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by Christopher Brinckerhoff

chicagojournalismtownhall

On Sunday, February 22, I rode a rumbling Metra train into a soggy, gray, goose-pimpled Chicago, en route to the Chicago Journalism Town Hall. Along the way I skimmed John Callaway’s book, “The Thing of It Is,” lent to me by my mom.

One of my favorite parts of the book includes Callaway’s first days in Chicago trying to find something to eat, somewhere to sleep and a job to do. One of the things he did after his regular nine-to-five job was act in and write plays. He was passionate about his acting and play writing, but his peers did not share appreciation for his work.

Young Callaway often shared anecdotes with his friends about what it was like to work for a newspaper, something he had marvelous stories about because both his parents produced a newspaper in his small hometown, New Martinsville, West Virginia.

One day one of the actors in Callaway’s play-producing crowd told him his acting and scripts were lacking. His peer said since he talked about writing for newspapers so much, that’s what he should do. And that’s exactly what Callaway did, working his way all the way from a cub reporter at the Chicago News Bureau to a lead anchor on the WTTW Chicago Tonight nightly broadcast.

Callaway has always been able to move my blood, even before journalism became my passion. He’s an excitable nerd with an everyman shtick. When you watch him work you get the sense he fuses the important hard questions with the intriguing soft ones.

The Chicago Journalism Town Hall was a panel discussion on the future of news in Chicago hosted by the Chicago Community Trust at the Allegro Hotel, formerly the Bismarck Hotel. There I met Mr. Callaway, one of the event’s panelists, for the first and only time when he arrived with a snot-covered upper lip. He had an alert, rushed look on his face, and I said, “Good morning, Mr. Callaway.”

He said, “Hello” with emphasis, and was then briskly ushered away.

What followed was one of those experiences in life you remember forever.

Callaway, Eric Zorn, Michael Miner and Carol Marin, among others, presented some of their ideas about what new media is, and means, for established journalists like them and new journalists like me.

Ken Davis, former program director at WBEZ-FM, moderated the discussion. At the outset the group discussed how success could be had in new media. Is it a question of altering current business models? Is it a question of reinventing a business model from scratch?

There is a problem with theft in online news, according to Callaway. Contrary opinions were that it is more a case of extending the reaches of information for the benefit of the public, writers and information distributors.

Mr. Callaway proposed, for the purposes of our discussion, let us presume newspapers no longer exist. Then, what happens, and how soon?

“Newspapers essentially don’t exist,” Callaway said. “What do you want to see? Who does it? Who pays for it? And what’s the transitional timeline to get from here to there? One of the people missing from the panel, I’m assuming, want to hear an advertiser. They’re never discussed about in the context of journalism. What’s the purpose of a publication Mr. Zell? It’s to sell advertising and make money. Zell isn’t here either. Conrad Black, thank God, isn’t with us. But the point is there are some elephants that aren’t in the room. Advertisers… hell, they can’t get their message across online. What are they going to do? These are people that have real goods and services that they’re going to sell. The hell with journalism, we just want to peddle something.”

The following video I took at the Chicago Journalism Town Hall.

Below is a complete audio recording.

Four months later, almost to the day, John Callaway passed away. At the Chicago Journalism Town Hall he said when newspapers cease to exist, except for an expensive commemorative edition, our experience of news will never be the same. Now that he’s gone, I think the same could be said of him. I miss John Callaway. I hope we remember his excitable nerd spirit and everyman shtick.

Copyright 2009

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