Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Might as well face it

President Bush finally has confessed his addiction, and pledged to cut back on the finer-grade stuff.

"America is addicted to oil," Bush states in his State of the Union address. Yet his goal is to reduce only Middle East imports. No need to go cold turkey. Twenty years should do the trick.

He follows with an education pledge to double basic research spending over 10 years. In real terms that may prove next to no increase at all, provided anyone is left who can do the math.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dybek dybbuk

I Sailed With MagellanStuart Dybek caught my attention 15 years ago with his Chicago settings and his quicksilver changes of scene, where staring at swirls of Pet milk stirs memory of a "Risky Business" encounter.

I found his "I Sailed With Magellan" at the central library 10 days ago before Brenda called me home to fix the furnace. Now it's a dreamy 50 degrees outside and protagonist Perry Katzek has developed as quickly as the thaw. The book's repertory cast and its dreamlike setting, simultaneously 1968 South Lawndale and present-day Little Village, leave marks of the writer's creation scattered about.

Like jazz, it's both rehearsed and improvised. I've enjoyed this type of writing since Charles Dickenson's "Rumor Has It" took a newspaper office where the writer and I both worked and made it his own private world.

"What part was real?" friend Temma asked after we saw the movie "Smoke" a decade ago. Except for maybe a photo of a Brooklyn tobacco shop, it was all smoke. "I Sailed With Magellan" seemed to conjure a neighborhood from clouds in the coffee.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Last word on landmarks

What's left to say about the East Village Landmark District after a year of debate? With one final hearing left to attend, I put my reporter's training to work and pulled the clips.

In 1989 it was feared that the Wicker Park landmark district, as reported in the Tribune, would boost property values so high that gentrification would displace the district's residents. A few years later, the calculus involving South Side neighborhoods was whether they were viable enough to reap the economic benefits of landmark status.

How strange that the debate over landmark protection is now whether it will retard development.

Local history suggests that communities thrive or wither for factors quite apart from landmark protection. Benefits are limited to the districts' intended purpose: to protect the characteristics that make a neighborhood unique and invite its growth. Neighbors propose landmark designation not for how it will make their property more valuable, but for what they value in the neighborhood.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Let's move on

Tribune TowerThe first-floor storefront of Tribune Tower reopens this spring not as a pricey gadget store but as a museum to communication and democracy. It's a rare institution that can build a viable business on those principles.

But it's a profit made with apologies. As the Chicago Tribune laid off 100 workers,MoveOn.org launched a petition drive to reverse the layoffs, claiming that news coverage was being sacrificed to corporate profits.

The economy has hit Tribune harder hit than many of its peers, and its stock ended the year at low ebb. Wall Street is indeed demanding a higher profit from Tribune. But analysts seem to be looking for the same profit produced at The New York Times, or Gannett, or Dow Jones.

MoveOn's contention about the layoffs is that investors will see the gains while national and local news coverage coverage suffers. But the stock price hasn't moved up. and neither national nor metro desk was included in the layoffs.

However, City News Bureau was fated to close this weekend. The Tribune operated this local wire service but did not publish its work. Editors considered it a tip service on police and court news that Tribune reporters needed to corroborate. Yet the Tribune also sold the wire service to TV stations and news radio, which aired the reports immediately.

Possibly the Tribune wasn't charging other newsrooms enough for this — the Reader reports that a potential successor, City News Service of Los Angeles, would have raised rates 50 percent. Ultimately the Tribune declined to give their competition so much help. Instead, reporters and editors are being hired to do the same kind of reporting for chicagotribune.com.

My holiday reading included Jim Collins' Good to Great, which tries to explain how businesses start outperforming their competition. Turns out the winners share three factors: They find a business they're passionate about. They try to be the best at it. And they put their resources where they will be most productive.

Being the best at local news is a civic enterprise as well as an economic one. The latest battleground is online — no apologies.