Extra, extra: Enjoy new-and-improved Tribune while it lasts

As promised, the Chicago Tribune delivered a bigger, better, sharper newspaper Wednesday with noticeable improvements in both substance and style.

My advice? Let’s all enjoy it while we can. Because what the Tribune giveth, the Tribune can taketh away. And there’s nothing any of us can do about it.

Once Tribune Co. emerges from bankruptcy (which should be any time now, right?), it’s inevitable that the No. 1 mission of the new regime — no matter who sweeps into Tribune Tower — will be to find ways to reduce expenses and increase profits. What do you think will happen to those costly additional pages and “editorial enhancements” then?

Call me cynical, but there’s something I don’t trust about all the promises and pronouncements that accompanied the redesign Wednesday. Even the higher price consumers will pay was deliberately obfuscated in the press release, which said only that “home-delivery subscribers will continue getting discounts off the newsstand price” — but did not mention that those discounts would be lowered. (And just how is a “decrease in the discount” different from an increase in the price?)

From what I’ve seen, Tribune editor Gerry Kern (pictured left) is a nice man but a journalistic chameleon. In 2009, when Sam Zell and Randy Michaels were running the show at Tribune Co., Kern championed the newspaper’s transformation into a flimsier, flashier product as “a whole new day” for readers, calling it “bolder and brighter, better organized and more relevant to your daily life.”  Now with Zell busy buying office buildings again and Michaels gone, Kern is touting this version of the Tribune as the real deal, saying: “We’ve added depth, dimension and range to the Chicago Tribune to meet the expectations of our most loyal readers.” Which is it, Gerry?

“This is not the pendulum swinging and us going back to an old Tribune,” Kern insisted in a Tribune interview last week. “Our news philosophy is not changing.”

While amnesia may be in fashion among some current editors, at least one former one hasn’t forgotten recent history. On the same day the new Tribune was unveiled, reports surfaced that a former top editor had written a scathing tell-all about the company.

In The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers, just published by PublicAffairs, former managing editor Jim O’Shea (pictured left) reportedly rips everyone from Zell to Kern. I’m still waiting for my copy from Amazon, but early trade reviews and a Crain’s Chicago Business piece by Shia Kapos hint at explosive revelations by O’Shea, who now heads the Chicago News Cooperative.

Welcome though the latest improvements are, there was nothing subtle about the way the Tribune introduced them Wednesday. In addition to a wrap-around guide from Kern and publisher Tony Hunter, page after page practically pleaded: “Aren’t we wonderful now?”

Big black bars across the tops of eight pages carried such messages as: “A new page added to the Chicago Tribune Chicagoland Report.” They reminded me of signs at construction sites, touting public improvements brought to you by your local municipality. One section editor’s note to readers even bragged about offering “sharp, sophisticated political coverage coming off of Monday’s Republican debate.” If you have to call yourself “sophisticated,” I’m afraid you’re not.

After six years on the media beat at the Tribune, Phil Rosenthal debuted his new column in the business section (with a fine piece on the legacy of Chicago's business leaders), while David Kaplan disappeared from Around Town in the sports section, leaving Fred Mitchell solo (although the online version still showed Kaplan and Mitchell sharing a byline).

The renamed and expanded A&E (for Arts and Entertainment) section offered some much-needed breathing room for top-notch theater critic Chris Jones and his colleagues. But its Page 2 Celebrities spot is no substitute for a first-rate personality column, still conspicuously absent from a paper as big as the Tribune. There’s also a nice new box providing prime-time TV listings, but alas there’s still no TV critic on staff.

A bland new section devoted to health, parenting, schools and “other issues affecting family life,” called Chicagoland Health & Family, also debuted Wednesday.

Ironically, despite its impressive enhancements and renewed dedication to local coverage, the Tribune was not where I found the most compelling news story of the day. Rather it was in the Sun-Times where reporter Kim Janssen wrote a riveting account of witnessing a shooting while covering a memorial service for a teen slain in West Humbolt Park.

Reason enough to hope Chicago remains a two-newspaper town for years to come.

By Robert Feder

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