In the mid 1990s, Eric Zorn (’80) started the Chicago Tribune's first blog. To sell the editors on it, he had to begin by explaining what a blog was. He earned a promise from management to give it at least a couple months. That was a decade ago this August.
His blog, “Change of Subject,” provides op-ed style commentary on the news, covering everything from quizzes and wordplay to same-sex marriage and gun control, with a healthy dose of sports thrown in.
The name is a tip of the e-hat to his grandfather who used the phrase to move conversations along—often abruptly. To Zorn, the name suggests “the spirit that life's too short for segues.” It allows him, like his grandfather, to take the conversation almost anyplace.
Zorn is among the early leaders who saw the future of newspapers in pixels, not paper. In Google page-rank terms—a good measure of a paper’s relevance—the Chicago Tribune is on a par with papers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, behind only the New York Times.
Zorn posts multiple times on weekdays and sometimes on weekends as well, believing regularity keeps followers coming back. His posts include the three columns a week he writes for the paper’s op-ed pages. Before the Tribune went online, the letters to the editor he received would be about columns that were already old news, but the blog generates feedback more similar to talk radio. The responses don’t shape what he writes, but they do change Zorn’s relationship with readers. These days, it’s less straight reporting (here’s the news, now read it) and more like news with dialogue (here’s the news, let’s talk about it). He had no idea the conversation would become so democratized or that “Change of Subject” would become, to borrow his own term, such a “zesty” place.
Zorn’s posts suggest that he leans pretty liberal (“GOP heart women? Not exactly,” one piece is titled), but he has a cadre of libertarian and conservative readers, too. He doesn’t moderate comments, but he reads them all and replies to the most interesting. He occasionally sanitizes comments, and will bar someone who is truly crossing the line, but he’ll also allow repentant posters back into the fold. The commentary that used to be a one-way street has become a rough and tumble exchange that may not always be perfect—Internet trolls can be found everywhere these days—but Zorn believes it does lead people to think and learn.
An English literature and creative writing major, Zorn was the arts editor at the Michigan Daily. He initially joined the arts section staff at the suggestion of a mentor, Bruce Weber (who now writes for the New York Times), admitting he was also in it “for the free books.” Three decades later, Zorn can rattle off the names of his fellow Daily staff members, who got no academic credit and little if any pay for their work. “Just a facility and the opportunity to write.” It was an “effortocracy,” he recalls, where he once wrote a five- or six-page article about an old-time music festival in Berea, Kentucky, for the Sunday magazine. “Indulgent,” he calls that piece, but there is nearly as much affection in his voice as when he calls the Daily “an incredible place.”
After graduation, he packed up his suitcase full of Hopwood Awards and the confidence they gave him, and set off for a summer internship at the Tribune. That grew into a job writing for the Tempo section. “A nice life. No weekends. No dead bodies.”
He’s been writing for the paper ever since. His advice to anyone interested in journalism: Find a school with a good paper.
Zorn has seen a lot of change in his three decades at the Tribune. When he first joined its staff, it was a paper with a 135-year history, where no one was fired for anything less than plagiarism or “completely resting on your shovel.” With the rise of the Internet, the Tribune, like all papers, has struggled to survive. The multiple lay-offs in recent years along with a parent company bankruptcy have been disconcerting, Zorn says. The paper is now for sale.
In this changing environment, Zorn stays focused on the future. He’s tried podcasts and has been part of a fledgling effort at TV-like webcasts from the Tribune newsroom. “Fledgling” he says, might overstate their success in attracting an audience; they are in the process of being retooled. But FM radio, he’s quick to point out, took a long time to gain audience, too.
“The future of journalism,” he says, “belongs to people willing to reinvent themselves.”