Ahead for 2012: Will Chicago media live up to promises?

In a New Year’s Day message to readers, the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times shared a bright outlook for the company under new owners whose vision, he said, “is firmly fixed on a future that is both innovative and expansive.” His optimism practically leaped off the page.

“The work of our journalists is now available on six different platforms, only one of which is ink on paper,” wrote John Barron. “We are reaching more people than ever before . . . and they are of all ages. And we love how our interactive engagement with readers continues to grow.”

Anyone who cares about journalism in Chicago has to be rooting for the Sun-Times to succeed in whatever form it takes. The year ahead will be crucial in determining whether the digital transformation everyone’s been talking about finally becomes a reality.

I just wish the idea of “interactive engagement with readers” were taken more seriously by some of the writers and editors at the paper I called home for nearly three decades.

In the same Sunday edition that carried Barron’s message, Mary Mitchell opened her column declaring her disdain for all social media. “I just don’t get why so many people want to share so much about their personal business,” she wrote. “I mean, why do I care what a stranger got for Christmas?”

It reminded me of a recent column by another former comrade, Neil Steinberg, who mocked the idea of tweeting as a silly waste of time. His sneering contempt of Twitter recalled those who used to boast that they “never watch television” — as if that conveyed superiority over the masses. (To his credit, Neil has been giving it a try, although I still don't think he gets it.)

I know just how some of my former colleagues feel. But in the three years since I left the paper, I’ve come to understand that “reader engagement” is more than a buzzword. Twitter and Facebook are vital parts of our media world now. They’re also indispensible tools if journalists at the Sun-Times — or anywhere else — are to remain relevant and accessible to their audience. Those who choose to ignore them do so at their peril.

Here’s what else I think we'll see on the media beat in 2012:

  • The long-expected removal of Walter Sabo as chief operating officer of Merlin Media won’t do much to improve the prospects for the company’s struggling all-news station. Although Sabo was the genius most responsible for the worst radio launch in living memory, FM News 101.1 seems hardly better off since CEO Randy Michaels began calling the shots last fall. Latest Arbitron ratings show the station languishing in 42nd place with a 0.3 percent audience share while CBS Radio’s Newsradio AM/FM combo just keeps humming along at the top of the market.
  • Now in its record-breaking fourth year of bankruptcy, Tribune Co. shows no sign of resolving its financial mess. (There won’t even be a hearing on plans to proceed until May at the earliest.) Whenever the bankruptcy does end, there’s likely to be a move to sell off pieces of the company. That could mean new owners and new management for the Chicago Tribune, WGN-TV and WGN-AM (720).
  • Morning news will continue to be a key battleground for Chicago television stations, with changes all but certain for CBS 2, NBC 5 and Fox Chicago’s Good Day Chicago. Unfortunately, CBS 2 bosses are waiting too long to hit the reset button to benefit from the debut next week of CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Oprah’s best friend, Gayle King.
  • As corporations continue to destroy radio, broadcasters will turn increasingly to podcasting as an alternative. The jury is still out on whether Steve Dahl’s subscription model will succeed (even with the welcome addition of Kevin Matthews), but there’s no denying the appeal of unfettered access to listeners online. As the year begins, look for the former morning duo of Brooke Hunter and Jill Egan to reunite as podcasters, and Those Were the Days host Steve Darnall to start a monthly Nostalgia Digest podcast as an extension of his magazine celebrating the golden age of audio entertainment.
  • Another digital play to follow should be the launch in April of ChicagoSide, a local sports website featuring an all-star lineup of writers and columnists, assembled by author and editor Jonathan Eig. Also keep an eye on Chicago magazine to revitalize its website under new editor-in-chief Beth Fenner.
  • The Chicago TV Academy will induct pioneer Burr Tillstrom, performer Marshall Brodien, executives Norman Shapiro, Jim Disch and Ed Spray, newsman Jorge Barbosa, cameraman Steve Lasker and producer Rudy Orisek in its Silver Circle on April 20. A few would-be inductees (including Oprah Winfrey and Ron Magers) have declined over the years. But the conspicuous absence of other worthy honorees (among them Mary Ann Childers, Jay Levine, Bob Sirott, Chuck Goudie, Janet Davies, and the late Gene Siskel, Frazier Thomas and Fahey Flynn) seems almost as shameful as the Radio Hall of Fame’s snubs to Howard Stern and Steve Dahl.
  • The bloom is already off the rose for The Rosie Show. Since its October launch from Harpo Studios, Rosie O’Donnell’s heavily hyped comeback on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network has been a colossal disappointment in the ratings. Barring a miracle, it’ll be gone by year’s end.
  • Media milestones of note in 2012 will include the 25th anniversary of the launch of Fox Chicago News (and the tenure of Robin Robinson as its principal news anchor), as well as the 25th year of ABC 7’s unbroken reign at the top of the ratings.
  • Historian Douglas Brinkley’s definitive biography of Walter Cronkite, the greatest broadcast journalist of the last half-century, will be published this spring by HarperCollins. And maybe, just maybe, Walter Jacobson’s long-awaited memoirs will finally be published by Southern Illinois University Press.

A personal note: Thanks for making this such a rewarding first year for me at Time Out Chicago. I’ll be off the grid for the next 10 days. See you back here January 11. Happy New Year to all!

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)