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North Park Kicks Off Breakfast Series

North Park Trustee Owen Youngman and President David Parkyn

CHICAGO (October 16, 2009) – The future of the newspaper as we know it is uncertain, three of Chicago’s best and most experienced journalists told attendees at the inaugural North Park Breakfast Series event, held October 13 at the University Club of Chicago.

The School of Business and Nonprofit Management sponsored the breakfast, and initiated the series as a way to bring together the University’s faculty, staff, and students to network and hear from industry leaders.

“Newspapers have to define themselves on their own terms and seek to succeed in that context,” said Charles Madigan, editor of the book, -30- The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper, and one of three panelists who contributed to the discussion. “Every successful business in history has learned that lesson— except this one,” he explained. “I’ve never seen anybody flee so far away from a mission . . .from anything that is vaguely like the coverage of news (as it) looked 20 years ago.”

Currently a presidential writer in residence at Roosevelt University, Madigan is also a former international and national editor and columnist for multiple news organizations.

John P. McCormick, the deputy editor of the editorial page for the Tribune, and a former correspondent for Newsweek, and Owen Youngman, Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, rounded out the panel.

McCormick was the editorial board member that Gov. Rod Blagojevich allegedly demanded be fired in exchange for $100 million or more in state funding to renovate Wrigley Field. Youngman, a 37-year veteran at the Chicago Tribune, and the newspaper’s first director of interactive media, is also a member of North Park Board of Trustees.

The Tribune has gone through a series of labor cuts, but the newspaper is also operating with a new understanding of itself and mission as a watchdog. As a result, McCormick said, “There’s an energy there that I did not see when I arrived nine years ago.”

Youngman noted that although millions of people may visit a newspaper’s website each month, that doesn’t necessarily translate into good news for advertisers, who are footing the bill under the current business model. Even if news media companies do good journalism, they still have to figure out how to market the product in an environment that is changing at a dizzying pace.

Readers spend an average of 475 minutes a month reading the print edition of the Tribune,” Youngman said. Although there are more than three million unique visitors to the newspaper’s website each month, they spend only a tiny fraction of the time reading the product as do print consumers. In June the average visitor to the Tribune’s website didn’t linger long—just over 15 minutes.

All three panelists believe a market will continue to exist for print products. Madigan emphasized that print publications will need to focus on niche markets.

Corporations will also have to make a commitment to producing a quality product at a reasonable rate of profit, rather than greedily grasping at 20 to 30 percent. Such shortsighted goals—which have led to massive layoffs and closures—have diluted the
product.

Madigan lamented that in the last two years, “almost all of my friends have been fired and almost all of their newspapers have collapsed and gone into bankruptcy. I’ve come to the conclusions that the blame should not be on the shoulders of the journalists who have been shafted, but on the shoulders of the people who have run the newspaper for the last 35 years.”

Despite much of the gloomy news, the three said they still are optimistic about the future of journalism, as people will still want places to get accurate information. Although the three disagreed at times as to exactly what caused the current upheaval and what the future will look like, Madigan said, “Our value is in journalism. It’s not in how its presented—it’s how its collected, how we think about it, how aggressive we are about that.”

The next Breakfast Series event will focus on the Chicago real-estate market and will be held April 14 at the same location.


Photo: North Park trustee and panelist Owen Youngman (left) with President David Parkyn.