Chicago 2013: A year in review

Roger Ebert, newspaperman

Many of Chicago’s big events in 2013 were the “part two” of something that happened in 2012: IL’s marriage equality bill, Whittier’s teardown, the parking meter changes and Tribune’s bankruptcy emergence to name a few. Others were unique to 2013: the Sun-Times laying off most of its photography staff, Roger Ebert’s death and Everyblock’s shutdown.

This week I discussed the year in review on WGN Radio 720 (with host Amy Guth) and WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift (with guest host Justin Kaufmann). Since neither show is available online – holiday weeks operate on a skeleton crew – here are some of the stories I found notable in 2013.

The following isn’t meant to be a definitive list. It’s merely a compendium of stories I found compelling this year. (Crain’s has a good month-by-month list here if you want something more comprehensive.)


Gun violence
We started the year with the murder of Hadiya Pendleton and ended it with an 18 percent drop in the murder rate compared to last year. Whether the overtime needed to make it happen is sustainable is one question as Chicago is still tops among major cities.

Marriage equality bill passes the Illinois legislature
Cardinal George  rang in the new year with a letter describing gay marriage as a violation of “natural law”  because it is not open to procreation between a man and a woman (nevermind that heterosexual adoption and marriage among the elderly are too, according to that definition).  After a few stops and starts, Illinois passed a bill in November extending marriage to all. History is speaking.

Parking meters get worse
Most news stories on the June parking meter changes led with the “Free Sundays!” part, which obscured the bad news of extended hours until 10pm or midnight.

Whittier fieldhouse teardown
Taking a page from Mayor Daley’s playbook, Mayor Emanuel sent in a surprise demolition crew under cover of darkness to tear down the Whittier School fieldhouse (without a permit).  The mayor claimed safety issues required him to act quickly but it wasn’t clear why. Even if it was true, tearing down the disputed fieldhouse didn’t strengthen his position.

Bill Daley runs for governor, sort of
It turns out running for – and being! – governor takes some work. Despite a lifetime in politics, this was news to Bill Daley. Maybe, unlike his brother, he’s not used to being “scrootened.”

Transit: Good news for Red Line riders, cyclists; bad news for Metra 
The CTA proved it can undertake a project as big as the Red Line rehab and bring it in on-time and on-budget with alternate service functioning as promised. An increase in bike lanes and the launch of Divvy increased Chicago’s bike-friendly city cred. And somehow the mass resignations at Metra over “hush money” didn’t dent Mike Madigan one little bit.


The death of Roger Ebert
I said about all I have to say on the topic here but this was easily the biggest real story in Chicago outside of the continued  gun violence problem.

People finally realize R. Kelly is a bad dude
Years after his trial on child pornography charges, (white) people finally started to realize R. Kelly’s shtick isn’t all that funny in the larger context of his life thanks to a Q&A with Chicago music critics Jessica Hopper and Jim DeRogatis. It’s tough to keep the art and the artist separate when his art involves sex and his idea of sex involves rape. A comprehensive discussion of the topic plus the recent backlash of coverage of his new album by the mostly-white press made people take notice in a way they hadn’t before.

Live lit really explodes in Chicago
Yes,  it’s a lot of the same people everywhere. But as the scene gets more diverse and each event finds its personality, more new folks will find their way in.

The whole Rachel Shteir thing
I spent multiple nights arguing with people over this whole thing but I’m tapped out on discussing it any further. Take the wheel, Atlantic Cities.

Taste of Chicago made money this year
A really underreported story. It went from losing 1.3 million dollars in 2012 to making a $272K profit.

Persepolis was banned from CPS reading lists
This was weird. Also weirder was that The Hunger Games stayed on the list.

Dennis Farina dies
Another Chicago avatar lost. Rick Kogan’s obit says almost everything. This roundup of his best vulgarities says the rest.

Cameron Esposito on Late Late Show 
I loved this. The former Chicagoan now ensconced in Los Angeles has every comic’s dream appearance.


There was good news in Chicago print media: Crain’s expands, DNA Info Chicago launches a print product for Lincoln Park, The Dissolve launched and expanded. But most of the big stories focused on continued upheaval in the media industry.

The death and rebirth of Everyblock
It was gone earlier this year and seems poised for a return. Why no one from NBC was able to walk down the hall and have a conversation with the folks about Comcast about buying it – before now – is confusing to me. Unless this was the plan all along but they wanted to cut all the staff first and this is how they chose to do it. Speaking of…

The Chicago Sun-Times cuts its photography staff
A local story that went national immediately in part because of the poorly-timed “iPhone training memo” that followed. On one hand was the argument that legacy contracts were making it difficult for the Sun-Times to become the nimble, digital organization it wanted to be. On the other is a quick and dirty way to cut costs. Maybe a little of both. But the S-T lost a lot of goodwill in its efforts (as was said above, it matters how you do things) and the move still haunts their efforts months later. Its chairman Michael Ferro isn’t helping.

Tribune layoffs, emergence from bankruptcy and a double down on TV 
A year after the emergence, a clearer picture of the future of the Tribune has emerged. But it’s a rough start, according to Crain’s.

1871 hires Howard Tullman
This is one of those stories that starts one year and has a big impact the next. Expect Tullman to shake things up and take 1871 from a pretty co-working space to a place that’s known for making new things and creating new sustainable businesses. Or else.

And finally…

The Check, Please host search and the media pile-on trend
The overcoverage of the Check, Please host search was crazy. I wrote about this specific issue earlier this year. When it was finally announced, every news outlet had to have their own exclusive host interview; DNA Info, Tribune, S-T.  It was indicative of a larger trend of all publications trying to get a bite at every story.

2013 was the year of the great news pile-on: Everyone tries to cover everything that trends in social or search or has its own micro-audience. We saw this in other local stories, too. Everyone is covering fine dining, for example. Eataly is only the most recent story that got the pile-on. Sure, that’s a reflection of more folks going to fine dining restaurants. But the takes on it are all remarkably similar. A publication ought to tailor its approach to its audience. I found Redeye Chicago’s gallery of crazy-expensive food products spot-on for them and a good way to approach the topic in a unique way.

But in some cases, there’s no way for a pub to own a story. In a year when Chicago rap conversation dominated, I’m still trying to figure out why Crain’s did a history of Chicago hip hop.

This isn’t just a Chicago thing either and it gets worse when the topic is breaking news or something that’s big in the social space and a news organization thinks it will look hip by covering it. The worst approach is when nobody adds anything new and they’re just parroting what someone else has reported. This happens often with breaking news when there’s nothing to move the story forward. We saw this especially in the end of the year with Elan Gale, Justine Sacco and Duck Dynasty. Or it’s just mindless opinion like Duck Dynasty or Miley.  As Esquire put it, this was the year we broke the Internet.

There’s also something in here about Twitter, the nature of privacy in public and whether tweets by private citizens ought to be used for publication.

But I think I’ll save that for 2014.

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