On a sunny Sunday afternoon in late February hundreds of print, broadcast and digital journalists sat shoulder to shoulder in a downtown hotel ballroom where they pondered the future of their profession.
For more than three hours participants in the Chicago Journalism Town Hall argued passionately about how local news should be funded and how newsrooms should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve if they are to remain viable.
By mid-March hypothetical questions of survival suddenly became frighteningly real, thanks to the specter of a coronavirus pandemic.
For the remainder of 2020, COVID-19 would challenge the media as never before. Along with the misery and suffering brought on by the worst public health crisis in a century, journalists found themselves covering economic upheaval triggered by a prolonged lockdown, social unrest tied to a national reckoning on race and an incendiary presidential election like no other.
Chicago media professionals showed amazing ingenuity and dedication as they reinvented their business on the fly.
As bricks-and-mortar newsrooms turned into ghost towns, journalists found creative ways to do their jobs from remote locations. Living rooms, dens, kitchens and bedrooms became makeshift studios for broadcasters. Lola, the beagle in the background of Cheryl Scott’s nightly weather forecasts on ABC 7, gained a social media following of her own.
Plummeting advertising revenues prompted massive layoffs, furloughs, buyouts and salary cuts at media companies across the board.
Scores of jobs were eliminated. But no journalist’s firing sparked as much outrage as that of legendary investigative reporter Pam Zekman, who was cut after 39 years at CBS 2 without so much as a word from her bosses. Over an unparalleled career with two Chicago newspapers and CBS 2, Zekman earned two Pulitzer Prizes, two Peabody Awards, two duPont-Columbia Awards and 24 Emmy Awards.
Equally stunning was the announced retirement of Carol Marin, another one of Chicago’s most honored and respected journalists. After 48 years in the news business, Marin declared: “I’ve had a great run, but I want to walk off the news stage when I feel great about it still.”
Other prominent voices who chose to step away from the mic in 2020 included Radio Hall of Famer Orion Samuelson, Felicia Middlebrooks, Steve Sanders, Vince Gerasole, John Dempsey, Rich Warren and Brian O’Keefe.
On leaving his morning radio gig, shock jock Erich Mancow Muller cited the impact of the pandemic: “Much of the enjoyment I had left doing radio has been sucked out of it,” he said. “Alone in an office building with no guests and endless rules is not my idea of a creative process. . . . For me, no interaction has been the radio kiss of death.”
Editorial leadership at both the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times also changed hands. Bruce Dold was forced out in February as publisher and editor-in-chief of the Tribune, ending a 42-year career at the paper. Chris Fusco resigned in September as executive editor of the Sun-Times to help launch a news startup in central California.
Among the year’s media casualties were: 22nd Century Media, publisher of 14 suburban weeklies; the print edition of Windy City Times; the tabloid RedEye; the Sunday supplement Splash; the trade publication TV Week; country music station Big 95.5; and longtime ethnic and foreign-language station WCEV.
New to the media scene were Marquee Sports Network, the regional sports network operated by Sinclair Broadcast Group and the Chicago Cubs, and “News Nation,” a three-hour prime-time newscast on WGN America, the Chicago-based cable network owned by Nexstar Media Group.
Other hopeful signs included the launch of CBSN Local, the streaming news service of CBS 2; the Glenview Herald and the Northbrook Herald, two new weeklies from Daily Herald Media Group; and The Record Community News Group, a nonprofit site serving the North Shore by alumni of 22nd Century Media.
Notable personalities of the year:
There was less of Tom Skilling to go around after the superstar meteorologist underwent gastric bypass surgery and shed more than 100 pounds. “I’m a different human being, and I really am very surprised at how differently I feel,” said the newly svelte Skilling.
Twenty-three years after he succeeded Mike Royko as the Chicago Tribune’s star columnist, John Kass found his colleagues turning against him. In April he came under fire for blasting media elites “doing just fine during the coronavirus shutdown” — days after Tribune Publishing furloughed hundreds of journalists. (Kass later clarified: “I was not referring to reporters, many of whom have been laid off as coronavirus negatively impacts local advertising.”) In July his column was moved off Page 2 and relegated to an op-ed page labeled “Tribune Voices” after the Chicago Tribune Guild accused him of invoking anti-Semitic tropes in a column about billionaire George Soros. Calling himself a victim of “cancel culture,” Kass said: “I will not apologize for writing about Soros. . . . I will not soil my name by groveling to anyone in this or any other newsroom.”
Amy Jacobson, the former Chicago TV reporter who became an outspoken radio talk show host, sued Governor J.B. Pritzker for barring her from participating in his daily coronavirus media briefings. Backed by the conservative public-interest Liberty Justice Center, Jacobson claimed the ban violated her First Amendment rights as a journalist. Pritzker and his press secretary, Jordan Abudayyeh, rescinded the ban and welcomed back Jacobson.
Dan McNeil, veteran sports talk host at The Score, posted what his bosses called a “degrading and humiliating” tweet about the wardrobe of a female sideline reporter who was covering “Monday Night Football” for ESPN. The next day McNeil was fired. “I apologize, @MariaTaylor, for the harsh critique of your outfit on MNF,” Danny Mac later tweeted. “Going for a quick laugh, I failed conclusively.”
In November Melissa McGurren disappeared without explanation as co-host of Eric Ferguson’s top-rated morning show. By December she was out of The Mix entirely. Her bosses said they’d offered McGurren a contract extension but she declined. McGurren and her agent disputed that explanation but offered none of their own. It all seemed too reminiscent of the drama that unfolded in 2017 when Kathy Hart severed ties after 21 years as Ferguson’s co-host.
After 16 years as TV play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs, Len Kasper gave it up to become the radio voice of the Chicago White Sox. His stunning announcement followed the move of White Sox radio broadcasts to ESPN 1000. “Whether it makes sense to others doesn’t matter,” Kasper told the Daily Herald’s Barry Rozner. “I did it for myself. I’m not looking back and I’m really excited. People say, ‘You might regret it.’ I haven’t yet, but the mystery and the unknown of that is the fun of it.”
Sean Compton, the Nexstar Media Group executive overseeing WGN Radio, made plenty of head-scratching decisions — from firing familiar personalities to importing syndicated swill. But his oddest move was banning Svengoolie, the iconic horror-movie host on MeTV, played for more than 40 years by Rich Koz. “As part of Nexstar Media, it’s frustrating to see our own talent promoting and encouraging competitive podcasts and media,” Compton wrote in a staff memo. “This past weekend we had a talent promoting Svengoolie who works at MeTV. Remember that we own Antenna TV, and MeTV is a primary competitor.”
Chicago Public Media suffered a rare black eye when its newly hired president and chief executive officer backed out in the wake of a scandal that occurred on her watch at a previous employer. “Andi [McDaniel] is a thoughtful person of deep integrity, and believes that all good leaders take responsibility when things go awry,” the nonprofit company’s board said in a statement. “In order to respond appropriately to the dramatic shifts in our nation’s climate since her hire, Chicago Public Media will reconvene to take a fresh look at the search process overall and then embark on a renewed effort to hire a new CEO.”