After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1989, Jane Hirt made her way to Chicago for an internship at the Tribune. 22 years later she is still here, now working as the paper’s managing editor. In the 13th installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, Jane discusses her start at path to journalism, her time at the Tribune, and answers the question “What will readers still pay for?”
I’ve always been a big reader. I remember a summer when my mom taught summer school and I had a free reign of the public school’s library over the summer, so I read every Nancy Drew book. That’s something I remember really well. As a kid I was more likely to be in my room reading than out playing. Kind of an indoor girl.
I grew up in Wayne, Nebraska, and then later Lincoln, Nebraska. I went to Nebraska. My parents always got newspapers. I probably read the comics the most. When I was in high school I had a really cool history teacher. He would have current events quizzes. That’s when I really started to read the newspaper and try to understand it and remember things I read in it.
But the first time I ever committed journalism (smiles) was in junior high at Irving Junior High in Lincoln, Nebraska. I got in the journalism class, and we had a little quote-unquote newspaper. It was called the Irving News. And I wrote a humor column (laughs), which I thought was hilarious. I look back later and, yeah, it was hilarious, but not for the reasons I thought it was. (Laughs.) I think the headline was “As Time Flies,” and there was a clock with wings on it. You know, junior high humor.
In high school I did journalism. I was on the yearbook. I was the people index editor, which meant that I had to get all of those pictures of the people lined up with their names. That’s probably why I became a copy editor. I liked that kind of detail editing.
I went to college. I actually was not in journalism at first. I was going to be a dentist, so I was a biology major. And then after my first year of all those science classes I was like, “I don’t want to take all of these science classes for the rest of my time.” So I switched to journalism literally because my friend was in it. (Laughs.) What a weird reason to do that. But I went to the news editorial major, which was print journalism at Nebraska.
I got here through sheer luck, probably, being at the right place at the right time. I graduated in December of ’89, and I started here just a couple weeks after I graduated. I was a post-graduate intern on the sports copy desk. I sent my stuff out everywhere – I wasn’t looking necessarily for Chicago. It was just one of the places that I expressed an interest in. I had visited here before. In high school my French club came here, and I do remember walking down Michigan Avenue once and looking at the Tribune Building. Who would think that 22 years later that’s where I would have spent my career.
They offered me the internship and of course I said yes. But in my earnest, honest, Nebraska way, I admitted to the recruiter that I’d never read a sports section in my life and I really didn’t know anything about sports, and are they sure that this was the right internship for me? And she said, “Yes, yes. We don’t necessarily need someone who knows a lot about sports. We need someone who knows a lot about language and grammar and spelling, and a good editor in the news section is also a good editor in sports.” So I went on the desk, and wow. I immersed myself in sports information. I went out and bought a sports almanac. I subscribed to sports publications. Back then, there was a newspaper called the National, and I got it every day, dutifully purchased it.
The guys on the sports desk were great. They were veterans. I was the only woman, and the youngest by far. They were very cool to me, and they helped me learn the ropes. I had to learn how to spell players names. I’d never heard of them before. (Laughs.)
So on the desk, this is like, who? Holtzman? Verdi? Sam Smith?
Yeah, those were the writers I would edit. Phil Hersh is still here and I remember editing his stuff. That was a really cool time, because I remember getting to edit the Bulls. Michael Jordan was there. At first I was assigned the baseball card column and the horseracing stories, but I must have gotten better because I soon got to read the cover Bulls stories. I remember when baseball season started I had a really hard time. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I don’t think I’d ever even seen a baseball game.
It was trial by fire and I must have done okay, because after about five months they called me in and said, “We’d like to hire you full time. You’re going to be on the national foreign desk.” The National/Foreign copy desk. And that’s where I ended up spending the next 13 years.
I loved sports. I have so much respect for the amount of work that gets done on an excruciating deadline. Unbelievable turnaround on stories. And your audience knows every stat. You have to be right or people will know. They know exactly when that certain play happened, in which inning, so we would watch TV and watch the games so that when the stories came in, we would know the game too and could correct any errors. I to this day think that sports deadline work at newspapers is the most impressive.
It made me realize that the most completely edited story in the world is no good if it comes five minutes after deadline. I learned how to edit confidently and fast. To really pay attention to details in games, because I knew that would be in the story. I also remember the sportswriters were very familiar with who they were writing about, so sometimes in their stories the sportswriters would use the coach’s first name. Like, “Joey said,” and I’d have to know what the coach’s last name was. (Laughs.)
On the National/Foreign,’91 to ’02. I left National/Foreign to go to RedEye. One day they said, “We would like you to serve on a committee to figure out how to get younger readers to read the paper.” There was someone from editorial, someone from advertising, someone from circ, and we as a committee came up with the idea for RedEye.
We actually wanted it to be free in the beginning. After we pitched it, then Ann Marie Lipinski, who was the editor of the Tribune, asked if me and Joe Knowles would be co-editors. And that’s how I got involved at RedEye. Joe was there for the first three years with me, and then the last three years I was editor by myself.
At RedEye I learned how to target an audience, how to know your reader and really be relevant to them. I probably brought that to this job. But doing a startup like RedEye – I would recommend that everybody at least once in their career be involved in a startup. It is so challenging and so rewarding and so hard – I think it’s the hardest job I ever had to do was helping lead the startup – but I learned so much. I found out what I was made of.
But coming here was great too. It was a whole separate set of challenges. Much bigger staff, much greater impact, much more important. The Tribune has such great impact when it unveils things, and it can really make a positive impact on people’s lives. So it’s so much larger. RedEye was fun, but the Tribune is really important.
Everyday brings something different. Could be a good day, could be a bad day. I could be involved in personnel decisions. That’s one of my favorite parts of my job, getting to hire people, because I feel like I’m changing their life forever. I think of that every time I pick up a phone and make an offer to someone. Or it could be talking through a story – the ethics of a story or the fairness of a story. You really never know what it’s going to be. Sometimes I might help come up with a headline idea for the front page. Or I might be in budget meetings like I was just before you and I met today. There are a lot of different things it could be at such a huge place. I have a great management team under me that does a lot of the day-to-day work. Really top notch. Everybody at the top of their game.
You can spend your whole day in the office and not even be outside when it’s light out. (Laughs.) I really try to not be in the office all the time. I try to live life like a regular person – go to movies, know what’s going on, talk to my neighbors. I think that is a danger of working in any office – you’re not out there living life. How can you say you’re really totally in touch?
I try to read a lot, I try to listen a lot, I try to talk to people a lot, talk to my neighbors, make sure I’m not only talking to journalists. Because journalists aren’t necessarily regular people. They’re hyper-aware, hyper-sensitive, hyper-informed about things. So yeah, I could always be in better touch, for sure.
You’ve just been here 20 years. What will people pay for now, in 2011? What is the commodity that newspapers or outlets or journalists can still sell?
Well, a lot of people still pay for the Chicago Tribune in print. They do. And they value that experience and pay a lot for it. I think people will always want news and information. They want it more now than ever before, and that appetite will continue to grow. I think you tend to pay money for things that you value.
There are so many platforms that haven’t been invented yet, so each of those new platforms is going to present another opportunity for us to figure out a way to charge for it. For now it’s really interesting to see how everything’s developing. We’re trying everything. Some things pan out as something people will pay for, and some platforms they expect to be free. But they still are paying, and I think they will pay, because they’ll find value in it.
A couple years ago we made a specific change to how we were going to talk about ourselves and view ourselves. We went from being a newspaper company that happens to have some websites to a news and information company that prints to multiple platforms. And that has been the most future-forward way to look at it.
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People are always going to want news and information. We are the gatherers, we are finding these things, we’re digging them up, we use news judgment, and they’re going to get to pick the platform. And that’s fine with me. Every new platform that is invented, we need to be there, but if you think of yourself as a news and information company, then that’s a way better way to be oriented. That’s how we’re able to come up with ideas like ChicagoLive.
We are so much more to this community than just a piece of paper. We’re an institution that has been here a long time. People like to interact with us in all sorts of ways, whether it be live programming or on their mobile device. We’re very aware of that. I feel good about the future because I think people always do want news and information, and that’s what we’re an expert in.
So how does what the Tribune means to people, how does that change with twitter and blogs and everything like that? What is the importance still of the newspaper as a communal entity?
You’ll have to ask more of your friends or peers, but I do think that people still do trust us. They know we confirm things and that we’re trying to be credible and that we have ethics. I think that means something to people. Going forward, I think that might be one of the things that newspapers have, so we have to be very careful to keep the high standards, to make sure we confirm things before we spread it, and to be ethical in our behavior and transparent in our actions. I think people know that and they have that in the back of their minds. Credibility is something I think will have value. It has value now and I think it will in the future too.
You even hear now about bloggers that got in trouble for not mentioning that, “Well, I reviewed this because I got it free in the mail.” As a journalist, that is automatic. Basic. So you’re even in social media, it’s almost as if the community is demanding that they adopt some of the same standards that we have. You see things on social media that are enforced by peers. There’s no regulatory agency that’s policing it. People police each other. They don’t let them say things going unchallenged. So the whole fact that some of the things that we already do, bloggers are being asked to do the same things, it must mean people value it. And that’s good for us.
Jack M Silverstein is an oral historian working in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama’s inauguration is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.