Just A Shell

Lou Fourcher, at Loyola Beach in Chicago, June 2012.

It begins one of two ways, either a call to your cell marked “No Caller ID”, or from that gut-wrenching number from the nurse’s station you’ve memorized.

“Hi, Mike. There’s no emergency with your dad. I just wanted to check in on some things.”

These kinds of phone calls are never good, but they’re better than the alternative, when there is an actual emergency.

“So, we haven’t talked in a bit. But have you taken care of funeral arrangements?”

That isn’t exactly what the social worker said, in fact he never said the word “funeral”. Instead, he said something artful and sympathetic, so you understood the topic without an overt mention of death. But still. The dull pain hits you.

My father, who has been living with Alzheimer’s for twelve years, well, at least since he was diagnosed, is in a nursing home here in Chicago. He isn’t married, and I have no brothers and sisters, so all the calls, all the paperwork comes to me.

And yes, I’m the main one who visits him too, although over the last couple of years I’m ashamed to admit, the visits aren’t that often. But also in the last couple of years he’s been a total vegetable, so I don’t feel like I’m really hurting anyone.

Well, I do feel bad about it, actually. But it’s so complicated. I mean, he’s totally gone now. The details of his current illness are ugly, and my father’s modesty and propriety keeps me from describing how bad things are. So, please take my word for it: He is a shell now. None of the man I, or anyone else once knew, is there.

Gone, all gone. Except for the shell of a being that looks like a person. Except it really isn’t.

And so now, and for the last couple of years, I’ve been responsible for someone that’s really not there anymore. I could tell you all kinds of things about how wonderful a man he was, how loved he was, and how he loved me, his son and only child.

I could tell you about his failures. His two divorces, lost jobs and people tired of his endless crusading.

But at this point it’s all gone. Supported by Medicaid and Social Security, my father eats and breathes in a facility that tends to his bodily needs. A chaplain visits at least once a week, and so does a volunteer that plays CDs of music I know he used to like. His nurses and their assistants are good to him.

I visit when I feel like I can stomach the grief. Which seems less and less often these days. But who, except the nurses and nurses’ assistants would know the difference? Not my dad.

I love him so much.

But I can’t help him. When he was declining, my love made a difference. I knew.

Like when he began to have paranoid freak outs common to Alzheimer’s, I’d stand in the room with him, and hug him. I’d play Earl Hines piano jazz on my phone to distract him. It usually worked. And as painful as it was, the knowledge that I was helping him, being a good son, filled a hole for me.

I felt like I was loving him as well as I could.

But now. The shell.

There’s nothing I can do for the shell.

I miss him so much.

But he’s not gone yet.

I had already taken care of funeral arrangements. I bought a funeral package with his savings before he went into the nursing home.

How I Should Have Seen The Fall Of Alternative Newspapers In 2003

New York City newspaper boxes, April 5, 2016. Source: Flickr/Dumbo711

After years of working in the federal government, the annual conference of alternative newspapers seemed downright decadent to me, and maybe it was. Taking over a downtown Pittsburgh hotel in July 2003, many attendees wore shorts and t-shirts, while evening conference activities included a rave on top a 9-story parking garage slated for demolition, and an awards ceremony emceed by Dan Savage, where every winner had to either take off an item of clothing or do a shot with him. Savage was drunk by the end, but he’d brought two largely naked go-go boys to help him get through the afternoon.

My friend and business partner Steve Sherman and I were in Pittsburgh to meet some alt paper owners and maybe see if we could find an owner interested in selling to us. I was finishing business school after working in the Clinton Administration and was looking for a new cause to take up. Steve, a commercial banker by training, was attracted by the average 25% annual margins many alts were taking in.

In 2003, the future looked bright for alternative newspapers. Led by the Village Voice, Chicago Reader and Phoenix’ New Times, not only were the papers making money hand over fist, but they also retained the patina of counter-culture, with a balance of local muckraking articles, grunge band and art reviews, Dan Savage’s sex advice columns, along with thick classified sections including thinly veiled ads for sex workers.

They were an incredible, heady mix of money-making and cool. How could anyone resist?

It turns out, just about everyone at the conference thought so too and were ready to party down to celebrate. Yet, big changes were lurking on the edges, and Steve and I were earnest enough to want to warn everyone, but not sharp enough to see who and what would be bringing the changes.

Introduced around  earlier in the year by the Madison Isthmus owner Vince O’Hern, by the time we got to Pittsburgh Steve and I had already talked to dozens of alt owners about selling and had looked at the books of at least a dozen publications. There were over 100 alternative papers around the country, most founded in the 1960’s and 70’s, so many owners were looking for a way to sell and sail into retirement. Steve and I saw an opportunity in buying alts, tightening up loose business practices and reenforcing fading journalistic standards to draw in new readers.

But the biggest discovery we’d made talking to alt owners was that alternative newspaper readership was nowhere near the 20-something audience the papers’ counter-culture content led many to assume. In fact, alts’ biggest readership by far was late-40’s to mid-50’s college-educated whites at the time. 20-somethings still read alts, but their interest was soft.

Keep in mind, in 2003, we’d just come out of the first dot-com wave, were still just getting used to the idea of texting, and smart phones were still years away from reality. It was still a paper-based world and Craigslist was still just beginning to rollout from San Francisco.

But from the perspective of alt owners we’d talked to, they were making tons of money and the future was bright. The internet was still mostly dial-up and terrible flip phone apps, so nobody was reading articles online and search was dominated by Yahoo. Still, most alts had at least one “digital editor” on staff, and publishers were trying to figure out where this internet stuff was going. It seemed as if every idea was as good as the last, and conference discussions were open and free-ranging.

Dodging Hawaiian shirt-clad editors and ripped-jeans clad conference-goers, Steve and I desperately tried to pin down publishers and owners of small market alternative newspapers to talk about a sale. We’d put together a couple million dollars of equity from investors, so we could either buy a couple small papers or one medium-sized one. O’Hern, who became a believer in us after we went through his books and helped him make a couple hundred thousand dollars more while keeping our hands off his editorial team, was making introductions for us.

A few owners politely listened, a handful welcomed follow up discussions requesting absolute secrecy. But the vast majority of owners outright rejected us, saying, “Who are you anyway? You don’t work in the newspaper business!”

It was shocking to us, since at the time every single one of the alt paper owners had started their anti-establishment publications from scratch, with little to no previous newspaper business. Now that they were the establishment, alt owners wanted credentials. But outside of our work for The Isthmus and our M.B.A.s, we had none.

As we sat and listened to conference sessions we were staggered by the general lack of forward thinking. The Big Internet Sensation everyone at the conference talked about was a web page created by The Reader that showed all the Chicago zip codes in their delivery area. It had become a traffic magnet since it was one of the few places online that mapped Chicago ZIP codes. Everyone ooh-ed and ahh-ed at how such a simple idea became a great web traffic draw.

Print at conference was given much more credibility than digital. Of course back in 2003 a small percentage of people were surfing the web, but even so, it took a lot of work to ignore the digital future. And yet…the conference hosted innumerable sessions on print design, and only one session on digital. The one with the Chicago ZIP code map.

Being young, I took rejection from alt owners and backward thinking as evidence that I needed to try harder to get their attention. I just lacked an opportunity.

My chance came in a conference session labeled “The Future of Alternative Audiences” or something like that. It was a panel discussion with about 100 or so editors and publishers listening and asking questions. I clearly remember the panel members kept dancing around the fact that their audiences were getting older. Ad revenues were steady, and music venues still placed ads, so there was no real problem, was the gist of it.

O’Hern, sitting a few rows away from me in his own Hawaiian shirt, raised a hand and was called on. Bestowed with a massive brush mustache, hirsute arms and a “dees and does” accent, O’Hern commanded the room when he stood to speak. And then he began to talk about me and the work Steve and I had done for him, and that everyone should listen to us. Then O’Hern stood me up and commanded, “Tell them something they should know, Mike.”

Rifling through my brain to come up with something good, I squared my shoulders and looked around the room as I said something like: “We’ve been doing research for the last year. Your audiences are getting older and your brands are becoming associated with middle aged people. You need to either rebuild your pubs with content for younger people or launch new ones to address younger audiences.”

My speech was as popular as a Nixon campaign button for this room of middle-aged counter-culture warriors.

There were a couple of boos, and more than a few people clucked their tongues. But maybe that’s just my memory covering up the dark, dank silence that met my words. I had come to the big party of successful alts to just dump a big pile of shit on them.

Walking out of the session, Vince said, “I think you did great. They need to hear this stuff,” and truthfully, a couple of owners did seek me out to ask more questions, but I certainly hadn’t endeared myself to anyone.

That night Steve and I went out and got hammered and decided that if we were ever going to get an alternative newspaper to sell to outsiders like us, it would be sheer luck.

What we didn’t know then was that around the same time, the owners of the Village Voice in New York, New Times in Phoenix and Creative Loafing in Atlanta were teaming up with private equity firms to buy other alts. Just like us, the private equity firms also saw a huge opportunity in those 25% annual returns, but unlike us, they came armed with much more money and access to tremendous bank debt.

Over the next four years, almost every alternative newspaper in the United States changed hands, most going to either Village Voice Media, New Times Media or Creative Loafing Inc. As Steve and I made calls to alt owners looking for a seller, we heard stories of huge payouts to founders. The new media groups were doing big leveraged buyouts, offering many times more than current revenues as they planned to grow audiences with digital and increase returns with better operations. It was pretty much the same playbook Steve and I had, except we wanted to target a younger demographic and didn’t have access to the same amount of cash as the private equity firms.

Quickly, Steve and I were pushed out of the game by the big boys.

For us, it turned out to be a good thing, since Craigslist came roaring across the country in 2005 decimating alternative newspapers’ huge classifieds business. Then, after the economy crashed in 2008, print display ads crashed too. By 2009, the one-two punch had eviscerated alternative newspaper groups, forcing asset fire sales and layoffs around the country. It didn’t help that most of the papers still lacked strong digital strategies – and their audiences kept getting older while younger readers started using growing digital arts & entertainment sites like Metromix and Time Out to plan out their weekends.

I’d like to say that Steve and I saw it coming back in 2003. But the magnitude of the crash, the death of alts around the country was just too big to conceive back then. Sure, we thought owners were misguided and headed for trouble, but the death of The Village Voice? Impossible!

And right there is the crux of it: As much as you might believe a daily or weekly newspaper is a pillar of our community, that has nothing to do with the strength of its financial foundation and whether or not enough people think it’s worth paying for.

For too long, people in the news business have been dining out on their own legend: That newspapers are critical, important heros we should all honor and value. But the thing is, average people just aren’t paying attention unless you’re producing something interesting.

The signs were there in 2003: Alternative newspapers were attracting fewer new readers with interesting, valuable content. But those of us who cared about them were too in love with them to see the beginning of the end.

Going Deep On Vacation

Every summer Teresa, Nicolas and I take a week vacation right before school starts after Labor Day. This year I tried to think hard about what the time off means for me, and for the rest of my family.

I’ve tried to capture some of what we did on our trip, which ends tomorrow, and to get a bit of what each of us think about our time away from reality. If you like what you see, please subscribe to my channel.

What The Road Forward Looks Like

Capitol Hill sunset, September 14, 2014. Source: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Congressional Republicans are not going to impeach Donald Trump.

Let’s be straight up about that. Polling continually shows the GOP base still believes everything from the Mueller investigation is either a lie or irrelevant. So among Republican senators and representatives, there’s almost no appetite for an impeachment trial.

Democrats may take control of both the House and the Senate this fall, but only under the craziest circumstances will Democrats take more than a narrow majority in the Senate. A successful impeachment requires a majority vote in the House and a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Just like with Bill Clinton in 1998, a Trump impeachment would likely fall along party lines and fail in the Senate.

The Democrats will not have enough votes to impeach Donald Trump.

But oh! Mueller will report out a devastating list of crimes committed by Trump and GOP members will get a backbone!

Yes he will, and no they won’t. Because here’s what we should expect:

The Mueller investigation will grind on, maybe even send Don Trump, Jr. and others to jail.

Democrats will take the House by a significant margin this November, and maybe a slim majority in the Senate. Immediately upon taking legislative control, Democrats will be consumed by a left vs. center party battle, where the former wants to impeach and the the latter wants to pass meaningful policy. Congress lurches from stalemate to forward motion on both policy and impeachment.

Trump, under intense legal pressure, continues to be awful. Tears apart international relationships, hurls needless insults at Democrats, holes up in the White House, basically talking to nobody that isn’t a far right toady.

Republican legislators interested in political survival (which will be most) will be forced to choose one of two positions: Rally under Trump, hurling more insults at Democrats or try to become invisible, hoping to can position themselves as moderate in the 2020 elections.

And then the 2020 elections, which will become an even more massive referendum on Donald Trump. The Republican Party will eat itself alive, while a broad field of Democratic presidential primary candidates, maybe the most racially and gender diverse in history, will compete to be the most non-Trump offering.

Finally, in the general election, Donald Trump will be, incredibly, the nominee, because the GOP base will still stick with him to the end, becoming more raucous and bile-filled than ever before. Trump rallies become outright dangerous for press to attend, and all the white nationalist crazies will come out of every crack, maybe even mounting physical attacks.

Americans of every stripe will be pulled into participating in the 2020 election, recognizing it as a fight for survival. There will be right wing violence, left wing too. American elections will begin to look like something from 1980’s Italy where polling places are raided by barely-legal or extra-legal “election monitors”. Voter suppression will be at an all time high. Latinos and black people in rural areas will be targeted and maybe killed.

And then? I don’t know.

I hope a majority of America comes to its senses and votes out Trump. But maybe not.

But even if Trump is voted out, the transition will be ugly. Trump will cast doubt on the electoral process we’ve held sacred all these years, and America will be forever scarred.

It’s only going to get worse.

Just Keep Going At It

A precocious child who devoured three newspapers a day, when I was seventeen I decided that I should get involved with politics. Although I read the papers, I didn’t have strong opinions on who should be my local alderman in Chicago’s 43rd Ward. Edwin Eisendrath was up for reelection in 1991, and I didn’t know much about him. But his challenger’s campaign office was a couple blocks from my house, so I trudged through the January snow to the Mary Baim office, and declared that I wanted to volunteer.

Too young to vote or register new voters, and a nobody nobody sent, the campaign staff sent me off to knock doors in random snow clogged precincts, with a message to encourage votes for Baim. Hoping to gain access to what I imagined “the real politics” of the campaign’s smoke filled back room, I set out in freezing Chicago winter weather, knocking on doors and meeting hundreds of people who miraculously had patience for a kid that wanted to talk ward politics.

Yes, hundreds. From the start I knocked doors like a fiend, plowing through precincts with a zeal that impressed the grizzled campaign staff. Once, earning, “Wow, kid, you just keep going at it, don’t you?” was the most exciting thing I’d heard, ever.

Even though I did the typical volunteer thing – I faded out when life got in the way – that campaign was the beginning of a life-long obsession with politics. It really didn’t matter that I had no idea what Mary Baim’s policies were, nor did I know much about Edwin Eisendrath’s. I was hooked by knocking doors, turning out votes and excitement of a democratic process empowering a clueless teenager.

Even though it was freezing cold, I’ll never forget the people I met at those first doors I knocked. The woman charmed by a teenager asking for a vote, and then quizzing me for ten minutes at the door about the candidates. The guy with a hothouse jungle just inside that invited me in from the cold to warm up a bit. Did I turn their votes? I’m not sure. But I sure liked meeting them: my world got bigger and richer knowing they existed.

Of course, Mary Baim lost 58% to 42%. Eisendrath served one more term, and recently came back to Chicago politics by leading a group to purchase the Chicago Sun Times. David Axelrod was then-Alderman Eisendrath’s political consultant, and we know how things turned out for him. Funny how the world turns, isn’t it?

When I think back to that January 1991 Chicago election, things seemed so tame in comparison to the political heat of today. The Cold War was ending, Mayor Richard M. Daley was promising a peaceful and efficient city government, the drums of the first Gulf War were yet to rumble.

Bringing us to the present, it seems as if the stakes for this November’s national election get higher every day. Ignoring the Omarosa sideshow and the tension of whether or not Robert Muller will indict President Donald Trump for collusion, there’s plenty of policies to sicken your stomach: From ICE stopping and detaining a man while he drives his wife to a hospital deliver their baby, to the failing economic tariffs against China, Europe, Canada and Mexico, to a new plan to give America’s wealthiest a tax cut by presidential order.

Planning to vote is not enough. America needs you to put some skin in the game for your local election for Congress, Senate, governor, or state legislature. If you‘ve never knocked a door or made calls for a candidate before, like that teenager in 1991, I guarantee you’ll discover a kind of magic available to Americans every election cycle.

For each jerk at the door or on the phone, you’ll meet five sweethearts, genuinely interested people and charming oddballs that make up your community. You’ll marvel that you spent so much time in their proximity, but never met them before. You’ll discover a legion of like-minded citizens who want to make a positive change for a better America.

If you’ve volunteered before, you know about the magic, but also the confusion of campaigns and how silly and rudderless they can seem. But you also know the power you, as a volunteer have to change your world.

Get down to your local candidate’s campaign. America needs you to to just keep going at it.

I Was Raised By A Black Woman

One of my mothers was a black woman and I miss her more than words can convey.

I’ve tried countless times to write this essay, because I want to tell you about my relationship with Inez Fleming. I keep stopping, or have thrown away previous drafts because I’ve been so afraid to talk about this well-to-do, white man’s connection to a poor, black woman. If I’ve learned anything about race and class in America, it’s that it twists and corrupts our understanding of one another.

By telling you about my invisible, undeniable bond with Inez, now buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery, I’m opening up my pristine, loving memories of her to you. Please be careful with my memories. You may have your own ideas about what we were to one another, and maybe they are right. But I have my own memories and ideas, and I know those will always be true.

When my biological mother started her career, Inez was hired to take me during the days and nights. It was the 1970’s, and as progressive as my dad was, he was going to work too. I was just six weeks old when Inez entered my life.

She was my Inez. You may have a different, more common name for what she was, but I will never say it, because “second mother” seems like the only term that fits.

Two years later, my mother and father divorced, and Inez stepped in for more hours. I knew her better than my biological mother at times. It was not uncommon for me to call her “mom”, because that’s what she was.

My strongest memories of childhood are of Inez trundling me around in her green and white Impala. I moved with her in South Side Chicago’s world of black women caring for white children. Again, because it was the 1970’s, that often meant going to some of those caretaker’s houses, or to greasy chicken shacks for lunch. It seemed there were fewer rules those days, so I rode along into Inez’ world most days, listening to gossip about so-and-so, running errands for her friends. Nobody seemed to mind.

We were close. Everyone remarked on it. I’m not sure what I did to show it, but she hugged and held me tight. And when I was bad, she threatened to “get a switch”, but she never did.

Inez was from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, although Inez had left long before that had happened. I’d asked her about life in Mississippi, but she always deflected, saying, “I don’t like to talk about bad things, Michael. That’s why I came here.”

Sweet, full of smiles, and devoted to Christ and Roman Catholicism, she was wiser than her lack of education should have allowed. She understood people, and could detect a false motive a mile away. “I only deal with good people, Michael. There are too many bad people in this world, and I can’t make time for them.”

Round and with a weakness for food of all kinds–especially Neji pop–Inez struggled with weight her entire life and eventually with bad knees and diabetes. Going on, and staying on diets were a constant topic with her, up until the end. My mother, who became close friends with Inez, would talk recipes and bring her loads of fresh fruit, hoping her habits would change. But South Side church dinners and chicken shacks don’t usually serve diet-friendly food, and so the diets always came to an end.

For complicated family reasons, my mother and step-father let Inez go when I was seven. Her services were quickly picked up by another family I knew, which made me jealous beyond belief.

I insisted on visiting her regularly to make sure she was still “my Inez” and to check in with her. I was a child, so I didn’t know exactly how to check in, but I did my childish best.

The visits were at first a few times a year, eventually winding down to twice, then once. By the time I went to college, we mostly talked on the phone and exchanged cards and letters. I still have them, in her flowey, perfect Palmer Method script.

Around when when I was thirty, my mother got very sick with cancer, I orchestrated a visit between her and Inez. The logistics were difficult, since Inez was also enfeebled now, using a walker and visiting dialysis twice a week. My mother was less feeble, although using a walker of her own, so we visited Inez’ second-floor walk up. It was terrible, and lovely.

The three of us present knew it was the last visit. Not a goodbye, just yet, so we made the best of it with a dinner cooked in the apartment and jokes and stories. My mother and Inez reminisced and told each other how much they loved one another, a conversation Inez repeated back to me verbatim, up until the last week of her life.

After that, they called each other every other day, just to check in. To complain about hospitals and nurses, things they’d both experienced in detail.

“She’s like my sister, your mother is,” Inez would say. And they both pledged their undying devotion to each other. Inez had pulled my mother through early motherhood, and then her divorce from my dad, and supported her early career. My mother and dad had steadied Inez, took her to a bank to open her first bank account, loved her and gave her security when her brutal husband left her after years of beatings and alcoholism.

But my mother’s illness frightened Inez. “Who will take care of me, now?” she asked me. She had no other family.

Then when my mother died, my father flew in for the funeral, prepared to pick up Inez for the service.

“I can’t do it, baby,” she told me on the phone. “I just can’t do it. My knees hurt too much. But you know how much I loved your mother, don’t you.”

It was an excuse, of course. But my father and I understood and visited her together the next day. It was the first time he’d seen her in fifteen years. “So gaunt,” my dad said. The once rotund, jolly woman was now ashen, with skin hanging off her bones. Dad was visibly shaken.

Quickly now, Inez began to decline. Exhausted and depressed by dialysis, my visits to her house or trips to dialysis barely perked her up. Once, I convinced a priest friend of mine, to visit her house and say a private mass. When the priest and I arrived, Inez had tidied her house, put on her wig and a bucket of rouge, and had set out snacks. Delightful, it still makes me smile to think of her excitement.

Eventually, her knees got so bad that she couldn’t walk up her own stairs. Her social worker begged her to enter a nursing home. We knew what that decision meant.

“I don’t want to go there, honey. That’s where people die,” Inez said. I remember it clearly.

But, if you don’t go, you’ll fall and probably die sooner, I told her. And so she went.

It was good at first. I visited twice a week for a long while. People in the nursing home seemed to perk up when the white man in a suit kept visiting this one old, black lady. Inez knew it too, and chuckled over the treatment she got from the nurses as a result. “They asked me, is that your lawyer? And I said, No! That’s my God son!”

And so I was.

Things went on like this for a while. But, as it goes, a sudden jolt changes things. For Inez, there was an accident on the shuttle she rode in to dialysis. The driver had forgotten to strap her wheelchair down, and when he came to a sudden stop, she violently rolled forward, and fell out of her chair, breaking her hip.

Now, the social worker asked, “Who is her next of kin? Because she needs a legal guardian.”

Then Inez pointed at me. “He is. He is my son. He’ll sign the papers.”

Even now, thinking of that moment, I’m brought to tears.

Of course, her health got worse. There were more hospital visits, doctors, social workers. We talked less, because she was weakening quickly. When she could, we talked about old days, and how she was ready to see The Lord.

The visits shook me. I’d cry on the Metra Electric as I headed north.

And then the call came: She’s crashed and is having another heart attack. Do we resuscitate?


I scraped together some life insurance receipts she had in the back a of a drawer, and visited the funeral home. Her insurance wasn’t nearly enough to pay for a funeral and burial, so my dad and I paid the rest. Some cousins came, a couple old friends. But Inez was old with few relations left. She was either 71 according to her expired driver’s license, or 88 according to her welfare records. Philadelphia, Mississippi didn’t have a birth certificate.

Inez Fleming taught me compassion and love. She taught me to be suspicious of overly generous people, and she taught me that it’s a good thing to care deeply and give of your self to others that you care about.

I miss her every day, and I wish that race and class didn’t mean anything. I wish I was allowed to use the lessons Inez gave me to connect with people the way she taught me.

It’s Time For Illinois To Subsidize Local News Gathering

The Danville Commercial-News building in Danville, Illinois. Once a 30,000 circulation daily paper, it now claims about 15,000. Credit: Randy von Liski/Flickr

The business of reporting local political news is dying because we consumers just don’t care. It was never that big to begin with, anyway, since while local politics got front page treatment, the real reason we watched, read and listened was to learn about the new movie, restaurant or big game. But the Great Internet Disaggregation has given us Fandango, Yelp and ESPN, and myriad other information sources that do a much better and thorough job. As a result, we’re no longer drawn to news organizations like we once were and miss out on local political news.

Stripped of features, listings and everything fun, newspapers and local television and radio news have doubled down on the hard stuff: City and regional government reporting. It’s all critical information that can directly affect our lives, but for the vast majority of consumers, local politics is boring dreck that pales in comparison to just about everything else on God’s green earth. We’re ditching our news subscriptions for hundreds of other more fun things, like Candy Crush, TMZ, fantasy football sites and whatever else captures our fancy.

While Chicago’s “big” publications, The Chicago Tribune, Sun Times and Chicago Reader still exist, they are all shadows of what they were just ten years ago. Across the Illinois, McClatchy, Lee and Gannett-owned newspapers in smaller cities are often barely beyond pamphlet size on some days. Without help, there’s only one direction for this trend: down.

It’s a tough business competing for eyeballs against all the digital attractions of today’s media age. If news organizations want to survive, they have to focus their reporting resources on things more alluring than city council meetings.

As a result, it’s time for Illinois’ local daily newspapers to do away with paying for city and county reporters and for the state to directly fund a local reporting wire service for every big and medium-sized city and county around the state. Subsidized local reporting could be put into print, but would also be more economically published on local news organizations’ websites, going right to the people often missing quality, local reporting.

A far from radical idea, government subsidies for local news are becoming old hat these days. The Canadian government has debated increasing their local news subsidy to C$350 million (Vice News has already been a beneficiary in Toronto) and the New Jersey legislature just implemented a $5 million local news subsidy.

The Illinois Local News Wire would be inexpensive, as government programs go, and would fight local corruption more efficiently than any other government program. It would free up local news organizations resources so they could be focused on more interesting stories, such as human interest or deep investigative work, that would draw more local readers, strengthening the overall news ecosystem.

We should implement this plan sooner, rather than later, before news audiences completely lose faith in their local publications and there’s nothing left to prop up.

Most consumers are totally uninterested in local government and politics until something important happens. We tune out, concentrating on our personal lives––and then a scandal, tragedy, big sports win or terrible crime occurs. Big or salacious, these events grab our attention and focuses us on our broader community. As a result, news publications experience unpredictable waves, big ups and big downs of audience attention. We all want a copy of the local paper’s front page after the World Series win, but could care less about the county board budget vote the next day.

This kind of wave can be exhilarating, but undulating audiences are hard to monetize. Publishers need consistency to keep advertisers.

Smart editors know this, and employ a litany of stratagems to hold our attention. In Chicago, The Chicago Tribune runs lots of deep investigative stories, thinking that readers want to feel like they’re being educated about government run amok. The Sun Times also has its own splashy investigative stories, with a smattering of crime stories. In the Big Apple, the newly shrunken New York Daily News looks like it will focus on crime stories as well. There’s always a tranche of paranoid citizens that want to know the worst.

Lost in this is boring local government reporting for average citizens. Yes, metro daily newspapers still keep City Hall beat reporters on the job, but it’s viewed as a sunk cost, rather than than a venue for differentiation and to attract daily readers. And in towns like Chicago where there are multiple news outlets covering local government every day, basic city hall reporting is pretty much the same, barring stylistic differences noticeable only by the most dedicated readers. (Insider political publications like The Daily Line and Capitol Fax are a different breed, since they contain a level of detail no average reader would ever care to ingest.)

But smaller cities, like Peoria and Carbondale, are almost entirely lacking regular local government coverage because newsrooms just can’t afford it like in years past. As a result, when something big happens, and news organizations are caught flat-footed, by missing major details or even the entire story, local audiences lose faith in the publication, dropping the daily news habit.

Creating and maintaining The Illinois Local News Wire would be relatively cheap and easy. Contracted on five-year basis and operated by a non-profit news organization, such as Illinois Public Radio or the Illinois Press Association, operating a strong team of text-only reporters and editors for every city and county over 30,000 people in Illinois would cost less than $3 million a year. Like the old City News Bureau in Chicago, reporters would stick to the basics of government meetings, announcements and elections. Investigative work could come from the local paper of record, while The Illinois Local News Wire would provide baseline reporting.

Like other wire services, reporting content would be made available to qualifying news organizations, with a low hurdle, such as membership with The Illinois Press Association, or demonstrating that your organization includes more than one full-time editorial staffer. Like most Associated Press reports, only publications could have access to the reporting. The point is to drive local news publication readership, and for local editors to make local editorial decisions.

Creating an Illinois Local News Wire would free up local news organizations to fill their pages with stories readers really want, give local politicians and leaders a platform to communicate citizens, and ensure local governments across the state get the watchdog reporting they need to stay honest and effective. It’s time for us to recognize that the free market has failed, and local government and politics reporting is too important to let lapse.

Chance Has Just One To Make Chicagoist Work

This morning Chance Bennett, a.k.a., Chance The Rapper, announced his acquisition of Chicagoist from the shambling remains of Joe Ricketts’ DNAInfo-Gothamist company. It’s a great title with a significant audience, and one that I have deep affection for, since I was one of the four founding writers, when “Chicagoist Prime”, Rachelle Bowden, kicked it off in 2004.

Among media-types, there’s been a hue and cry about the publication’s editorial future, especially since in Mr. Bennett’s announcement, via his new song “I Might Need Security”, he says, “I bought the Chicagoist just to run you racist bitches outta business.” Yes, there’s conjecture: but who exactly is he talking about here?

But let’s assume Mr. Bennett can work out a strong, independent editorial policy. The real question is: How is he going to make sure the publication thrives without regular cash injections? What’s the business plan?

Anyone who’s paid attention to news media knows, local publications have been shrinking and closing at a furious rate for the last ten years. The reason: the economics of local news is bad and getting worse.

Chicagoist, despite its local content, did not have a locally operated business. Part of the Gothamist Network, it benefited from being part of a national and somewhat-global chain of -ist publications that sold ad space to national brands. Severed from that chain, Chicagoist is no longer a compelling ad buy for ad agencies who are looking for large quantities of targeted consumers. While Chicagoist may have a few hundred thousands unique visitors a month, that pales in comparison to Tronc’s network or the vast, targetable audience available through an ad exchange.

Many other local publications are generally not doing well. The Chicago Reader was recently sold to owners of The Chicago Crusader, and their new business plan remain unclear. The Sun-Times, sold to a union-led group last year, kept most of the same business team that was hemorrhaging money in the past, and Crain’s Chicago Business has slashed its staff while the paper edition has gotten thinner almost every week.

Crain’s, as well as the once-robust Time Out: Chicago, have put a great deal of energy into hosting paid events. The local media rumor mill says these events have helped prop up earnings, but the efforts required building new infrastructure which doesn’t necessarily translate into more editorial spending. The thinning paper editions and shrinking editorial staffs bear that out.

Launching a new, local, widely-targeted publication is extremely difficult. Chicago is a big enough city that word of mouth doesn’t reach every corner quickly. At the same time, your real competition for local eyeballs isn’t other local publications, but everything global and national. A new publication is trying to steal eyeballs from The Source, The New York Times, High Times, Vox, Le Figaro, Facebook and a million other publications down the long tail.

But Chicagoist has only been closed since November 2017! Plenty of people remember and love it, right? They’ll come right back!

Maybe. Readers are fickle, and once a daily habit gets broken, they have to be given a good reason to come back. And more importantly, they need to hear about it in the first place, and decide they want to see what the fuss is about.

As a result, Mr. Bennett will really only get one opportunity to make his new Chicagoist work. Prospective readers will take one look, and then quickly decide if the new site is worth their time, then either bookmark it, or surf away forever.

This is a hard reality. Many readers have moved on and satiated their content needs with other websites or activities. Contrary to what many journalists believe, news is not part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and most news consumers are not very discerning. It doesn’t matter whether they get it from Yahoo! News, the Chicago Tribune or Chicagoist. What matters is whether or not they read something interesting to talk about with their friends and family.

So, what’s the business plan? Digital advertising is collapsing for local publications and to run events, you need a big, regular audience (A Chicagoist-Chance concert would be cool, but is Mr. Bennett willing to do that every quarter, or month?). Subscription-based publications are thriving, like The Daily Line, a political news site I founded (and sold), or neighborhood-news site Block Club Chicago.

These publications have fierce, dedicated followings that crave a specific kind of reporting. Their audiences are much smaller than ad-supported news sites. I wonder if Chance The Rapper is interested in owning a niche news site with a few thousand, dedicated but paying readers.

I’m sincerely hoping he’s not planning to turn Chicagoist into an expensive platform for his personal political views. We’ve already got that with Progress Illinois, the Illinois News Network, and One Illinois.

And then, there’s an entirely different possibility. Maybe Mr. Bennett wants to turn Chicagoist into a kind of “Players Tribune” for entertainers. Maybe he’d like to use the title as platform for something other than news. Perhaps he is thinking of creating a site about the experience of Black Chicago, a sorely under-reported topic. “Chicagoist” could mean so many things. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to what it’s meant in the past.

In any case, I wish Mr. Bennett’s new publication success. Chicago news media needs more to smile about.

Note: The original post erroneously stated the Chicago Reader had been sold to owners of the Chicago Defender. It is the owners of the Chicago and Gary Crusader newspapers.

In Praise of Federal Bureaucrats

When I was twenty-eight I owned four dark suits and one light. I kept an extra pair of white shirts in my office because Washington summers were muggy, and you wanted to look crisp if you were called to an important meeting. In the morning, after I was woken up by the thud of cannon fire at nearby Fort Meyers, I’d walk a few blocks to the always crowded Metro, and ride seven stops to my job in a big federal building with brutalist architecture.

An enterprising Cambodian woman with a coffee cart outside the main entrance to the Department of Energy, rapidly poured steaming lattes and all-blacks to the hundreds streaming to their jobs. Once in the lobby, we’d wave our badges at the phalanx of federal police guarding the entrance.

We jammed into the elevators, then the crowd thinned out riding to the top floor. Exhilaration of a new day would thrill, as our leather shoes clicked down the long, white linoleum hallways to our desks.

By the time I got to work at eight in the morning, the building was buzzing with colonels and commanders, usually there since four. The military side was always busy, and seemed frustrated that civilians worked four hours later than them.

Click-clacking down the linoleum, I’d pass ones and twos of jacket-less men, clad in short-sleeved, white button-down shirts with pocket protectors carrying three-ring binders filled with tabs. Just as many women moved through the halls, carrying binders of their own and color-coded manila folders, with long skirts and far-from-couture blouses in muted colors.

The action began as soon as I turned on my computer. Hours of email from always the awake military side, and strings of conversation from the West Coast civilians. Debates about rules, policies and science. A young man appointed to my job by politicians, I was outclassed by the permanent workers surrounding me. Dozens of best-in their field engineers, Ph.D. economists and a smattering of scientists who’d only a few months ago been smashing protons together.

Every day was a struggle to read more, learn more and keep up with the dialogue. Women and men would rattle off esoteric and obscenely detailed knowledge of science, economic models written in Excel and the health impacts on projected tens of thousands of people. Careful! Because just a change in one phrase of a rule could impact a hundred thousand Americans. It was often repeated: You had to get things right, because in federal policy-making, you didn’t get a second chance any time soon.

Riding down the elevator, stopping in program offices, you’d encounter phalanxes of balding men and widening women, who signed up for their jobs decades ago, planning to become experts in their fields. Now, they were The Person who knew all the things. It might be about radioactive waste glassification, solar panels, carbon valuation, diesel particulates, climate change negotiation strategies or Saudi oil wells.

Working to solve a problem in government, or markets, you’d go looking for The Person, and when you found them, they’d be ensconced in a beige cubicle, walls covered by printed charts, kid art and maybe a certificate of Excellent Federal Service.

The Person would swivel in their chair, you’d ask your question, and then a geyser of knowledge would come out. Moments later, they’d produce three-ring binders of studies with charts, graphs and detailed narrative. It was too much. Your question was answered, but you had to find a way to cap the geyser, so much was the desire to pour out understanding. This was the Federal Government, and they had to make sure the policy was Done Right The First Time.

Everyone knew, after fifteen years or so, you could jump to the private sector and double your salary. But they stayed. Many until mandatory retirement, even a few who petitioned for and got exceptions to stay longer because they were The Person Who Knew Things, and didn’t want to leave until someone was trained up to replace them.

It stiffened my spine, being amongst so many earnest men and women. They talked about Serving The President with stone faces, and the word America was invoked often and never in jest. They were civil servants, many serving what they thought of as a call to work for our nation, even if most citizens would never understand what they do every day.

These are the people I think of when I hear about federal bureaucrats. We don’t laud them like soldiers or sailors, and they don’t face bullets or shells, yet today, their dedication and commitment to rules, policies and science maintains the line between rule of law and authoritarianism in our country.

I am grateful for their service.

Two Guys Go: Travel Videos To Latin America

Almost two months ago my friend Darian and I flew down to Mexico City to check out the city over Memorial Day weekend. Darian work in the travel business and happens to be an expert on Latin America and I wanted to shoot some video. So we decided to make a travel video. This week, I present to you, Two Guys Go: Mexico City, the first of our travel video series.

It turns out that making a decent travel video is hard work. You need to plan logistics, research where you’re going, make sure you’ve got good shots, and say lots of witty and informative things. If you surf YouTube, most travel videos stay interesting with bikini shots and so-called “adventure travel”, but since we’re two middle-aged dudes, that’s not in the cards.

Two Guys Go is meant to be a realistic guide to travel. We go to places that aren’t typical tourist haunts and are far from “glam” travel. If you’re thinking about going to Mexico City, you could certainly do everything we did and expect to experience the city as many Mexicans do.

So, click here to watch our videos, subscribe to our YouTube channel Two Guys Go, and if you like it, tell all your friends to do the same!