Friday, November 30, 2007
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Durbin on Roskam: "I think there's a lot of hope for Peter Roskam; He's a person who is thoughtful and tries to do what's right."
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 11/7/2007 12:18 AM
As expected for someone with strong views, there's few lukewarm opinions on Peter Roskam.
The conservative Republican from Wheaton was elected to Congress one year ago and already is being targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as the 2008 election approaches.
Democratic Party officials launched a radio ad campaign recently criticizing Roskam for voting against a health insurance plan aimed at needy children, saying he was in "lockstep" with President Bush.
But when asked to evaluate his performance, his Democratic colleagues in the House were elusive.
One staff member put it down to the Thumper Principle, also known as "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."
Republicans including moderates such as U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk of Highland Park and Judy Biggert of Hinsdale, however, said Roskam had hit the ground running.
Kirk said Roskam's background as a state senator eased the learning curve. And while, the two voted differently on issues such as funding for stem cell research, Roskam was a valuable ally on local concerns, Kirk noted.
"I need folks to work for the home team, who care about how to fix security at O'Hare or the loss of ash trees. The great thing about Peter is that he's not lost his local connections," Kirk said.
The one lone Democrat to comment on Roskam was Rep. Danny Davis of Chicago, who recalled the difficulty of rising out of the ranks during a first term.
"I think he's done all right," Davis said. "Peter is solid and involved and engaged."
Few people know more about poverty issues in the 6th District than Mary Ellen Durbin, director of the People's Resource Center in Wheaton, which runs a variety of services for the needy.
While crediting Roskam for helping the resource center in the past, Durbin said she was disappointed in his votes on children's health care and wants him to become more of an advocate for affordable housing.
Still, "I think there's a lot of hope for Peter Roskam," Durbin said. "He's a person who is thoughtful and tries to do what's right."
Regarding the health insurance plan, Roskam said he supports the concept but is concerned the bill would steer benefits to illegal immigrants, an argument which is disputed by Democrats.
Friday, October 19, 2007
Google controls your e-mail, your videos, your calendar, your searches… What if it controlled your life?
By Cory Doctorow
"Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him." —Cardinal Richelieu
"We don't know enough about you." —Google CEO Eric Schmidt
Greg landed at San Francisco International Airport at 8 p.m., but by the time he'd made it to the front of the customs line, it was after midnight. He'd emerged from first class, brown as a nut, unshaven, and loose-limbed after a month on the beach in Cabo (scuba diving three days a week, seducing French college girls the rest of the time). When he'd left the city a month before, he'd been a stoop-shouldered, potbellied wreck. Now he was a bronze god, drawing admiring glances from the stews at the front of the cabin.
Four hours later in the customs line, he'd slid from god back to man. His slight buzz had worn off, sweat ran down the crack of his ass, and his shoulders and neck were so tense his upper back felt like a tennis racket. The batteries on his iPod had long since died, leaving him with nothing to do except eavesdrop on the middle-age couple ahead of him.
"The marvels of modern technology," said the woman, shrugging at a nearby sign: Immigration—Powered by Google.
"I thought that didn't start until next month?" The man was alternately wearing and holding a large sombrero.
Googling at the border. Christ. Greg had vested out of Google six months before, cashing in his options and "taking some me time"—which turned out to be less rewarding than he'd expected. What he mostly did over the five months that followed was fix his friends' PCs, watch daytime TV, and gain 10 pounds, which he blamed on being at home instead of in the Googleplex, with its well-appointed 24-hour gym.
He should have seen it coming, of course. The U.S. government had lavished $15 billion on a program to fingerprint and photograph visitors at the border, and hadn't caught a single terrorist. Clearly, the public sector was not equipped to Do Search Right.
The DHS officer had bags under his eyes and squinted at his screen, prodding at his keyboard with sausage fingers. No wonder it was taking four hours to get out of the god damned airport.
"Evening," Greg said, handing the man his sweaty passport. The officer grunted and swiped it, then stared at his screen, tapping. A lot. He had a little bit of dried food at the corner of his mouth and his tongue crept out and licked at it.
"Want to tell me about June 1998?"
Greg looked up from his Departures. "I'm sorry?"
"You posted a message to alt.burningman on June 17, 1998, about your plan to attend a festival. You asked, 'Are shrooms really such a bad idea?'"
The interrogator in the secondary screening room was an older man, so skinny he looked like he'd been carved out of wood. His questions went a lot deeper than shrooms.
"Tell me about your hobbies. Are you into model rocketry?"
"No," Greg said, "No, I'm not." He sensed where this was going.
The man made a note, did some clicking. "You see, I ask because I see a heavy spike in ads for rocketry supplies showing up alongside your search results and Google mail."
Greg felt a spasm in his guts. "You're looking at my searches and e-mail?" He hadn't touched a keyboard in a month, but he knew what he put into that search bar was likely more revealing than what he told his shrink.
"Sir, calm down, please. No, I'm not looking at your searches," the man said in a mocking whine. "That would be unconstitutional. We see only the ads that show up when you read your mail and do your searching. I have a brochure explaining it. I'll give it to you when we're through here."
"But the ads don't mean anything," Greg sputtered. "I get ads for Ann Coulter ring tones whenever I get e-mail from my friend in Coulter, Iowa!"
The man nodded. "I understand, sir. And that's just why I'm here talking to you. Why do you suppose model rocket ads show up so frequently?"
Greg racked his brain. "Okay, just do this. Search for 'coffee fanatics.'" He'd been very active in the group, helping them build out the site for their coffee-of-the-month subscription service. The blend they were going to launch with was called Jet Fuel. "Jet Fuel" and "Launch"—that would probably make Google barf up some model rocket ads.
They were in the home stretch when the carved man found the Halloween photos. They were buried three screens deep in the search results for "Greg Lupinski."
"It was a Gulf War–themed party," he said. "In the Castro."
"And you're dressed as...?"
"A suicide bomber," he replied sheepishly. Just saying the words made him wince.
"Come with me, Mr. Lupinski," the man said.
By the time he was released, it was past 3 a.m. His suitcases stood forlornly by the baggage carousel. He picked them up and saw they had been opened and carelessly closed. Clothes stuck out from around the edges.
When he returned home, he discovered that all of his fake pre-Columbian statues had been broken, and his brand-new white cotton Mexican shirt had an ominous boot print in the middle of it. His clothes no longer smelled of Mexico. They smelled like airport.
He wasn't going to sleep. No way. He needed to talk about this. There was only one person who would get it. Luckily, she was usually awake around this hour.
Maya had started working at Google two years after Greg had. It was she who'd convinced him to go to Mexico after he cashed out: Anywhere, she'd said, that he could reboot his existence.
Maya had two giant chocolate labs and a very, very patient girlfriend named Laurie who'd put up with anything except being dragged around Dolores Park at 6 a.m. by 350 pounds of drooling canine.
Maya reached for her Mace as Greg jogged toward her, then did a double take and threw her arms open, dropping the leashes and trapping them under her sneaker. "Where's the rest of you? Dude, you look hot!"
He hugged her back, suddenly conscious of the way he smelled after a night of invasive Googling. "Maya," he said, "what do you know about Google and the DHS?"
She stiffened as soon as he asked the question. One of the dogs began to whine. She looked around, then nodded up at the tennis courts. "Top of the light pole there; don't look," she said. "That's one of our muni WiFi access points. Wide-angle webcam. Face away from it when you talk."
In the grand scheme of things, it hadn't cost Google much to wire the city with webcams. Especially when measured against the ability to serve ads to people based on where they were sitting. Greg hadn't paid much attention when the cameras on all those access points went public—there'd been a day's worth of blogstorm while people played with the new all-seeing toy, zooming in on various prostitute cruising areas, but after a while the excitement blew over.
Feeling silly, Greg mumbled, "You're joking."
"Come with me," she said, turning away from the pole.
The dogs weren't happy about cutting their walk short, and expressed their displeasure in the kitchen as Maya made coffee.
"We brokered a compromise with the DHS," she said, reaching for the milk. "They agreed to stop fishing through our search records, and we agreed to let them see what ads got displayed for users."
Greg felt sick. "Why? Don't tell me Yahoo was doing it already..."
"No, no. Well, yes. Sure. Yahoo was doing it. But that wasn't the reason Google went along. You know, Republicans hate Google. We're overwhelmingly registered Democratic, so we're doing what we can to make peace with them before they clobber us. This isn't P.I.I."—Personally Identifying Information, the toxic smog of the information age—"It's just metadata. So it's only slightly evil."
"Why all the intrigue, then?"
Maya sighed and hugged the lab that was butting her knee with its huge head. "The spooks are like lice. They get everywhere. They show up at our meetings. It's like being in some Soviet ministry. And the security clearance—we're divided into these two camps: the cleared and the suspect. We all know who isn't cleared, but no one knows why. I'm cleared. Lucky for me, being a dyke no longer disqualifies you. No cleared person would deign to eat lunch with an unclearable."
Greg felt very tired. "So I guess I'm lucky I got out of the airport alive. I might have ended up 'disappeared' if it had gone badly, huh?"
Maya stared at him intently. He waited for an answer.
"I'm about to tell you something, but you can't ever repeat it, okay?"
"Um...you're not in a terrorist cell, are you?
"Nothing so simple. Here's the deal: Airport DHS scrutiny is a gating function. It lets the spooks narrow down their search criteria. Once you get pulled aside for secondary at the border, you become a 'person of interest'—and they never, ever let up. They'll scan webcams for your face and gait. Read your mail. Monitor your searches."
"I thought you said the courts wouldn't let them..."
"The courts won't let them indiscriminately Google you. But after you're in the system, it becomes a selective search. All legal. And once they start Googling you, they always find something. All your data is fed into a big hopper that checks for 'suspicious patterns,' using deviation from statistical norms to nail you."
Greg felt like he was going to throw up. "How the hell did this happen? Google was a good place. 'Don't be evil,' right?" That was the corporate motto, and for Greg, it had been a huge part of why he'd taken his computer science Ph.D. from Stanford directly to Mountain View.
Maya replied with a hard-edged laugh. "Don't be evil? Come on, Greg. Our lobbying group is that same bunch of crypto-fascists that tried to Swift-Boat Kerry. We popped our evil cherry a long time ago."
They were quiet for a minute.
"It started in China," she went on, finally. "Once we moved our servers onto the mainland, they went under Chinese jurisdiction."
Greg sighed. He knew Google's reach all too well: Every time you visited a page with Google ads on it, or used Google maps or Google mail—even if you sent mail to a Gmail account—the company diligently collected your info. Recently, the site's search-optimization software had begun using the data to tailor Web searches to individual users. It proved to be a revolutionary tool for advertisers. An authoritarian government would have other purposes in mind.
"They were using us to build profiles of people," she went on. "When they had someone they wanted to arrest, they'd come to us and find a reason to bust them. There's hardly anything you can do on the Net that isn't illegal in China."
Greg shook his head. "Why did they have to put the servers in China?"
"The government said they'd block us otherwise. And Yahoo was there." They both made faces. Somewhere along the way, employees at Google had become obsessed with Yahoo, more concerned with what the competition was doing than how their own company was performing. "So we did it. But a lot of us didn't like the idea."
Maya sipped her coffee and lowered her voice. One of her dogs sniffed insistently under Greg's chair.
"Almost immediately, the Chinese asked us to start censoring search results," Maya said. "Google agreed. The company line was hilarious: 'We're not doing evil—we're giving consumers access to a better search tool! If we showed them search results they couldn't get to, that would just frustrate them. It would be a bad user experience.'"
"Now what?" Greg pushed a dog away from him. Maya looked hurt.
"Now you're a person of interest, Greg.You're Googlestalked. Now you live your life with someone constantly looking over your shoulder. You know the mission statement, right? 'Organize the World's Information.' Everything. Give it five years, we'll know how many turds were in the bowl before you flushed. Combine that with automated suspicion of anyone who matches a statistical picture of a bad guy and you're—"
"Totally." She nodded.
Maya took both labs down the hall to the bedroom. He heard a muffled argument with her girlfriend, and she came back alone.
"I can fix this," she said in an urgent whisper. "After the Chinese started rounding up people, my podmates and I made it our 20 percent project to fuck with them." (Among Google's business innovations was a rule that required every employee to devote 20 percent of his or her time to high-minded pet projects.) "We call it the Googlecleaner. It goes deep into the database and statistically normalizes you. Your searches, your Gmail histograms, your browsing patterns. All of it. Greg, I can Googleclean you. It's the only way."
"I don't want you to get into trouble."
She shook her head. "I'm already doomed. Every day since I built the damn thing has been borrowed time—now it's just a matter of waiting for someone to point out my expertise and history to the DHS and, oh, I don't know. Whatever it is they do to people like me in the war on abstract nouns."
Greg remembered the airport. The search. His shirt, the boot print in the middle of it.
"Do it," he said.
The Googlecleaner worked wonders. Greg could tell by the ads that popped up alongside his searches, ads clearly meant for someone else: Intelligent Design Facts, Online Seminary Degree, Terror Free Tomorrow, Porn Blocker Software, the Homosexual Agenda, Cheap Toby Keith Tickets. This was Maya's program at work. Clearly Google's new personalized search had him pegged as someone else entirely, a God-fearing right winger with a thing for hat acts.
Which was fine by him.
Then he clicked on his address book, and found that half of his contacts were missing. His Gmail in-box was hollowed out like a termite-ridden stump. His Orkut profile, normalized. His calendar, family photos, bookmarks: all empty. He hadn't quite realized before how much of him had migrated onto the Web and worked its way into Google's server farms—his entire online identity. Maya had scrubbed him to a high gloss; he'd become the invisible man.
Greg sleepily mashed the keys on the laptop next to his bed, bringing the screen to life. He squinted at the flashing toolbar clock: 4:13 a.m.! Christ, who was pounding on his door at this hour?
He shouted, "Coming!" in a muzzy voice and pulled on a robe and slippers. He shuffled down the hallway, turning on lights as he went. At the door, he squinted through the peephole to find Maya staring glumly back at him.
He undid the chains and dead bolt and yanked the door open. Maya rushed in past him, followed by the dogs and her girlfriend.
She was sheened in sweat, her usually combed hair clinging in clumps to her forehead. She rubbed at her eyes, which were red and lined.
"Pack a bag," she croaked hoarsely.
She took him by the shoulders. "Do it," she said.
"Where do you want to...?"
"Mexico, probably. Don't know yet. Pack, dammit." She pushed past him into his bedroom and started yanking open drawers.
"Maya," he said sharply, "I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on."
She glared at him and pushed her hair away from her face. "The Googlecleaner lives. After I cleaned you, I shut it down and walked away. It was too dangerous to use anymore. But it's still set to send me e-mail confirmations whenever it runs. Someone's used it six times to scrub three very specific accounts—all of which happen to belong to members of the Senate Commerce Committee up for reelection."
"Googlers are blackwashing senators?"
"Not Googlers. This is coming from off-site. The IP block is registered in D.C. And the IPs are all used by Gmail users. Guess who the accounts belong to?"
"You spied on Gmail accounts?"
"Okay. Yes. I did look through their e-mail. Everyone does it, now and again, and for a lot worse reasons than I did. But check it out—turns out all this activity is being directed by our lobbying firm. Just doing their job, defending the company's interests."
Greg felt his pulse beating in his temples. "We should tell someone."
"It won't do any good. They know everything about us. They can see every search. Every e-mail. Every time we've been caught on the webcams. Who is in our social network...did you know if you have 15 Orkut buddies, it's statistically certain that you're no more than three steps to someone who's contributed money to a 'terrorist' cause? Remember the airport? You'll be in for a lot more of that."
"Maya," Greg said, getting his bearings. "Isn't heading to Mexico overreacting? Just quit. We can do a start-up or something. This is crazy."
"They came to see me today," she said. "Two of the political officers from DHS. They didn't leave for hours. And they asked me a lot of very heavy questions."
"About the Googlecleaner?"
"About my friends and family. My search history. My personal history."
"They were sending a message to me. They're watching every click and every search. It's time to go. Time to get out of range."
"There's a Google office in Mexico, you know."
"We've got to go," she said, firmly.
"Laurie, what do you think of this?" Greg asked.
Laurie thumped the dogs between the shoulders. "My parents left East Germany in '65. They used to tell me about the Stasi. The secret police would put everything about you in your file, if you told an unpatriotic joke, whatever. Whether they meant it or not, what Google has created is no different."
"Greg, are you coming?"
He looked at the dogs and shook his head. "I've got some pesos left over," he said. "You take them. Be careful, okay?"
Maya looked like she was going to slug him. Softening, she gave him a ferocious hug.
"Be careful, yourself," she whispered in his ear.
They came for him a week later. At home, in the middle of the night, just as he'd imagined they would.
Two men arrived on his doorstep shortly after 2 a.m. One stood silently by the door. The other was a smiler, short and rumpled, in a sport coat with a stain on one lapel and a American flag on the other. "Greg Lupinski, we have reason to believe you're in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act," he said, by way of introduction. "Specifically, exceeding authorized access, and by means of such conduct having obtained information. Ten years for a first offense. Turns out that what you and your friend did to your Google records qualifies as a felony. And oh, what will come out in the trial...all the stuff you whitewashed out of your profile, for starters."
Greg had played this scene in his head for a week. He'd planned all kinds of brave things to say. It had given him something to do while he waited to hear from Maya. She never called.
"I'd like to get in touch with a lawyer," is all he mustered.
"You can do that," the small man said. "But maybe we can come to a better arrangement."
Greg found his voice. "I'd like to see your badge," he stammered.
The man's basset-hound face lit up as he let out a bemused chuckle. "Buddy, I'm not a cop," he replied. "I'm a consultant. Google hired me—my firm represents their interests in Washington—to build relationships. Of course, we wouldn't get the police involved without talking to you first. You're part of the family. Actually, there's an offer I'd like to make."
Greg turned to the coffeemaker, dumped the old filter.
"I'll go to the press," he said.
The man nodded as if thinking it over. "Well, sure. You could walk into the Chronicle's office in the morning and spill everything. They'd look for a confirming source. They won't find one. And when they try searching for it, we'll find them. So, buddy, why don't you hear me out, okay? I'm in the win-win business. I'm very good at it." He paused. "By the way, those are excellent beans, but you want to give them a little rinse first? Takes some of the bitterness out and brings up the oils. Here, pass me a colander?"
Greg watched as the man silently took off his jacket and hung it over a kitchen chair, then undid his cuffs and carefully rolled them up, slipping a cheap digital watch into his pocket. He poured the beans out of the grinder and into Greg's colander, and rinsed them in the sink.
He was a little pudgy and very pale, with the social grace of an electrical engineer. He seemed like a real Googler, actually, obsessed with the minutiae. He knew his way around a coffee grinder, too.
"We're drafting a team for Building 49..."
"There is no Building 49," Greg said automatically.
"Of course," the guy said, flashing a tight smile. "There's no Building 49. But we're putting together a team to revamp the Googlecleaner. Maya's code wasn't very efficient, you know. It's full of bugs. We need an upgrade. You'd be the right guy, and it wouldn't matter what you knew if you were back inside."
"Unbelievable," Greg said, laughing. "If you think I'm going to help you smear political candidates in exchange for favors, you're crazier than I thought."
"Greg," the man said, "we're not smearing anyone. We're just going to clean things up a bit. For some select people. You know what I mean? Everyone's Google profile is a little scary under close inspection. Close inspection is the order of the day in politics. Standing for office is like a public colonoscopy." He loaded the cafetière and depressed the plunger, his face screwed up in solemn concentration. Greg retrieved two coffee cups—Google mugs, of course—and passed them over.
"We're going to do for our friends what Maya did for you. Just a little cleanup. All we want to do is preserve their privacy. That's all."
Greg sipped his coffee. "What happens to the candidates you don't clean?"
"Yeah," the guy said, flashing Greg a weak grin. "Yeah, you're right. It'll be kind of tough for them." He searched the inside pocket of his jacket and produced several folded sheets of paper.
He smoothed out the pages and put them on the table. "Here's one of the good guys who needs our help." It was a printout of a search history belonging to a candidate whose campaign Greg had contributed to in the past three elections.
"Fella gets back to his hotel room after a brutal day of campaigning door to door, fires up his laptop, and types 'hot asses' into his search bar. Big deal, right? The way we see it, for that to disqualify a good man from continuing to serve his country is just un-American."
Greg nodded slowly.
"So you'll help the guy out?" the man asked.
"Good. There's one more thing. We need you to help us find Maya. She didn't understand our goals at all, and now she seems to have flown the coop. Once she hears us out, I have no doubt she'll come around."
He glanced at the candidate's search history.
"I guess she might," Greg replied.
The new Congress took 11 working days to pass the Securing and Enumerating America's Communications and Hypertext Act, which authorized the DHS and NSA to outsource up to 80 percent of intelligence and analysis work to private contractors. Theoretically, the contracts were open to competitive bidding, but within the secure confines of Google's Building 49, there was no question of who would win. If Google had spent $15 billion on a program to catch bad guys at the border, you can bet they would have caught them—governments just aren't equipped to Do Search Right.
The next morning Greg scrutinized himself carefully as he shaved (the security minders didn't like hacker stubble and weren't shy about telling him so), realizing that today was his first day as a de facto intelligence agent for the U.S. government. How bad would it be? Wasn't it better to have Google doing this stuff than some ham-fisted DHS desk jockey?
By the time he parked at the Googleplex, among the hybrid cars and bulging bike racks, he had convinced himself. He was mulling over which organic smoothie to order at the canteen when his key card failed to open the door to Building 49. The red LED flashed dumbly every time he swiped his card. Any other building, and there'd be someone to tailgate on, people trickling in and out all day. But the Googlers in 49 only emerged for meals, and sometimes not even that.
Swipe, swipe, swipe. Suddenly he heard a voice at his side.
"Greg, can I see you, please?"
The rumpled man put an arm around his shoulders, and Greg smelled his citrusy aftershave. It smelled like what his divemaster in Baja had worn when they went out to the bars in the evening. Greg couldn't remember his name. Juan Carlos? Juan Luis?
The man's arm around his shoulders was firm, steering him away from the door, out onto the immaculate lawn, past the herb garden outside the kitchen. "We're giving you a couple of days off," he said.
Greg felt a sudden stab of anxiety. "Why?" Had he done something wrong? Was he going to jail?
"It's Maya." The man turned him around, met his eyes with his bottomless gaze. "She killed herself. In Guatemala. I'm sorry, Greg."
Greg seemed to hurtle away, to a place miles above, a Google Earth view of the Googleplex, where he looked down on himself and the rumpled man as a pair of dots, two pixels, tiny and insignificant. He willed himself to tear at his hair, to drop to his knees and weep.
From a long way away, he heard himself say, "I don't need any time off. I'm okay."
From a long way away, he heard the rumpled man insist.
The argument persisted for a long time, and then the two pixels moved into Building 49, and the door swung shut behind them.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Chicago has a rich musical past, so it only makes sense that Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the owner of perhaps the richest musical presence around, makes his home there.
By Bob Mehr
“I think this might be the toughest interview I’ve done,” Jeff Tweedy offers with a chuckle.
It’s a somewhat surprising comment, coming from the well-traveled Wilco front man. In addition to being the subject of a major biography (Greg Kot’s Wilco: Learning How to Die) and of a feature-length documentary (Sam Jones’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart), Tweedy has been the focus of countless articles and press inquiries over the years.
That kind of critical support has helped grow the 39-year-old singer-songwriter’s original small cult of fans (from his days in the alt-country combo Uncle Tupelo) into a legion of diehard Wilco-heads, even as Tweedy has continually challenged both his audience and himself musically. A somewhat reluctant rock star, he’s managed to toe the fine line between underground respect and mainstream success and has become one of contemporary music’s most compelling and revered figures in the process.
A native of tiny Belleville, Illinois, Tweedy has called Chicago home for the past 13 years. He arrived in the early 1990s, ostensibly to be with his girlfriend, who is now his wife, Sue Miller. She was a co-owner of the much-beloved and now long-defunct rock club Lounge Ax. Longtime North Side residents, the Tweedys have two sons, Sam, seven, and Spencer, 11; the latter, already following in his father’s footsteps, is a member of kiddie rock band the Blisters.
Tweedy’s group, Wilco, meanwhile, has just released its sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky (see page 48). Recorded in the band’s loft studio rehearsal space, the disc finds Tweedy once again exploring a stylistic shift — the album luxuriates in the sweet sounds of ’70s FM radio and has a warm, rootsy bonhomie.
A proud and passionate Chicagoan, Tweedy offers his insights on the city’s music scene, his favorite family dining spots, the best places to pick up a guitar, and where to see a show. And he also tells why he doesn’t do much record shopping anymore.
Being a native Midwesterner, did you spend a lot of time in Chicago when you were a child?
Well, I grew up about five hours south of Chicago, near St. Louis, so I didn’t really come here as a kid — it would’ve been like going to Mars. [Laughs]
The first time I really came to Chicago was with Uncle Tupelo in the late ’80s. We started playing at a club called the Cubby Bear and then at the Lounge Ax, which is where I met my wife, Sue. We were dating, but it was hard to consider ourselves a real couple unless we lived in the same city. So when Uncle Tupelo broke up and Wilco started, that kind of seemed a good time to make a change, so I moved to Chicago.
Did anything surprise you about the city when you arrived, in terms of coming from a smaller town like Belleville?
By the time I moved to Chicago, I’d certainly had my eyes opened to the rest of the world, just from touring so much. But the thing that struck me the most when I spent time in Chicago was the sense of community among musicians here. The rock community was really vibrant, and the fact that there were so many people happily coexisting with each other surprised me, I guess. I’ve never really been much of a scene guy, and I don’t think I am now, but it was nice to see that there was a real thriving element to the way people were living with each other and making music.
It’s a place that has always had a tremendous legacy as a musical city.
Chicago has an unbelievable history through the years. Things that stick out in my mind immediately are Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin, Mavis Staples — people like that. All these artists who made their home here form a huge part of my record collection.
It continues to be a great place for musicians — and not just for rock or pop musicians. There’s an unbelievably vibrant improvised music scene here centered on clubs like the Empty Bottle. Chicago is really the center of the universe for that kind of music. I don’t even think any cities in Europe can compare to what we have here.
Do you think that being in Chicago — as opposed to being in New York or in Los Angeles — has been helpful to your music and career?
Chicago is pretty great for a lot of reasons, in my mind. If you’re in a band, there are tons of places to play. Compared with other major cities, you can live reasonably well without a lot of money. And there are a lot of people who are very good at recording — there are great studios all over town, like Electrical Audio and Soma [Electronic Music Studios].
Even for us, having our own place to record at, it’s very helpful to have someone just a couple of blocks away who can lend you a reel of tape or come over and help troubleshoot if your machines aren’t working. There’s a great support system in that way. I feel very comfortable here, very taken care of and nurtured as a musician. It makes it an easy environment to be creative in.
You’ve played at pretty much every major venue in town — from small clubs to big theaters. Do any of them stand out to you, whether you performed there or were an audience member?
The Auditorium Theatre, where we’ve played a bunch of times now, is such an unbelievably gorgeous building to get to see a show in. I would highly recommend that to anyone if they have a chance to see something they like there. It’s a pretty historic concert venue for Chicago as well. The Who played there, as did Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Frank Zappa played there a lot — I think he played every Halloween for a number of years. When it first opened [in 1889], I think it was one of the tallest buildings in Chicago. [Architect] Louis Sullivan built his offices in a sky cottage above the dome of the building to prove that it could withstand being that high. I guess people doubted him at the time. So there’s a real cool history that goes with the place.
Another favorite, as far as a smaller venue goes, is the Hideout. It’s an old bar and club in this kind of industrial part of town. It’s a great, friendly place for people to see music in a more intimate room.
In the past few years, Chicago seems to have exploded as a place for summer music festivals.
I think Chicago is the best city in the world for festivals now. All summer long, there is a constant stream of really exciting music events happening here. You have the Pitchfork Music Festival and Lollapalooza, and last year, there was the Touch and Go festival. Wilco’s not actually doing Lollapalooza this year, but my son’s band, the Blisters, is playing two days of the festival, so hopefully I’ll be there just to roadie.
That’s not even mentioning all the local neighborhood street festivals in the summer. I don’t have any idea why it happens so much here culturally, but it is a fact of life in Chicago that every weekend someone’s going to think of some excuse to blockade the streets, serve beer, and have bands play. [Laughs]
You play a really nice selection of guitars onstage. Do you have a particular place where you find instruments?
One place I’ve shopped at a lot over the years is Midwest Buy and Sell, which is a pawnshop that specializes in musical equipment. I think their philosophy is to stock really great instruments, but ones that aren’t “perfect” in a collector’s sense. They want to put them in the hands of people who are going to play them and use them.
What about record stores?
Well, unfortunately, I don’t find music shopping environments to be very comfortable. I do way more shopping online than going to record stores. If I’m on the road and it’s a day off, I can do it sometimes. In general, it can be a little tough here.
I suppose you at a record shop in Chicago must be a little like the pope in Rome.
I wouldn’t go that far. [Laughs] Even if it’s only one time in 10, it’s those few encounters I’ve had where people have wanted to talk to me — and they’re nice people — but it changes the experience. At one point in time, going to a record store was like going to church for me. So it’s something that I’ve always associated with a certain amount of introspection and solitude, ironically.
Are you less recognized in bookstores?
I think I am. Well, people tend to have their heads down a little bit more in bookstores. [Laughs]
Are there any that stand out for you?
I love going to Quimby’s Bookstore in Wicker Park. I can’t ever get enough stuff to read. So I go in there, maybe once a month, and spend way too much money. I don’t buy super-esoteric stuff like obscure xeroxed fanzines, but I do like thumbing through them, and there’s definitely more of a chance of finding something like that at Quimby’s than anywhere else. Plus, the other stuff they keep in stock is much more to my taste.
Let’s talk a little bit about food. In Chicago, you have to start with hot dogs. Where do you go for yours?
Easy: That’d be Superdawg. If there’s anybody visiting from out of town, we end by making a trip there. It’s been around forever; it’s still a carhop. You pull up, and they bring these delicious, massive hot dogs right to your window.
And where do your loyalties lie on the pizza question — deep dish or thin crust?
Thick. I think that Lou Malnati’s is the best pizza in the world, by far. I just love the stuff. I get it plain, just cheese, and they don’t cut it. You cut it when you get home, and the crust stays crisp that way. I don’t think there’s pizza anywhere else like it.
You have a family, so I know that’s always a consideration when you’re going out to eat.
That’s true. There are a few places we like to go. For breakfast, it’d be Lou Mitchell’s. That’s a stop you have to make. It’s an old-style diner. When you come in in the morning, they give the kids and the wife a box of Milk Duds, and the husband gets the check — that’s what they tell you when you walk in. It’s one of those places where they’re kind of rude to the dad but nice to everybody else. [Laughs] They bring you a prune before you eat your main course, and they serve these amazing egg dishes that come in burning-hot skillets. Everything is really delicious there.
There’s also Feed, a great home-cooking, soul-food place that’s pretty kid friendly. They do great barbecue, chicken, collard greens — it’s Southern-style cooking. It’s a great environment, a very comfortable and fun place to go for the family.
In general, we try to support some of the places in our neighborhood, Old Irving Park, and nearby. There’s a really good Middle Eastern place called Shiraz. And I think Tank in Lincoln Square has the best sushi in town.
Everyone assumes musicians aren’t outdoor types, but you try and take advantage of the parks in Chicago, right?
Yeah, I run all the time on the trails by Lake Michigan. The waterfront in Chicago is just another aspect that makes the city so special. To have such a beautiful waterfront in a Midwestern city is a strange but amazing thing.
The parks in Chicago are great, and not just for the physical beauty but because of all the stuff you can do. If you look at what the Chicago Park District offers in terms of classes, almost anything you can think of or want to try and do, they have.
Also, in the summer, a lot of the parks here do movie nights, when they’ll show films on big screens outdoors. So you go hang out with your kids and your neighbors on the grass. I just think that stuff is really lovely.
What about musical activities for the family?
The Old Town School of Folk Music, for sure. It’s a pretty amazing thing to have in a community; anyone — not just kids — can go learn how to frail a banjo or to do African dancing or whatever. They have music camps in the summer, as well, and our kids have gone to those.
Also, a place like the Hideout, which I mentioned — they do a lot of matinee shows for kids. Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons have put on plays for kids there. There’s a really good group of people in Chicago doing shows for kids that aren’t dumbed down, which I really appreciate. I like the fact it’s not just Barney on Ice. [Laughs]
You’re a pretty good salesman for the city.
Yeah, I’m feeling like I should get a job as spokesman for the Chicago tourism department. But, you know, Chicago has a really strong civic spirit; it’s really kind of cool. I never knew anything like that growing up, even in a small town. That’s one of the reasons why I love it here.
Sunday, April 29, 2007
| http://www.juxtapoz.com/jux//index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=883&Itemid=50 |
|Dave Kelly/Todd Goldman Update|
|Tuesday, 17 April 2007|
| Some updates on our Todd Goldman story from last week:|
Mike Tyndall set up a page of examples of art used by Todd Goldman and David & Goliath, his t-shirt & accessory company, which has been copied from other artists. The images to the left are a side-by-side comparison gleaned from Tyndall's post of "Todd's" work next to their original counterparts. He also posts the press release issued by Todd Goldman's publicist two days after our editorial.
Todd Goldman admits copying a drawing that was submitted to him without checking who created it. Dave Kelly, the artist whose work Todd Goldman used that generated the controversy is offered payment or the choice to donate the proceeds from the sale of work bearing his art to charity. www.miketyndall.com
More posts, updates, and comments on www.fleen.com
Dave vs. Goliath: Shameless Art Thievery, Ahoy
Once upon a time, I was strolling with two people down at the Grove shopping complex in Los Angeles. We passed a gallery with giant windows, a gallery packed to the gills with the most insipid, offensively dull paintings we had ever seen. We stood in awe that this person had conned someone into giving them an entire retail space to soil. There were paintings of lamps that looked as if they had been done by "getting old ain't so bad" greeting card illustrators. Mr. Bill-like cartoon faces, with no perceivable expression or appeal, stared sightlessly off white canvas. Seemingly random depictions of household objects bore zany witticisms scrawled atop.
"Jesus wept," someone said, "this shit is TERRIBLE."
Instantly, he was upon us. The artist himself, lurking at a nearby cafe table and supervising the reactions of the gallery's passerby, leapt to his feet and verbally laid into us. Sputtering and red, he demanded to know what we had said about him, if we knew who we were dealing with, and who the hell we thought we were. We pointed and laughed at the poor crazy man who couldn't draw, and went to a movie.
I have just found out that the shouting hack was none other than Todd "Goliath" Goldman, renowned "artist" and accomplished plagiarist. He's ripped off designs from sources as far ranging as ancient Windows animated cursors, Threadless t-shirt company, spooky comics scribbler Roman Dirge, and most blatantly, internet cartooning legend Dave "Shmorky" Kelly. As the panel at right illustrates, one of Todd Goldman's recent paintings is a near-exact trace of a panel from Kelly's "Purple Pussy" webcomic.
Todd Goldman's publicist has released that his client has vowed to cease any and all marketing of the stolen design, and to forward the proceeds already collected either to Kelly or the charity of his choice. However, Todd Goldman's other plagiarism is extensive, and unredressed.
Now that he's been called on his bullshit, and the Internet vs. Todd Goldman onslaught has begun in earnest, the man has retreated to slander, hacking, and douchebaggery to make his point:
The girl who originally reported the theft of Shmorky's artwork also had her MySpace hacked. Some of the MySpace pages were replaced with an image saying TODD WAS HERE. (Note that the image is hosted on Todd Goldman's website, indicating it is either Todd Goldman or an employee with access to his webserver)
This is one example among many. What can be done about it, besides spurting reams of textualized nerd rage into every venue that will tolerate it? Shmorky's got the original design up for sale on a shirt. And one can always Digg, of course. Otherwise, I encourage the perusal of the following links, so that you may familiarize yourself with his myriad offenses and be able to hold forth on the subject at parties, whist drives, and strawberry teas. Do it for ART.
We’re beginning to be pretty fascinated by this Todd Goldman guy, because he’s such an obvious rip-off artist, but has managed to make a pretty good living at taking other people’s ideas and gussying them up a a bit. For instance check out this blurb from Animation Art Gallery:
New, hip, modern, and cool are some of the words used to describe Todd Goldman’s artwork. The playful and child-like nature of his characters pair strikingly with the very adult humor of the words which tell a bitingly whitty truth about life. One can not help but laugh out loud. His art instigates an emotional shock response which makes it all the more enjoyable. His art has been rising in popularity and even Jessica Simpson purchased her very own copy of “You Say I’m a Bitch Like It’s a Bad Thing.”
New, hip, modern and cool to the tune of $90 million in 2004, the Wall Street Journal claims. Although he’s widely portrayed as someone from the fine art world, as near as we can tell from Googling, the galleries he’s in are those kind of “chain” galleries you find in Las Vegas casinos and malls…the ones with the Erte prints and paintings of gangsters and so on. Middlebrow, but very profitable in other words.
Somewhere along the way — and sadly we didn’t bookmark it, and now can’t find it in all the links we’ve looked at — the victim, “Schmorky”, as he is known, said (and we paraphrase) “I never really wanted to make money licensing my work.”
Isn’t that the tragic dichotomy here, and really every where that IP is exploited. The Kellys of the world create, quietly and unencumbered by the shameful desire to actually make a living at what they do best.
The Goldmans of the world have the gene the Kellys are missing, with a keen eye for the marketable, and the charisma and salesmanship to convince everyone that they are the auteur, the ones with the vision. Let’s face it, it would have been a lot harder for Todd Goldman to set up a legit LICENSING company that licensed the work of all these talented but sometimes eccentric creators. Ripping them off was easier for everyone.
We sincerely hope that Todd Goldman gets whats coming to him because of this — if that letter slandering Kelly is really from him, he’s an even lower scumbag than most ripoff artists of his kind. But it won’t stop more people like him from trying to get away with this kind of thing. The internet is making it a lot harder, however, and that’s one small blessing in the age of the homage, tribute and digital download.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
Tribune staff report
April 4, 2007, 1:05 AM CDT
The day after Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell and Tribune Co. announced their deal to take the Chicago-based media concern private, Zell sat down with Chicago Tribune business reporters and editors for his first in-depth interview. This is an edited transcript.
Question: I think we want to start by asking when you first got interested in Tribune Co., what was it you saw? What was it that made it seem like a good idea.
Zell: I think that the first time we looked at the Tribune was right after the announcement that you were going to hire bankers to pursue value or something. We looked at it and kind of kept it on the back burner. We just put it on hold.
Q: What changed?
Zell: The impending end of the process didn't really produce a rational solution. One of the people involved called and said 'Sam, nobody is getting anywhere. This is crazy. You're the guy. Take a look at this." So we did. In the process, we remembered we had seen this particular structure in another deal we had proposed.
Q: Which one?
Zell: Covanta. We kind of went back and forth and concluded and under those circumstances we could see doing a transaction. In the process of us buying Covanta, one of the options for the previous ownership was to do something like this, which is what triggered us to think about this.
Q: When you were thinking about what attracted you, what seemed most attractive.
Zell: I don't think we thought "Oh my God there's a gold mine or here's the answer." Basically we looked at all the businesses. We compared to other companies in similar businesses. We thought, just as Mark Twain said, 'stories of my death are greatly exaggerated,' we felt the same way about the newspaper business. People were beating it up and predicting its demise. And we didn't see it that way. We thought there was a lot of future in the newspaper business.
Q: There seems to be something going on with the newspaper business.
Zell: Oh, without question. The question is, 'is it a 5 -11 alarm fire or is it a brush fire?' If it's a 5-11 fire we're in big trouble. If it's a brush fire, we're going to figure out how to put it out or make its impact so minuscule as to not to impair the rest of the opportunity.
Q: Do you have a sense of the hose needed to put it out?
Zell: I think I have various ideas. I think my people have various ideas. But frankly, we've been to this movie before. And so we know the first thing we have to do is, no matter what your opinion is, is to listen. Our goal in the near term is to listen to everything that's going on. And hopefully reach some conclusions and then match them up with our own opinions.
Q: The issue over here is the job cuts and the cost cutting. Are there going to be job cuts, do you think? And how do you feel about the amount of cost cutting that's gone on?
Zell: First of all, I really am not in a position to comment on what's happened in the past. I just don't know. I've never been involved in any situation where there wasn't any kind of cost cutting that wasn't either terrible or worse in the opinion of the people who worked in the company. I'm a great believer in a meritocracy. It's really simple, my whole goal in life is to build businesses and to build jobs and to create thriving enterprises. And my standard is that they just got to perform. And the $64,000 question is, 'How do we up the revenue? How do we in effect make this into a much more viable business?' That's our focus. To be honest with you, I don't know anything about job cuts. I don't, and I think that's all in the realm of (Tribune Co. Chairman, CEO and President Dennis FitzSimons) and the CEO. My focus is not to look at this thing and see how we can eliminate one more table leg. Because frankly, eliminating this or eliminating that isn't going to make this work. What's going to make this work is raising revenue and that's the goal.
Q: In the newspaper business, raising revenue means either raising advertising rates or raising circulation or a combination of both. At first blush, which of those makes more sense. How do you do that?
Zell: This is for sure an amateur guess at this point. But I would think the biggest single issue is circulation and circulation penetration. And I think the issue is what if, how do we do this, what's our cpm? And how can we lower that cpm to make us more competitive with other forms of media. Those are the kinds of questions that I think are relevant. I think the answer is probably we have to find ways to increase circulation and to increase penetration. (But) you know what, I'm the first one to tell you, I don't know. .. I'm perfectly happy if someone says to me, but you're wrong. I've been wrong before. So it's OK. Our job is to ask the questions. And I can assure you we're going to do that.
Q: Another point of concern is your view on the what's the value of editorial excellence and are editorial excellence and profits mutually exclusive?
Zell: If they are, we're all in a lot of trouble.
Q: Talk about the value of what we do as journalists.
Zell: If you are relevant, people are going to buy a newspaper…If people buy a newspaper, circulation is going to go up. If you're not relevant, people will stop buying newspaper and stop buying advertising. Somehow or another we have to define how we service customers. I don't have an opinion, believe it or not, on what you write other than what you write has to be truthful and relevant. And if it is, I think the ultimate customer for you is there and that translates into viable businesses.
Q: There's been a lot of discussion on what's relevant is the Internet. There's been a lot of talk on whether to shift resources to the Internet.
Zell: I'm aware of those conversations and it is a little early for me to opine on it. But I think you raise what for me is a very important point, which is allocation of resources. If we're going to grow revenue you have to look at that question. I don't have an opinion today other than we do that with every company. We look at how are we allocating capital? What are we achieving? Are we producing the product?. Are we competitive? Those are the relevant questions. And I think they are as important to the newspaper business, the TV business, the barge business or any other business.
Q: When you look at the stock price, and the value of the Internet is not reflected in the stock price. When you look at the mix of businesses, what do you feel is not being correctly valued on Wall Street.
Zell: I'm not sure that Wall Street's valuation is necessarily incorrect. We think that, or so it appears to us, there are pieces of this company, that may be worth more or less than what the street thinks, but overall I don't think we have any massive dispute with the valuation of the street.
Q: I've heard you say that a company like the Tribune doesn't have an owner. What do you mean by that?
Zell: That means there is a need for someone to step back from 20,000 feet and say, this is the domain, how should it be allocated, how should it be run? And what risks are willing to be taken. The problem with the street and the public is that the public doesn't have one voice. In my experience, an owner is having someone whose role is to create direction. It's the mental set of being responsible. We're going to do an ESOP here. I'm going to be responsible to all those employees. I take that responsibility very seriously. I'm an owner and I'm an owner for that as much for myself. My experience is that the companies that perform the best have owners, someone in a position to say, 'Here's where we should go,' or 'follow me,' or 'go for greatness.' In this situation, that's the opportunity for me and hopefully I can fulfill it.
Q: A lot of those roles are traditionally the CEO's.
Zell: My answer to that is, I'm not sure I endorse the traditional approach. I think you get a second guy and it's someone that the CEO can talk to. I once hired a guy 20 years ago … he looked at me and he said to me, Do you understand the role you play? If you're a the CEO of a large company, you have no one to talk to. Ultimately, you don't have anyone you can sit across from and let your hair down. That's the role I'm talking about. It's creating the ability for the CEO to be able to vet his ideas and to vet his crises.
Q: That implies there was a vacuum for that kind of leadership here.
Zell: I think this company was not different from a lot of very large companies. And I think what I'm espousing is not the norm. I believe it is the formula that works.
Q: A lot has been made of you being a maverick. This is an institution that's conservative. How do you view the culture issues in terms of you and the Tribune.
Zell: I guess what I would say is that I really think that the board believed that bringing in some outside influence to this company was a definite positive. That taking it private and off the roller coaster was beneficial to the company. This is not necessarily a new thing. I just look at things, and historically, looked at things differently.
Q: Is questioning conventional wisdom always appropriate? Is it always something that pays off?
Zell: Questioning always pays off. That doesn't necessarily mean that questioning it means taking the opposite direction, but questioning it, always. Because that's the way you formulate opinions and that's the way you are able to take a position here and reach a conclusion. In the end, I really view myself as extraordinarily simple and if I had one great skill, it's historically to take complex situations and make them very simple.
Q: When you look at a company like this and wonder how it strayed off course, what typically is your opinion does that? What do you see here in that sense? Where do you think the Tribune needs to adjust itself to bring itself back in line?
Zell: I'm sure there are answers to that question, I don't think that at this stage of the game I'd be doing you a service if I answered it. From my perspective, I'll make a date with you in six months and you can ask that question and I'll have a definitive answer for you.
Q: How familiar are you with what has been going on at the LA Times?
Zell: More familiar than I'd like.
Q: Obviously a lot of subtexts are going on there that really encapsulate what's going on in the business. Could you talk about your version of what you think has happened and how would you fix a problem like that.
Zell: I don't know how much of what I've read is valid. I've read the L.A. Times and the New York Times, as well as the Tribune, on this particular subject. I don't know whether it's the old story, from the L.A. Times perspective, of the fish that swallowed the whale and there's a lot of resistance to that. I think there's some Midwest-coastal scenarios going on. I'm not familiar enough with the personalities involved…I can't tell you if someone went down on their sword to make a point. I don't know all the facts. Ask me in three months and I'll have a much more definitive answer.
Q: Did you mention that someone at the Tribune reached out to you (about buying the company)?
Zell: One of the bankers that was involved.
Q: To the extent that the (LA Times situation) could be viewed as an insurrection, how do you look at that? What do you do about that?
Zell: I have the benefit of having no history and obviously one of the first things we're going to want to understand is the history of what you're talking about. We dealt with other situations in the past of varying natures. I think we understand the cultural issues. But I wouldn't in any way venture any opinion today unless I had a lot more data.
Q: Is it OK for a (top) manager to say, 'I don't want to do what you want me to do?'
Zell: No. He has the opportunity. He has the job. Whatever the terms of the job are, he has to live by them. All I can tell you is that, I am your boss and I tell you to do something that is not unethical, but is in line with some big corporate program or directive or philosophy, you've got a choice. You can play or you can go work for somebody else…Everybody's entitled to an opinion. But once you've chosen to work with somebody and the lines of the story are clear, I don't know how you could operate a business if you lay out a strategic plan and then have 20,000 people opt out.
Q: What is the optimal relationship, between directors and chairman and their executives, and how do you create that relationship?
Zell: I'm a great believer in the philosophy that the definition of power is never having to take a vote. In other words, if I have a view and I can't convince everybody that that's the right direction, then I have no ability to execute. I have to be a good enough salesman and trust people enough to be able to reach a consensus decision that also doesn't contradict whatever direction I think we're going. There's no tyrannical relationship. If anything, my goal is--the CEOs of the companies I'm responsible for, I want them as strong and independent as possible. There are times when I'm unhappy that something didn't get done that I wanted to…My philosophy is don't kill the messenger. I have an office. The doors of my office haven't been closed in 30 years because my goal is as open an environment as possible, and closed doors are indicative of various forms of conspiracy. My philosophy is the enemy is without. Internally, you've got to be as open and accessible as possible and have everyone participate and share in the decision-making process.
Q: How does someone, the one guy on the jury, convince the rest of the group?
Zell: One of my favorite terms in that circumstance is, 'Take me on. Here's what I think, take me on. Why is this not relevant?' And you know what, sometimes they're absolutely right and I'm dead wrong, and that's OK. That's OK. I don't have some kind of monopoly on the details. I for sure don't have a monopoly on intelligence quotient. I for sure try to surround myself with the smartest people I can find and use them. My board of directors in all these companies are cheap consultants. If you want to be a board member, you've got to contribute. If you contribute, then you're going to be a cheap consultant, and that's how it works.
Q: When you talk about contribution, what kinds of people need to be on your board?
Zell: I want to add talent to the board. I want to find people who in one form or another are cheap consultants. I'm not kidding. Newspapers, TV, the Internet--What do we do? What do we do? Those are the three areas…How do we bring somebody to the board room who maybe has experience in other arenas that fit our world. I promise you, I have no monopoly on ideas. In fact, whatever ideas I have are not enough.
Q: But the ESOP isn't going to have a seat on the board. Why not?
Zell: The idea was that two of the independents would be run by the ESOP. But in the end, it was all about alignment of interests, and nothing else matters. I'm putting $315 million into this deal, cash. I don't get a nickel return unless the deal is a success to the stockholders. We are tied in the pot together. I think that is a pretty serious commitment that I believe is going to work. I believe the economics of this transaction are an extraordinary opportunity for the Tribune employees and (they) truly will tremendously benefit from their position and their contributions.
Q: What can we expect 10 years from now?
Zell: I bought Anixter Jan. 1, 1987. Twenty years later, I've still got the same position in Anixter that I had 20 years ago. Why? I think it was a good investment. It's a good company. It produces. It's relevant. Every day that I don't sell a company, I'm buying it. The biggest challenge somebody like me has is finding great value. If 10 years from now, the Tribune has turned into this wonderful investment, what could be better than to keep the thing going? In this world, you guys keep writing about private equity. You know, one of the greatest limitations is time frame. KKR raises $10 billion, and the terms call for an investment period of four years and a liquidation period of three. That means seven years from now, you've got to be out. I don't have a time line. I'm one of these horrific generational thinkers and investors. But that's the way I think. I don't have a time frame. This isn't like I'm going to invest for 10 years. The answer is that if this is a terrific investment, I'm going to keep it going.
Q: What about going public again? Is that something you've thought through?
Zell: I think we've thought about this thing that we're going into a 10-year investment, at a minimum. We haven't thought at all about a liquidation strategy, and I don't think one is required.
Q: You look at Tribune as a business just like any other one?
Zell: You guys come up with extortionist theories about everything. You think I think about my barge business the same way I think about the waste-to-energy business? Every business is different, OK? But if it isn't based on economics, there is no business. Businesses that fail to learn that lesson don't exist any more.
Q: But there's not another business like a business that's full of reporters?
Zell: You ever been in the department store business? They make reporters look good. And that's really hard to say. How is a newsroom any different today than it was 50 years ago or 100 years ago, or 50 years from now.
Q: The difference is the Internet.
Zell: Now we're on to the issue of relevance. And the question is, if Harry is a great reporter and in fact he ends up being a blogger on the Internet for the Tribune or the L.A. Times and that creates revenue, that's the name of the game. What I'm saying to you is it's all about relevance. It's all about contribution. I feel very strongly that that core thesis permeates everything.
Q: People talk about journalism and the public trust. Obviously, we take that very seriously. But relevance and the public trust don't always match up perfectly. That gets back to editorial excellence.
Zell: I really believe that you can be relevant and you can be editorially spectacular. And I think you can be irrelevant and be editorially spectacular. And the name of the game is the former and not the latter. Do you think I would put my name on anything that is short of excellent? Certainly not on purpose. The most valuable asset I have is my name. Sure I've got a couple of dollars here or there, but the real deal--and, by the way, very relevant in the Tribune transaction--is my name. I've attempted to be associated with excellence in everything I do. Excellence is my middle name. I can assure you, I have no interest in being a rich charlatan. I don't need to do this.
Q: You've said you don't need to do this. Then why do it?
Zell: The true test of an entrepreneur is someone who spends his life constantly testing the limits. The definition of an idiot is someone who has reached his goals. So, possibly, the answer is, this is a great challenge. It's a great opportunity. It's not going to change my lifestyle. It's likely to change yours. But it's not going to have any impact on mine. Everything I do is motivated by doing it best, doing it different, answering the questions that no one else could.
Q: If we wrote up a profile of you that just got under your skin and made you mad....
Zell: You already did, you already did.
Q: But you weren't chairman of the company.
Zell: It wouldn't make any difference. You'd still (tick) me off.
Q: What can we expect if that were to happen?
Zell: The same thing that happened the last time--Nothing. Do I look naïve enough to think I have any influence about what people write? What you wrote about me in the magazine is a perfect example. There is a question about honesty and correctness, but I have no control nor do I expect to have any control. In fact, I will accept that your writing on me in the future is going to be--hard to believe--worse than it has been up until now.
Q: What can we expect in terms of your getting involved with the company? How is this transition going to unfold?
Zell: I think you need to ask me that question in a couple months. I promise you that I don't make a $315 million commitment lightly. And I promise you that I'm not one of those guys who makes a deal and then forgets about it. The answer is, sure, my influence will be felt. Hopefully, in the most positive sense. I have no objectives here other than to make this the best media company in the world.
Q: People have been pretty hard on Tribune management. There are some people who feel they have to get out. They're staying. How do you view that?
Zell: I hope our transaction puts all the issues to bed. I think it's unfair to totally judge Tribune's management on the events of the last three or four years.
Zell: Because I think the external distractions….dramatically impacted the company's ability to function.
Q: By external distractions, you mean the Chandlers?
Zell: I think if you read the board minutes from the last four years, there would probably be a lot more on governance issues and other things than on how do you make this a better company.
Q: Would you consider a partnership with David Geffen for the LA Times?
Zell: It's a question I couldn't possibly answer. No. 1, I don't know David Geffen well enough. I had dinner with him once but that's not enough to have an opinion other than that he's a delightful character. I don't know how to answer that question. I can tell you I wouldn't consider a deal with Burkle and Broad but that's a different story.
Q: Have you ever done business with the Tribune before?
Zell: I once had the Tribune pension fund as an investor in one of my funds in 1990….In February of 1996, they passed the Telecom Regulation Act. I saw that as a once in a lifetime extraordinary opportunity. I called the management of Jacor and I called the Tribune. I told them how I saw the opportunity and they concluded they didn't (want in).
Q: Why do you think they didn't do it?
Zell: To be honest with you, the only person at the Tribune I had ever met, was that guy. I don't know what happened.
Q: Had the Tribune been too conservative about that kind of thing?
Zell: There are people who suggested that. I think we're still formulating an opinion.
Q: Why did you wait so long to get into the auction?
Zell: I really thought it would end up being a big vanity game. I thought people would be motivated by the Cubs. It just didn't make any sense and it was only when I got that phone call (from the banker) and the guy basically said "this isn't going anywhere."
Q: Do you think newspapers will continue their downhill slide or have they hit bottom?
Zell: I don't know. But I do believe that this is going to be a spectacular investment for us and for the employees.
Q: You talk about being relevant. What is relevant in the media landscape?
Zell: That is the $64,000 question. And I sure don't have the answer to that other than you need relevancy. You can write the best editorial in the world and nobody reads it, I question its relevancy. On the other hand if you write pieces that attracts people's attention, that's relevant.
Q: How do you get your information? Do you read newspapers? Do you read online?
Zell: I've never read online. I don't have a Blackberry. I read five newspapers a day, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, LA Times, Financial Times. And I read everything. I read Forbes, Fortune, Business Week.
Q: Can you talk about Sunday (Tribune's negotiations with Burkle-Broad)?
Zell: I think on Sunday, we believed the board was in a position where it probably favored our deal because at that point it was certain. It's probably true that the Burkle Broad letter put them against the wall. In the end, we compromised on a whole bunch of things.
Q: What about the history of ESOPs and the question of employee representation?
Zell: I think if you move away from the United Airlines scenario, there are lots and lots of successful ESOP scenarios that have been going on for years. There have been many successful ESOPs. And this business lends itself to ESOPs because you have a lot of people, at least in theory, who are intelligent.
Q: There's been some talk about Wrigley Field not being mentioned as part of the Cubs.
Zell: I think the Cubs could be sold with Wrigley Field and without Wrigley Field. I don't know. There's certainly no conspiratorial thesis….The Cubs in the hands of someone who really wants to own them and pay for it is a much more intelligent solution than for a company like this to own them.
Q: What about the Freedom Center?
Zell: It's a spectacular piece of land. It comes down to what are the economics. If the cost, for instance, that moving the plants is such that it took away from the value of the land, then it's an exercise in futility. I suspect there's real estate value everywhere (within the company).
Q: Were there people who approached you who wanted to be part of the deal (to buy the Tribune Co.)?
Zell: Sure, Eli Broad. He called me, the day before he wrote the letter. He said I want to be your partner. I said when the deal is done, I'd be glad to talk to you. And the next day he wrote the letter. If someone calls me one day and says I want to be your partner and then the next day tries to stick a knife in my back, tell me again why I would want to do business with him?
Q: Did anyone else approach you?
Zell: A lot of people approached me.
Q: Do you plan to have an office here?
Zell: The only place I want is a slot to put my motorcycle when I come here.
Tribune interview conducted by Tribune reporters Michael Oneal, Phil Rosenthal and David Greising and Associate Managing Editor/Business Jim Kirk. Interview transcribed by Tribune reporter Nancy Ryan.
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
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