Chicago Tribune - Gone Fishing
Twenty-five years ago, after successfully pulling an all-nighter to meet the commitment delivered to Chicago’s front door steps, the Chicago Tribune went live on the internet. The tense hours spent overcoming unforeseen hurdles in the overnight darkness reminds me that great things can also be fun. That longest night was more than the successful launch of a newspaper, it was the spark that lit the fire for so many Chicago careers and businesses.
The Chicago Tribune, founded in 1847, has rather surprisingly often been at the forefront of new media. Starting in 1924 with audio broadcasting at WGN Radio, expanding into broadcast video with WGN TV in 1948, acquiring content in the loveable loser Chicago Cubs baseball club in 1981 and investing into online community AOL in 1990. The organization has always had the DNA of the free press, but frequently exhibited an entrepreneurial spirit that touched nearly every household in America at one time or another.
By 1995, it was clear that the open internet was the next frontier. The Tribune organization started hiring technologists, advertisers, designers, journalists and editors. The spotlight shone directly on this project from high up in the Tribune Tower as other newspapers started to launch online. But with a team of Melrose Place-aged young adults drinking Goat’s Breath beer at the Billy Goat Tavern, we implicitly had a rebellious streak.
A week before the launch, we ventured out for a well deserved group lunch at Boston Blackie’s, which had the best caesar salad around. We had a staging server that hosted the earliest version of the soon-to-be live website, but only available for our internal audience. This site was regularly visited by editors, advertising and VPs to see the progress to be ready to talk about the new baby once it was born.
Well on that day, one of us, who shall remain nameless, tried to be a bit funny and replaced the regal masthead of the Chicago Tribune and the day’s news with a picture of someone in a boat and the words “Gone Fishing”.
Unfortunately, the newspaper’s Publisher sat down to check on the progress just as the first head of lettuce was sacrificed down the street. The feedback from above was as swift as the Chicago Fire. This was a lesson well learned and not repeated. And the guilty party shall remain nameless. :)
The night before launch, there was no turning back. The next morning’s newspaper planned a big announcement, including interviews and PR. And every delivered paper would have the website address promoted, something completely new.
As we worked into the over night hours, some of our servers unexpectedly crashed. It was difficult to diagnose and figure out what we (I) did wrong so we frantically spent hours rebuilding servers, copying over the newspaper content and checking all the links.
This was the golden age of the internet when there were no tools, mostly just brute force command line coding. I seem to remember that things were working properly around 5:30 am, giving us an hour to spare before those newspapers were opened and the secret revealed. Bit time and the lack of sleep have robbed my memory of so many details.
After that longest night, we barreled ahead to cover many important events that first year using the new online medium to tell stories in ways that the print edition couldn’t:
- Unabomber Capture
- Democratic National Convention
- Michael Jordan’s fourth NBA championship
- Centennial Park bombing at Atlanta Olympics
- And much, much more
Looking back, the Tribune was also ahead of its time in fostering a diverse workplace, at least in our small digital publishing club. We had a females in leadership positions who have grown to C-suite roles, a black journalist and a female journalist, who would each later win Pulitzer prizes, hispanic and asian designers and technologists and the classic grumpy sports writer. That kind of diversity is the envy of many technology companies today.
Of course, the Tribune has changed due to the internet’s relentless advance, eating away at the revenue model that supported so much history and innovation. Out of the Tribune’s precipitous decline, many companies have flowered and alumni grow. Although the Chicago Tribune may be down, it lives on in so many descendants.
I always remember walking into the Tribune Tower foyer for the first time. Waiting to be escorted to my job interview, I stared at the freedom of speech and free press inscriptions, slowly absorbing how important newspapers have been to people being free. With the focus of recent events and the clarity of hindsight, I’m proud of the work we did twenty-five years ago and honored to be a footnote supporting people’s right to go fishing in peace.
I WANT THE TRIBUNE
TO CONTINUE TO BE AFTER I AM GONE
AS IT HAS BEEN UNDER MY DIRECTIONS:
AN ADVOCATE OF
POLITICAL AND MORAL PROGRESS,
AND IN ALL THINGS TO FOLLOW THE LINE OF COMMON SENSE.
— JOSEPH MEDILL
In memory of Paul Pustelnik and Tom Cekay.