidential election,” as longtime sports writer Paul Sullivan wrote. The Tribune’s headline the next day was simple but joyful: “At last!”
As always, the big games in town were in the political arena, dominated by that local fellow Barack Obama. In 2008, for the first time in its history, the paper’s editorial board endorsed a Democrat for president. Before Obama made his White House bid official, the editorial board urged him to do so, saying in December 2006, “He and the nation have little to lose and much to gain from his candidacy.”
With Obama and his family in the White House, local and national news often melded, becoming part of the scandal that landed Gov. Rod Blagojevich and congressman and former US Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert in prison. (Who could forget that “golden” quote of Blago’s?)
Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff moved into the mayor’s office in City Hall and gave us years of news and a bungled response to the police shooting of a Black teenagerP Laquan McDonald, laying the groundwork for a new civil rights movement. And now, Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first Black female and first openly older gay, is in the midst of trying to keep that fifth floor office.
There was, as ever, tragedy and there was, earth shatteringly, the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, just as the first of the pandemic stay-at-home orders began to ease in those early summer days of 2020.
Of course, the biggest story of our time is still being written, and the Tribune’s journalists continue to bring you news of all the ways the COVID-19 pandemic is transforming our lives, from the workplace to the classroom to all the spaces in between. While the city’s health care facilities never got so overwhelmed they needed to use the makeshift hospital at McCormick Place, more than 33,000 Illinoisans have died from the virus, as new variants continue to ebb and flow.
The so-called Great Resignation and massive shift to remote work that accompanied the pandemic have also called into question the continued vitality of Chicago’s downtown, including for the city’s signature office tower, as Ron Grossman notes in today’s Vintage Chicago Tribune.
Over the past decades, the paper covered what was happening at the paper, from its 2008 bankruptcy under then-Chairman Sam Zell to its reemergence as a public company and the tenure of tech entrepreneur Michael Ferro. On May 24, 2021, Alden Global Capital completed a $633 million purchase of Tribune Publishing and took the newspaper chain private.
And that’s where we are today, with the challenges to newspapers (and the world) coming fast and furious. But for all the new technology and new media, the paper’s continued survival and prosperity is intimately linked with the fate of the city it has so long called home.
When I finish this story I’ll start writing another, which will have nothing to do with the 175th anniversary of the paper, but will be a small part of that ongoing history. Maybe one of the talented young reporters I work with might be called upon to write stories about the 200th anniversary of this newspaper. I hope I’ll still be around and, if so, I’ll be reading.