Why is John Kass on A2 of the Chicago Tribune?
March 8, 2008 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Why is John Kass on A2 of the Chicago Tribune?

I'm hoping that some MeFites with knowledge of newspaper layout/journalism can solve a puzzler for me. John Kass is a columnist who has a piece on page A2 of the Chicago Tribune four days a week. Is it normal layout to put an opinion piece on A2 with just a byline and no indication that this is random commentary? When I first got a Trib subscription I wondered is he was important in the editorial structure of the paper or, or a journalist, or something. As best I can tell he's just an Angry Right-Wing Dude. Can someone fill me in on why he's featured so prominently? Googling and the wiki don't help me much here.
posted by a robot made out of meat to Media & Arts (10 answers total)
He took the slot from Mike Royko who had held it for years. The Trib, if I recall correctly, "tried out" different columnists and ultimately thought Kass had the same vibe as Royko.
posted by zerobyproxy at 11:33 AM on March 8, 2008

Not to derail, but Kass is definitely no Royko. Guy is a complete bonehead. I canceled my Trib subscription in 2004 when they were the only major daily in the country to endorse Bush for reelection.
posted by wfrgms at 11:40 AM on March 8, 2008

I worked at Chicago's other paper for a while.

I'm not 100% sure I understand the question.

I think Kass would tell you he's a journalist. He's also a columnist, which means he's free to inject his opinion in what he writes. Since he writes on the news (and not, say, relationships or lifestyles), he appears in a news section. The fact that he has his head floating above the type is supposed to tip you off to the fact that he's a columnist and gets more latitude than other writers at the paper.

A2 is sort of prime real estate for a columnist, so I would say it's roughly equivalent to the Trib telling you, "Hey, this is the best news columnist he have!" Take that for what it's worth.

Does this help at all? There are a lot of rather arcane newspaper conventions and traditions that are taken for granted by people who work there and by some regular readers and are probably completely opaque to many readers.

One of my favorite examples was that we used to set "feature" stories (i.e., maybe a concert review in the Metro section, something that wasn't hard news) in ragged-right, rather than justified, type as some sort of subtle signal to the reader that it wasn't hard news! Sarcasm: Yeah, I'm sure everyone picked right up on that!
posted by veggieboy at 11:47 AM on March 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: veggieboy: I guess I'm wondering why all the other news commentary shows up under "commentary" on the last page. If "Hey, this is the best news columnist he have!" is the message the Trib is trying to send, that's how I interpreted it. For reasons similar to wfrgms that left me scratching my head. Actually I thought that he must be friends with the owner or something, because the tone was so different from even the other commentary articles. Is that a decision that gets made by the editorial board, or the publisher, or what?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:31 PM on March 8, 2008

Response by poster: I guess I should add that a position right at the beginning of the news I assumed to be reserved for senior/excellent analysis. After all, it's right next to all the stuff that's supposed to be 'facts'.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:33 PM on March 8, 2008

Kass is not Royko, but Royko held that position in the paper for years. For the Sun Times too. So I guess my answer is: there was historical precedent. No other reason jumps to mind.
posted by zerobyproxy at 1:37 PM on March 8, 2008

Best answer: There are two issues here: (a) a structural/organizational issue about why Kass appears where he does in the paper and (b) a content issue about why he sucks.

As for (a), I see what you're saying about the columnist's position next to the "objective" news being a bit odd. I don't know how exactly to explain that except to point to tradition/history, as others have. I don't mean just because Royko had the spot, though. There has long been a tradition of having columnists who mix news, analysis, humor, opinion into their columns, and putting these columns throughout the paper.

Regarding the commentary page, that's a separate department of the paper, with its own editor and command structure. Kass does not work for the same people who put together that part of the paper. Why is this a separate part of the paper? In part because that's where whoever owns the paper gets to express his/her/their opinion in the form of unsigned editorials that supposedly reflect the opinion of the paper as an institution. It's separate from the newsroom because the newsroom is supposed to be objective. In the commentary (or op-ed) section, beyond those unsigned editorials, you get opinion pieces by different people that may reflect a broad spectrum of views or, more likely, have some token opposition voices while being mostly dedicated to the political bent of whoever controls the paper.

Onto (b): If you think Kass is a tool and wonder why someone would give him that space, well. . . on some level, it's a matter of taste and/or politics. Is he friends with the owner? I don't think so. I guess he could have been drinking buddies with an editor, sure. There are certainly office politics in newsrooms like anywhere else. People get promoted for mysterious reasons all the time.

In the case of Kass, I was going to say the people who gave him his job are probably long gone, but knowing the Tribune, many of them are probably still there. In any case, getting rid of a columnist is a bit like trying to get rid of a professor with tenure. In most cases, good luck!

The decision to give him his job was likely made by the managing editor, a city editor or two and maybe the editor-in-chief, but almost certainly not the publisher, who is mostly concerned with the business side of the newspaper.

You're asking about who makes the decision about the tone of his columns? The answer is probably John Kass. That's one of the prerogatives of writing a column in the newspaper. Does someone edit him? Yes, of course. But the idea with columnists is usually that they are paid to write like themselves, and so editing their tone or voice is frowned upon.

Ultimately, just because you don't like him, doesn't mean other people don't. If you find him too conservative, remember that the Tribune is trying to appeal to people outside the city limits. Many suburbs are conservative strongholds.

Don't know if this is a very satisfying answer, but I gave it a shot.
posted by veggieboy at 2:52 PM on March 8, 2008

Best answer: Yeah, there are several bundled questions here. The most basic about the A2 slot is that Royko worked his way up to that position at the Daily News in the 1960s/1970s, and when that folded, moved over to the Sun-Times in the same position (both papers were owned by Marshall Field IV). When the latter was sold to News Corp./Murdoch, Royko jumped to the paper he loathed, but less than he loathed Murdoch, the Trib. Getting A2 was a contract thing, all but certain. (I don't remember what ran in that slot before he got it, but it was probably the same sort of low-signal infotainment/gossip stuff that other papers seem to use it for.) When he died, the Trib decided they liked having the prestige granted by Royko basically owning the city politics/corruption beat, and Kass did the best job of filling that role. Keeping it is as much a matter of your rolodex and your leg-men as it is writing ability; Kass is certainly no match for Royko's poison pen or flights of fancy a la Slats Grobnick. But he knows who's doing what for whom, and that's critical.

Since he reports incessantly on the workings of the Chicago Democratic Machine, which manages to combine unusually credible City That Works effectiveness with legendary Outfit (Mafia)-driven corruption, and what Illinoisans call the Combine (the bipartisan agreement to grant the spoils of state politics to various special interests, the highway construction industry in particular), he may come across as Angry Right Wing Dude, but I don't take that as his role. He's certainly a Joe Sixpack type. (I once listened in to him using the Billy Goat counter as a bullpen.) He's no progressive. But he does have proper contempt for the more contemptible doings of the Daley administration. (If he writes more often nowadays about broader politics, that's changed since I was a daily reader.) And he's an authentic Chicago voice. If you go back in time you'll see that he beat the drum on behalf of the Willis family, the most direct victims of (Republican) Gov. Ryan's CDL-selling shenanigans as Secretary of State.

Is he fulfilling those needs for the Trib? Maybe, maybe not. The superglue that made Bob Greene impossible to dislodge probably applies. Columnists can often have political positions in the paper that exceed the clout of their editors. I imagine it would take a change in ownership to demote him (Sam Zell just bought the company, but it's unclear what major changes he may yet have in mind.)

As for the Trib's endorsement of Bush, you must realize that it's one of the old-line Republican papers, going back to the days of Col. McCormick. My personal story here is that in the 1940s my grandfather decided to run for school board in his south suburb; logically, as he was a professor in the Education department at the University of Chicago. The Tribune decided to run an editorial denouncing several city and suburban candidates who were connected with the university, intimating that they were all Communists. (This is quite funny, considering the conservative ("classical liberal") reputation of the U of C, particularly its Economics department, and its connection to the Rockefeller family.) My grandfather never bought another Tribune as long as he lived, and the only Republican he voted for afterward was Ike. Anyway, I don't believe that the paper has ever once endorsed a Democrat for President in its entire history. They do, however, do a pretty good job these days of endorsing candidates in local and state elections regardless of party, if only because it would be pointless to endorse a Republican for (say) Mayor.
posted by dhartung at 4:35 PM on March 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I wasn't complaining that he sucks (eye of the beholder, opinions, etc) as getting at that it was not "reporting tone". The history about Royko and the info about how the news/commentary page are structured at a newspaper are exactly what I was looking for.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:13 PM on March 8, 2008

I'm just popping in to say that this is a fascinating discussion, and that I've lived in at least two cities, neither of 'em particularly Windy, with a paper that gave a columnist that same spot on the page.
posted by box at 6:41 PM on March 8, 2008

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