The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A legendary Chicago newspaper columnist bids farewell — and wonders who will be left to tell her city’s tale

Mary Schmich accepts a glass of champagne from Chicago Tribune editor Gerould Kern after learning that she had won the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary in April 2012. (Nancy Stone/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In 29 years as a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich was often adored and occasionally reviled by readers, as are all good newspaper columnists. She wrote thousands of columns that poked, prodded and — she hopes — soothed some heartache in her adopted metropolis.

Mostly, she says, she tried to provide “the connective tissue” that seems to be fraying in civic life. “The classic metro column helps people understand the place they live, including the places they wouldn’t ordinarily go,” she said this week.

Except that role is itself fraying. Schmich wrote her final column on Sunday, the last of about 3,000 she produced for the Tribune. She is among four Tribune columnists, and about 40 newsroom colleagues in all, who took buyouts under the Tribune’s new ownership, becoming the latest to disappear in America’s slow, grinding local-news apocalypse.

“Chicago newspaper columnist” is a deeply evocative phrase. It recalls characters both real — like Mike Royko, the bar-haunting tough guy whose alter ego, Slats Grobnik, channeled Chicago’s ethnic White working class — and fictional, like the scamps of “The Front Page” and the cynical Mary Sunshine of the musical “Chicago.”

Schmich, 67, was at the distinguished end of the trade. Among other accolades, she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2012, for what the judges called “her wide range of down-to-earth columns that reflect the character and capture the culture of her famed city.”

But columns like Schmich’s are becoming nostalgia items. While people still write about cities, the classic metro newspaper column is fading as fast as the sound of a bundled bag of newsprint dropping on the walkway each morning.

Regional newspapers have struggled with plummeting revenue in the Internet era, when readers and advertisers migrated from print to digital and from local outlets to national ones. Since 2008, cost-cutting measures have resulted in the elimination of roughly half the nation’s newsroom jobs, and roughly one quarter of newspapers have shuttered.

Corporate consolidations have accelerated the trend in many cases. Last month, the Tribune and its parent company, Tribune Publishing, were acquired by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund with a reputation like many others for slashing staff and selling off the real estate assets of the newspapers it buys. Schmich and many of her colleagues took the buyouts offered this month in anticipation of deeper newsroom cuts to come.

Heath Freeman is the hedge fund guy who says he wants to save local news. Somehow, no one’s buying it.

With them goes some of the connection — among Chicago’s many neighborhoods, its institutions and people — that big-city metro columnists have always tried to deliver.

Among many things, Schmich wrote about Cabrini-Green, the vast Chicago public-housing complex that was too often reduced in news stories to adjectives like “troubled” and “crime-ridden.”

Cabrini-Green is “a place where generations are bound by blood and church, by hardship and struggle, by an old-fashioned reliance on each other,” Schmich wrote in 2004, in one of dozens of columns about the complex, as gentrification advanced to its outskirts. “Now they’re losing the ground they once thought of as theirs.”

Schmich said readers thanked her for those columns, which they said helped them “understand” Cabrini-Green, by which they meant more than what was in the police blotter. She was especially touched this week to hear from an 87-year-old woman from rural “downstate” Illinois, who wrote to say that Schmich’s columns helped her think “beyond myself and my small bit of the planet.”

That was the great skill of so many city columnists of yore. Herb Caen lovingly chronicled his adopted city, San Francisco, in more than 16,000 print columns over nearly 60 years for two of the city’s newspapers. Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill were to New York, and Mike Barnicle to Boston, what Royko was to Chicago: hard-boiled deadline artists with a bar stool- and precinct-house perspective. A few masters of the craft continue to probe the heart of their cities, such as Steve Lopez in the Los Angeles Times and those of The Washington Post’s Metro section.

But as Schmich noted in her farewell this week, the “old-fashioned Metro column” has changed as much as the news business itself in the years since she began writing one. “It was once a species of column found in daily newspapers everywhere,” she wrote. “It mixed opinion, reported stories and personal reflection. It was grounded in its place.” It was also “usually written by men, typically gruff men whose personas involved drinking with the cops (men) and politicians (also men).”

She added: “But I was a woman, with different interests and a different temperament, and I needed to adapt the Metro column for my sensibilities and skill set. Less overt argument, more stories. Sometimes about politics, more often not.”

This journalist was her paper’s only full-time reporter — until they fired her. Her small town wonders: Now what?

Schmich once wrote a column that people still remember, a rare thing in a field in which words rarely last longer than the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. It was published in the spring of 1997. It wasn’t about Chicago; it was about everyone everywhere.

Wear sunscreen,” she advised the Class of ’97, in a mock commencement address. “ … Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly … Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.”

The column went viral, via email, far beyond Chicagoland (and frequently misattributed to the novelist Kurt Vonnegut). Schmich turned it into a book series; it also became a popular song, which inspired parodies. Schmich still hears about it, as she did this week from readers wishing her farewell. “I’m still wearing sunscreen,” one wrote as a sign-off.

Reading these notes, Schmich was struck by how “profoundly personal” her column and the newspaper that published it were to readers. They told her when they first discovered her work, when they read it (first thing in the morning), how they did so (over coffee), or where (at the breakfast table, in bed, in the hospital).

She acknowledges that many of these readers are older, and that younger people have different habits and loyalties. While this cohort still values the hard facts of news stories and the hard advocacy of opinion columns, she said, the kind of column she wrote may have less of a future.

“I do think we’re losing this species of column … that isn’t just there to provoke you, but to interpret for you, and to sometimes calm you down,” she said. “Columnists are the interpreters. The news alone can’t necessarily engage you fully. A column brings heart, it brings a viewpoint, which is different from an opinion. An opinion tells you right from wrong. A viewpoint shapes how you tell a story. It’s a subtler form of opinion.”

Schmich doesn’t want to get too nostalgic. She knows the great metro newspapers, and their signature columnists, had plenty of flaws. They could be smug and sexist, and sometimes downright racist.

“On the other hand,” she says, “what’s happening now is very disorienting. We’re losing powerful local papers that [provided] a shared experience. It’s all kind of a swirl. The question for me is, will the swirl ever end? Maybe it’s permanent.”

What’s getting lost in all that swirl?

The columnist pauses to consider and reflect, as she has a few thousand times over the past 29 years, finally circling back to her original theme.

“A connection,” she answers.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified newspaper columnist Mike Royko’s fictional alter ego as Slats Drobnik. His name was Slats Grobnik. The story has been corrected..