For 95 years, 435 North Michigan Ave. has cast its imperious, 34-story shadow over the canyons of downtown Chicago. Designed by Raymond Hood and inspired by the Rouen Cathedral, the neo-Gothic skyscraper soars 463 feet into the clouds and wears a crown from the Middle Ages: pinnacles, grotesques, flying buttresses. It is one of those buildings that Chicagoans mention when boasting of the architecture of their city. But in those conversations, 435 North Michigan is rarely the name of the place. For locals—for everyone, actually—the skyscraper goes by its given name: the Tribune Tower.
That’s Tribune as in the Chicago Tribune, in case you needed to ask, but nobody really does. The Windy City’s leading daily newspaper installed its editorial offices high in the tower, and it’s also given its name to the TV and radio stations at street level. The call letters WGN stand for the moniker that Tribune editor and publisher Robert R. McCormick applied to his beloved broadsheet in the years after World War I: the “World’s Greatest Newspaper.”
But these days, it’s hard to find anyone that confident about the Tribune, and a quaver of uncertainty has crept into the voices of Chicago media watchers. There is good reason. After decades of reporting the news, the Windy City’s once-great multimedia empire has generated stories about itself for a change, and none of them is especially encouraging.
The right-leaning media empire Sinclair plans to take over the extensive holdings of Tribune Media, a move that would mean, among other things, that the programming of the beloved local WGN television and radio stations would be dictated from … Baltimore. That news came on the heels of Tribune Media’s announcement that it had sold off the Tribune Tower to L.A.-based developer CIM Group, a move likely to kick the Chicago Tribune out of the landmark the newspaper made famous.
And what of that newspaper? As of last year, Tribune Publishing isn’t even called Tribune anymore. It’s now known as Tronc. And last month, Tronc announced its intent to purchase the Chicago Sun-Times, which some fear will put an end to the sort of reporting rivalry among newspapers that makes any city great.
Of course, acquisitions and consolidations are nothing new, especially not in the restless realm of publishing and media. But to some, the ramifications of these recent developments—and the Sinclair deal especially—go well beyond just another business story. They get to the heart of what it means when revered cultural institutions break apart and come under the control of outsiders. And while there are few outward signs of change yet—the Tribune is still in print, and WGN is still on the air—there is a sense that Chicago is losing something important.
“I haven’t seen anything approaching this kind of public sentiment since Marshall Field’s was bought by Macy’s—and that was 2005,” said Robert Feder, a journalist who’s covered his home city since 1980 and blogs under the auspices of the Daily Herald. When Macy’s bought Chicago’s legendary department store and then (to great public uproar) changed its name, Feder said, “there was a real sense that part of the cultural fabric of the city was being lost.” And now, with Sinclair likely to swallow Tribune Media, “there are some similarities.”
The issue, Feder added, goes beyond consolidation per se. “It’s about what happens when consolidation takes over important, iconic, cultural and civic and business institutions in the community,” he said.
And there’s more. If Tribune Media slips into the maw of Sinclair; if the Sun-Times becomes a unit of Tronc; if Tribune Tower becomes just another swank downtown shopping destination (possibly shedding the Tribune name altogether), it will mean that the once seemingly impervious Tribune Company will essentially disappear for good. And if that happens, some say, Chicago will lose more than just another corporate name. It will suffer a loss of pride, another psychological wound that the cities of the Rust Belt, unfortunately, are all too accustomed to nursing.
A long and fractious road
The Tribune Company’s troubles are hardly recent. A decade ago, real estate mogul Sam Zell led an $8.2 billion leveraged buyout of the corporation that 617 chaos-filled days later wound up in bankruptcy court. Nine months after that, in October of 2009, the beleaguered Tribune sold off Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs, ending a relationship that began in 1981 and the golden age of sportscaster Harry Caray calling Cubs games over WGN’s air. Yet, despite its fiscal woes and the loss of the Cubs, at least the hapless company was still the Tribune Company, one of the most powerful multimedia corporations in America, anchored in a tower of Indiana limestone on North Michigan Avenue that made it Chicago’s own.
But that changed on July 20, 2013, when Tribune split itself down the middle. The print side of the business (most notably the Tribune, but other papers it owned like the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun) was spun off into a new entity called the Tribune Publishing Company. The assets that remained—among them, 42 local TV stations, an interest in the Food Network and real estate holdings that included the Tribune Tower—became Tribune Media.
Even so, at least the two companies still carried the Tribune name.
They did, at least, until June 2, 2016, when Tribune Publishing announced its name change to Tronc, Inc.—a pseudo acronym that stood for “Tribune Online Content.” Apart from sounding like a villain from a student sci-fi film, the Tronc name was a clear indication that Tribune Publishing was stepping away from its 150-year identity as a newspaper brand to become instead “a content curation and monetization company.”
A little over three months later, Tribune Media announced it had sold the Tribune Tower for $240 million.
The disintegration of the Tribune brand name continued. On May 8 of this year, Sinclair Broadcast Group announced a $3.9 billion deal to absorb the assets of Tribune Media. Then, on May 15, Wrapports Holdings LLC, owner of the Chicago Sun-Times, announced it had received a nonbinding letter of intent to buy the paper—from Tronc.
Orders from the boys in Baltimore
Sinclair Broadcast Group, Tribune Media’s suitor, has a reputation of putting a heavily conservative spin on its coverage. (As the Washington Post reported, during the chaotic, eye-gouging weeks of the Clinton-Trump presidential run, Sinclair ordered its stations to air various “must-run” pieces detrimental to Clinton, including one alleging she was covering up health problems.)
But according to Alan D. Mutter, it’s not just Sinclair’s conservative bent that’s troublesome. It’s that nobody knows Chicago better than Chicagoans, and Sinclair suits sitting 700 miles away in Baltimore are decidedly not Chicagoans.
“When there’s a locally controlled media company, it operates in a subtle but significantly different way than a media outlet that happens to be owned by a company someplace else,” said Mutter, a veteran of both the Chicago Daily News and the Sun-Times who enjoyed a second career in Silicon Valley and today teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. Whatever your personal politics may be, Mutter said, there’s a fundamental problem when an executive in another city orders the airing of a slanted piece (or “a right-wing screed,” as Mutter put it) in a town with blue-collar roots like Chicago.
“Apart from whether you like the screed or not, [that piece] is not what they would have come up with on their own within the community,” Mutter said. “If you suddenly have Sinclair people telling people in Chicago—giving them their point of view—that is not commensurate with the sense of the community they’re serving.”
With Sinclair’s ownership, Mutter added, “You’ve lost something. … You’ve lost the connection with listeners, readers and advertisers.”
Feder pointed out that WGN’s legacy—indeed, its very name—is inextricably linked to the Windy City. Programming questions notwithstanding, having to watch those stations lose autonomy to an East Coast conglomerate is a blow to the “civic pride” of Chicago.
“[It’s] about the fact that WGN will no longer be locally owned, no longer be owned by a Chicago company [as it has been] for 93 years,” Feder said. “It was Robert McCormick, the publisher of the Tribune, who adopted the slogan the ‘World’s Greatest Newspaper,’ and WGN as the call letters for the radio station. And they broadcast out of the tower—that’s how deeply rooted the legacy is. Even in the darkest days of Sam Zell’s ownership—it was, in many ways, catastrophic—even in those darkest days, the Tribune Company was still rooted in Chicago.”
“There was something about Chicago and Tribune and the tower that was as permanent as the Chicago River and Lake Michigan,” Feder added. But if you’re going to talk about the magnitude of loss to the city, he said, “the real narrative has to start with the sale of the Tribune Tower.”
The sale of the Tribune Tower
Even if consumers love a brand, most probably can’t tell you where its headquarters are, much less what the building looks like. But that was never the case with the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune Tower is among the most famous buildings in the city and one inextricably linked to the newspaper it housed since the day the skyscraper opened in 1925. Not only did McCormick (ensconced like a king in his 24th-floor office) call his newspaper the world’s greatest, he demonstrated its editorial reach by ordering his far-flung reporters to break off pieces of the world’s greatest buildings—among them the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China—and send them back to Chicago to be mortared into the base of the tower itself, which the paper had proclaimed to be “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world.”
“The iconic Tribune Tower stands as a kind of sentinel for the city,” said historian Richard Lindberg, who’s authored 17 books on Chicago and works as a speechwriter for Alderman Edward M. Burke of Chicago’s 14th Ward. “It’s as associated with Chicago as the Willis Tower, Lake Michigan, the Cubs and White Sox, and deep-dish pizza.”
So it’s hard to imagine the Tribune Tower without the Tribune, but with the property’s $240 million sale to CIM Group last September, all bets are off. CIM plans to convert the downtown landmark to “mixed-use” development. While landmark designation will prevent the new owners from altering the tower’s exterior and lobby, they can do what they please to the skyscraper’s 737,000 square feet of interior space and the three acres of pristine downtown property it sits on. And whatever the developer’s definition of “mixed-use” redevelopment may be—reportedly, an amalgam of high-end stores, a hotel and luxury apartments—it probably won’t include the offices of a newspaper. Come June 2018, the Trib’s lease will be up.
“There’s no question Tronc is leaving the building, and there’s no question Tribune Media is leaving the building,” Feder said, adding that Tribune Media has already signed a lease for office space on the other side of town at 303 East Wacker Dr., a lackluster postmodern box that Feder called “the antithesis” of the newspaper’s majestic, Gothic home.
And while there’s no word on whether CIM would dare take the Tribune name off the famous tower, that’s not an impossibility, either. “They took the name off the Sears Tower,” Lindberg pointed out. “And who’d have thought Marshall Field’s would go?”
A one-paper town
While Tronc’s planned purchase of the Sun-Times will not further erase the Tribune brand name from the streets of Chicago, the planned consolidation may nevertheless still represent a loss for the city, which has historically thrived not just on the friendly competition among newspapers, but the multiplicity of them.
“A hundred years ago, we have seven papers publishing as many as three editions a day,” Lindberg said. “The newspaper was the life blood of Chicago.”
“It was only 40 years ago that we had four competing daily newspapers downtown,” Feder said. “Now it’s down to two and, assuming this agreement goes through, it means one owner.”
The Sun-Times had already been leaning on the Tribune for years, with the latter handling the former’s printing and distribution. And though Sun-Times editor Jim Kirk promised on the front page of his paper’s May 16 issue that a post-merger Sun-Times “will continue to produce the award-winning journalism you’ve been accustomed to seeing daily,” the paper’s future is anything but certain.
“I’d hope it would stay alive,” said Joe Mathewson, who’s written for both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times and is currently a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “But who knows? The handwriting is on the wall for the second paper in almost any city.”
“The Chicago Sun-Times is like a punch-drunk fighter on the ropes,” Lindberg said, noting how the Sun-Times began bulking up in 2015 by carrying pages from USA Today. “It’s on shaky ground. It costs a buck to buy it, [but] there’s not a lot there anymore. And [it’s] infused with USA Today. It’s become like a McPaper.”
But what troubles Lindberg more than the Sun-Times’ lack of girth is everyday Chicagoans’ lack of concern, as he sees it. “Had this happened 50 years ago, before the internet when everybody in Chicago was reading only the newspaper as the main source of news, it would have been a stunning blow,” he said. “But from what I’m seeing, people are shrugging their shoulders at this.”
Raise your hand if you care
Which may actually be the bigger issue here. When it comes to Tronc’s proposed purchase of the Sun-Times and to Sinclair’s absorption of Tribune Media, what happens behind the scenes seems less important to the average consumer than what he or she consumes. In other words, unless there’s some dramatic shift in local coverage, or a disappearance of it, most people don’t appear to be mourning the erosion of the once mighty Tribune organization.
Mutter pointed out that when Tribune Publishing changed its name last year, there was little in the way of uproar. “Somebody must have noticed when the Tribune was a product of Tronc,” he said, but “if you found two [out of] four readers of the Tribune, they wouldn’t know what a Tronc was. They’ll probably think it’s a skin disease.”
Mutter believes consumers are only likely to care about corporate ownership if the media properties themselves adopt radical and visible changes, especially those at odds with prevailing local attitudes. Otherwise? “I don’t think too many people care about who owns the Tribune or WGN,” he said.
Mathewson agrees. While people may be “interested” that WGN TV and radio are no longer under the corporate auspices of the Tribune newspaper, that’s secondary to the coverage itself. The stations have been “locally owned and operated and managed for their entire existence … [but] does that matter to the people of Chicago? I don’t think so. What does matter is how intensely they focus on Chicago.”
“If we lose the Tribune Tower and it becomes the A.B.C. Building—that, I think, is when people are going to react,” Lindberg said. “And then I believe you’ll see all the messages flying back and forth on Twitter and Facebook decrying this great loss.” The trouble is, he said, “the great loss is happening right now, but people aren’t paying attention to it as much as they should.”
For his part, Feder takes a slightly more nuanced view. He believes the slow but steady disappearance of the great Tribune multimedia brand “is resonating with people” and will continue to do so. Still, like Lindberg, he worries that many Chicagoans might not realize how much they’ve lost until all of it’s gone—if the Sun-Times disappears, if “local” TV and radio programming gets cooked up by some guy in Baltimore, if the Tribune Tower becomes another stack of condos.
“Once it sinks in that we’ve lost the true, two-newspaper robust competition that we had and that we’ve lost the local ownership of the most iconic brand in broadcast, I think that it’s one more thing that people are losing that they consider part of their cultural heritage,” Feder said. “[Chicago] is a big city, but it’s also a small town. There’s a great deal of civic pride and every time something like this is lost—people really do feel it.”