TWO WRITERS LONG ASSOCIATED WITH the Chicago Tribune’s food coverage are among those leaving the paper in a wave of “voluntary separations” this month: Kevin Pang and Mark Caro. Neither was listed in Robert Feder’s initial story announcing the departing staffers, but Pang was added to the list shortly after its publication and Caro announced that he was leaving last Friday (and is quoted in the updated piece).

Pang was billed as a food and culture writer, but most of his writing was on food. Over time, however, not all of his coverage of food was writing. He won a James Beard Foundation Award in 2010 for a humorous video series produced for the Tribune called The Cheeseburger Show, which one might have read as a tryout for food TV stardom (which didn’t happen). A more serious effort at filmmaking came with his documentary For Grace, about the creation of the restaurant Grace and the turbulent family background of chef Curtis Duffy; it has received general acclaim on the film festival circuit in recent months (Joe Campagna reviewed it for Fooditor here). His taking the buyout is not a surprise; he’s clearly someone who’s not just been ready for a while to play on a national field, he’s actually been doing it (despite reports that the company bans freelancing—for others, anyway), such as contributing to Lucky Peach (where he got another James Beard nomination) and other publications in recent years.

Caro was more of a features writer on culture generally, but many of his pieces were related to food—most notably his multi-part story on chef Charlie Trotter around the time of the restaurant’s closing in 2012, which led to Trotter having him barred from the auction of his restaurant’s furnishings and souvenirs. He is also the author of a 2009 book, The Foie Gras Wars, about attempts to ban the delicacy in places including Chicago (which also started the Trotter-Caro Wars when Trotter objected to how Caro depicted him). So it is not surprising that he cited the opportunity to do more long form, in-depth projects (also known as “books”) as a reason for leaving the Tribune.

 

OKAY, SO THAT WAS MY newspaper-worthy, solidly sourced, nearly opinion-free account of the known facts. Where do I really think the Tribune is going? I know nothing of what these writers were thinking, nor of what really goes on in the gothic manse of the Tribune, but I know what I see as a reader. And the Tribune has seen a real shift in food coverage in the last several months toward a more pop, lightly entertaining approach that looks more like Redeye than the Trib of old.

It seems pretty clear that the Tribune is on a News You Can Use kick at the moment, probably courtesy of some out of town consultants—thus all the headlines that begin with How, What and Where (mostly followed by “To Eat This Weekend”). This is nearly always a bad idea as a central focus/turnaround strategy, because it leads big media outlets to throw away the virtues of what they’re good at and alone have the resources to do—flood the zone, keep a writer on one thing long enough to do it really right—in favor of the five tips for making better chocolate chip cookies kind of stuff, which any blogger can do. (Or for making mice-shaped cookies—eek!)


Okay, so that was my newspaper-worthy, solidly sourced, nearly opinion-free account of the known facts. What do I really think?


Now, I don’t think for a second this drove either of these writers out, but if they’re both looking to do longer deeper pieces (or feature films or whatever), I doubt they were exactly inspired to give it another year by the idea of doing things like a potato chip tasting, either.

But by the same token, the loss of two feature-oriented, big-tapestry-weaving writers matters less to you when you’ve shifted away from doing that, anyway. Right now the Tribune’s food and drink coverage is reviews (for which they have the last blue chip name in town in Phil Vettel), a lot of where and what to eat/drink guides (Tribune: “Drink This: Gelato and cake doughnut shake at Stan’s Donuts & Coffee“; Fooditor: Hell No), and cute but inconsequential stuff like the slideshow of all 20 years of Christkindlmarket mugs.

The Tribune seems to be chasing the older, often suburban home cook audience after the best reason to have that audience—grocery store ads paying the bills for the whole section—went away. (Apparently only hip young Redeye readers go out to eat.) News You Can Use may be a stanch-the-bleeding strategy for the short term, but no one has an emotional tie to it; the Trib’s tips aren’t so special that you can’t get them anywhere else Google goes to. So this strategy may give a little boost, but it doesn’t build a permanent audience; the longer term question, of how it makes a newspaper essential to pay for to at least some people, is still out there. (And as soon as I figure it out, you’ll see Fooditor on your porch.)

Meanwhile for writers, it’s hard to see how making up tips all day—or even better, contributing to something which winds up being credited to “Tribune Staff,” like Thursday’s riveting “Where to eat when you shop” —makes you a name and takes you further in your career. So the ones who have a name and can see where they want to go next wind up being encouraged that much more to get gone. The problem for the Trib will be the extent to which readers who really want to dig into food will follow those writers, and give their brand loyalty instead to the next Mark Caro book or Kevin Pang film.

Not everyone always loved their work, and yet they both did the kind of work that made you talk about it, and about the paper that published it, positively or negatively. And I don’t know a better strategy for a publication’s survival than being interesting enough to be worth talking about. It may be hard right now for a newspaper to make a financially sustainable product out of in-depth, psychologically probing, tug-at-the-heart-strings writing—it appears to be hard to do anything profitably, for reasons that mostly lie entirely outside of what the content is. But it’s going to be even harder to remain compelling and essential to readers if you decide to give up on the secret weapon of all writing, great human stories.


Michael Gebert is the Colonel McCormick of Fooditor.

COVER IMAGE: Chicago Tribune Tower, by Jason Raia.


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