I’d like to add to my previous entry on why I think Sam Zell, in the long run, will be good for the Tribune Co., and hopefully for our industry in general.

Too many journalists scoff that Zell knows plenty about real estate, not nothing about the fourth estate. To them, I say maybe WE need to learn more about real estate if we are to keep the fourth estate alive and healthy.

Like most of the folks in the business, I came in at the time of Woodward and Bernstein with aspirations of the affecting the same type of change they were able to create. I read Royko religiously as a teen and also aspired to be a thorn in the side of the machine. I saw “Deadline U.S.A.” and lived for the day when I could tell a source “That’s the press, baby … and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

And early in my years as a reporter, I was able to slay some local windmills that were in the way of my quest. I uncovered local corruption, saved the careers of two fine associate judges, and won a few awards along the way.

But, as I became a manager and editor, I also realized that newspapers are not that much different than any other business. And, as a journalist, I was not immune to things like paying a mortgage and utility bills. But as long as we had readers and advertisers kept pouring money into our businesses, we were able to spare no expense in the name of a good story.

Well, we don’t have the readers and advertisers as we used to. We’ve written tons of copy on how other industries, like automobiles and steel, lost their revenue base and have had either made difficult decisions to change their business model, or have died off.

Yes, we can hold our heads up high and say we are different, we have an obligation to uphold. We are a public watchdog protecting the American democratic system from corruption and abuse. We are righting wrongs in the system. We are helping the nation maintain itself.

But that ain’t paying the company’s bills. And that will likely mean I won’t be able to pay my bills.

I don’t believe Zell is saying the Tribune Company … and the newspaper industry … needs to give up its core values and ideals. What he is saying is that they (and we) need to really look deeply at ourselves and “is this the most efficient way to create our product?” (which, by the way, is news and information, not a newspaper or web site). And … are we giving our customers what they really need in a format they want? Those answers may mean changing or eliminating some “sacred cows” in the industry … like just how many editors are needed on a story. And it could mean fewer jobs all around.

The biggest threat to journalism isn’t Sam Zell…it’s those of us from within who aren’t willing to recognize that this business model is busted, and we need some major repairs to get it working again.

One thing I really miss about getting my news aggragated to me is what I call the “check it out” factor. This is something newspapers still have the monopoly on, and something that made newspaper reading so enjoyable.

You know the factor. You’re reading what you want to read, turn the page, and suddenly a headline catches your eye. You read it, and lo and behold, you’ve become enlightened to something new. I call it the “check it out” factor because you then have a tendency to later tell a friend or co-worker “check out that story in the Herald today.” If he enjoys it, he tells a friend to “check it out.” And so on. It’s like a primitive version of viral marketing.

I occasionally have a “check it out” moment while using search engines, where a headline link will catch my eye and I’ll say “I’ll get back to that search after I check this out.” But the information that comes through my RSS feeds give me exactly what I ask for, and nothing more.

This might be a great opportunity for news sites. What if every story page on a news web site had a “check it out” section. Something with links to unusual news or factoids, which eye-catching headlines for each. In addition to piquing reader interest, it’ll also provide a portal to bring the reader deeper into the site and maybe linger there a bit longer. And advertisers would love that.

In time, this may be a way to solve the problem of getting news that readers “have a right to know” into the news that readers “want to know.”

The more I read of Sam Zell as he takes his dog-and-pony show throughout Tribune Co. newspapers, the more I’m beginning to like him. This guy may not understand newspapers and journalism, but he sure gets the idea the business model needs to change if it is to be relevant to customers and thrive.

Zell doesn’t know the glory days of journalism; he probably has never watched “All the President’s Men” or “Deadline U.S.A.” so he doesn’t understand the rich history and romance of our trade. But, frankly, that’s an advantage. He’s basically the clean slate the Trib needs to plot its future.

Now, if the writers and editors can quit fixating on his use words describing female genitalia or the act or procreation, and focus more on his message, there may be hope for us yet. But to get the message, it’ll mean letting go of things we held true for the past century. It’ll mean interaction, not dictation. It’ll mean looking at what readers want, rather than what we think they want. It’ll mean linking revenue performance to editorial goals (this will hurt the most, but I believe this can be done without necessarily sacrificing journalistic excellence or ethics). In many cases, it will mean re-evaluating the core processes that have been the bread and butter of many newspapers, and eliminating inefficiencies.

I think Zell realizes this. I wish more newspapers execs … including the ones at the paper I work at … did so. The industry needs more Sam Zells to stir the pot and kick some chairs. Those who stir the pot now will be more likely to find the answer and survive and thrive. Those who wait for others to find the answer, I fear, will not.

I’ve never been a big advocate for Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. While the school prides itself as a premiere educational institution in the field, my real life experience with Medill grads has been they tend to rely more on the “Medill badge” … instead of their talents, real or perceived … to get them through. (In full disclosure, though, I should say I have worked with some absolutely standout journalists from Medill…unfortunately, the caliber of graduate is not as consistent as I’ve found from smaller, more scrappy j-schools. And,I have friends who are on the Medill faculty as well who I trust and admire).

Which is why I’m having a good laugh over the latest send-up at the university and its dean, John Lavine. The student newspaper claims Lavine, in a letter written for an alumni publication, fabricated anonymous quotes. The newspaper’s “investigative” work was basically was to ask 29 students who were enrolled in the class if they had said this to Lavine. All said they didn’t.

As a result, Lavine has committed what students and staff are calling short of treason. Lavine has apologized for not asking permission from the student for the quote, but has denied fabricating it. The whole issue seems to have paralyzed the school … and in particular Lavine’s foes, who would like nothing better than to see him leave and return the school to the pre-Lavine ivory tower.

I do not know Lavine, but I do give him credit for taking steps to bring the curmudgeonly program into the 21st Century. There has been a lot of resistance to his curriculum changes that focuses on recognizing what customers want to read in place of telling them what they should read. And it may not be the right way for Medill to turn, but at least it’s turning, and trying to develop itself into a school that will make future grads more valuable in a changing industry.

So, when the man behind change is hung out to dry over a letter with a bit of hyperbole in it, I can only shake my head and think the industry is doomed to philosophical suicide.

Once again, we in the Chicago suburbs face another winter of commuting on sloshy, treacherous snow-packed main roads while suburban side streets remain passable. Now that I drive home from work at 1 a.m., I’m still amazed to see that the main roads through Arlington Heights — Arlington Heights Road, Golf Road, Northwest Highway, Algonquin Road, Palatine and Rand Roads — are still extremely dangerous, while the less-traveled village roads are for the most part clean and passable. I understand plowing a Golf or Palatine road at rush hour may not make for a smooth commute. But having a main road still rutted and snowpacked at 1 a.m.?

The village’s argument — and I’m sure that of all the other suburbs around here as well — is that those roads are the responsibility of the state or county to maintain. I can buy that for pothole patching or resurfacing, but isn’t it in the village’s best interest to keep the priority streets in safe and passable condition — no matter who is repsonsible? What about Arlington Heights Road, which is a main thoroughfare for emergency vehicles and ambulances heading for Northwest Community Hospital?

It’s obvious that the state and county are spread too thin during winter snnowstorms. Why isn’t there some kind of intergovernmental agreement that would bring all jurisdictions into play in order to maintain the safety of priority roads during a snowstorm?

Until that is resolved … and I’m sure that won’t happen soon, since everyone in power just shrugs their shoulders … here are village roads I recommend to take if you need to get through Arlington Heights on a well-plowed street:

NORTH/SOUTH: Windsor/Dryden/Cleveland, Ridge, Dunton, Kennicott.
EAST/WEST: Oakton, Thomas (up to Arlington Heights Road, where it becomes a county road), Park, White Oak

If anyone has alternative local roads in their community they’d like to share, e-mail me and I’ll add them to the list.

Aye … what dire times are these! Football season’s over, the Bulls and Blackhawks are quickly going down the dumper, and no word on when the new season of “24” will begin.

Will this hell ever end?

In addition to today being Mardi Gras and Super Tuesday, it’s also paczki day! Paczki (pronounced POONCH-key) is a wonderfully decadent Polish version of the traditional bismark.

Paczki day comes from the Eastern European tradition of the family ridding itself of excess food on the day before Ash Wednesday, to better prepare itself for the fasting period of Lent. What it has evolved to is the creation of a fat-laden, fruit or custard-filled pastry that in essence resembles a bismark on steroids. Topped with a sugar or chocolate coating, these babies are the anti-food pyramid. I’m sure there’s a study out there — somewhere — that shows spikes in cholesterol and saturated fat levels in humans after just smelling one of these.

But … oh man … they are soooooo good!

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see Paczki Day catch on in the Chicago area, but I’m not so sure this wonderful delight has caught on elsewhere in the nation. If not, boy, what you folks are missing! Let me just say that, if a woman is willing to bare her breasts for some beads on Mardi Gras, I can only imagine what she’s be willing to do for a paczki.