Both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times published Extra editions on Tuesday after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested in the early morning hours by FBI agents for what’s being called a “staggering” level of corruption involving pay-to-play politics.
The Tribune has been tracking the story for days, even weeks and months if you take the sum of the newspaper’s coverage into the accounting. Indeed, the newspaper played a critical role in the criminal complaint against the governor and had even withheld some stories at the behest of the government.
Among the charges: The sitting governor had allegedly put a “for sale” sign on the Senate seat that was occupied by President-Elect Barack Obama, an appointment that Blagojevich has sole power in filling.
The governor had also apparently sought to have a Tribune editorial writer fired in exchange for a deal on Wrigley Field, which the troubled company (Tribune filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday) has been trying to sell to relieve debt.
We checked in with the design minds at both papers.
“We had a series of exclusives over the last week and were staking out the governor’s house Tuesday morning when they arrested him,” said Steve Cavendish, the Tribune’s graphics editor and a longtime Society member. “By 8 a.m. we had an alert out that he had been taken into custody. After that, it was a combination of chasing the story all day and putting out an extra edition for afternoon commuters.”
The Tribune’s down-river rival, the Sun-Times, was working on a similar plan. Designer James Smith and Craig Newman, the paper’s deputy design director, quickly cranked out an Extra that could hit the streets as Chicagoans were heading home for the day.
Neither paper had long to fire up the presses.
“We pulled everything together in about three hours – eight pages of stories, graphics and photos from scratch between Noon and 3 p.m. Since we didn’t think that the state was going to act so quickly, we hadn’t prepped any of this in advance,” Cavendish said.
For journalists at the Tribune, the news was coming in the wake of Monday’s revelations about the company’s future. That information was already weighing heavily on the collective newsroom mind when the governor was arrested.
“I’ve got to say, for a staff that had been told about their company filing Chapter 11 proceedings the day before, this put a jump back in everyone’s step,” Cavendish said. “There’s nothing like news to raise the morale of a newsroom.”
And the Sun-Times, reportedly on the brink of extinction for more than a year, was mobilizing with its own skeleton staff.
“Four people put out that Extra edition,” said Eric White, the design director at the Sun-Times, who’s also a Society member. “It’s amazing how James and Craig, along with news editors Zach Finken and Joel Carlson were able to quickly craft that afternoon edition.”
The Tribune newsroom, especially, has been hit hard in recent days by bad economic news as its parent company sorts out the future. And the paper has been a key part of the case against the governor, working hard to uncover corruption in the administration and championing the cause on its editorial pages.
A collision of personal and professional responsibility played out in Chicago this week.
“There’s a lot of stuff floating around these days about what bad shape everyone is in financially, the absolute gutting of the business model and the death of newspapers in general. It can’t help but get people down,” Cavendish said.
But the morale was definitely different on Tuesday at 435 N. Michigan Avenue.
“It’s days like this that make everyone stand a little taller, work a little harder and feel good about what we do,” Cavendish said. “The fact of the matter is that the governor of the state was caught on tape planning to get some of our colleagues fired. And for what? Telling the truth. If that doesn’t motivate you as a journalist, nothing will.”
Matt Mansfield is the vice president of the Society for News Design and an associate professor for the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.