Robert Feder and the Modern Media Madhouse

IMG_8314 - For MediawallyRobert Feder and the Internet have been a perfect match.

Feder has always prided himself on “getting the scoop” and the instant nature of the electronic medium has meant eliminating the delays inherent in newsprint.

Since departing the Chicago Sun-Times Robert Feder has crafted and polished his online presence, from vocalo.org to TimeOut Chicago through Facebook and Twitter.

As RobertFeder.com, his new licensing association with the Chicago Tribune Media Group couples his brand with one of the oldest established media institutions in Chicago.

It would be wise, though, NOT to read this as an easy-to-duplicate template for the journey from Old Media to New. Rather, it is an exceptional arc that might be best explained invoking two names from the past: Roger Ebert and Arthur Brisbane.

Roger Ebert has long been the obvious model for aspiring print scribes attempting to successfully play online. Before he passed, Ebert had managed to integrate both his print and online identities, constantly reinforcing both. He wrote reviews for newspaper publication. He offered the same text online, and supplemented that with still more writing, which included essays on topics outside the movies.

IMG_0110 PopperBecause he discussed creative works that mostly remained available long after their initial run, Ebert’s critical essays assumed a timeless quality. It did not matter when you first saw a film such as the 2011 Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Ebert’s observations retained their relevancy to start post-viewing discussions, including disagreeing with his take.

Ultimately, Roger Ebert was telling the ongoing story of cinema, from its earliest days to contemporary times. This created an immersive web world (and a valuable product!), still carried on at rogerebert.com.

What Roger Ebert accomplished online, though, was due to his valued and respected writing, expanded to a new medium. He already stood out from virtually every other film critic. The Internet did not make him. It was just his next step from print and video.

Robert Feder has started with that same advantage. For decades, his métier has been reporting media news. Like Ebert, he has established a track record at increasing online traffic (recently cited by the Chicago Reader). Feder has a devoted following that wants to read his comments, irrespective of where they appear. Also like Ebert (and unlike typical “work for hire” news writers), Robert Feder owns his website and its content.

That evokes the power of another past print heavyweight, Arthur Brisbane, from Chicago’s tumultuous “Front Page” newspaper era (as recounted in such books as Madhouse on Madison Street). In the early Twentieth Century, Brisbane’s syndicated front page “Today” column for the Hearst newspapers was appointment reading, which he effectively leveraged into a personal fortune, including ownership stakes in multiple papers.

At this point, Robert Feder probably will not be taking on that mogul status in the Tribune world. And he famously adheres to a code of journalism standards that would probably astound the muckrakers of the past. Nonetheless, as he is executing his next expansive step, there are several challenges.

As a reemerging force in the Chicago media landscape, the Tribune’s assets cannot be ignored. They’re one of the biggest stories in town. Feder cannot recuse himself from reporting on those. Yet he will have to be especially transparent enforcing his own journalistic rules in covering Tribune-related items.

Even more basic is everyday content. Robert Feder’s stock-in-trade is time-stamped news. To have the latest, first. To be followed by the latest new latest, first. Unlike Roger Ebert’s movie essays, though, that strain of reporting often does not lend itself to anthology retrospectives.

So for his new venture, Feder might consider actively increasing the frequency of associated features supplementing the news. More interviews and retrospectives and stories that lend themselves to longer, step-by-step narrative arcs.

Feder’s devastatingly detailed accounts of the Tribune’s travails (in the Randy Michaels era) were an excellent example of a tale best told in multiple columns over an extended period. Those would make a great book. Perhaps the Tribune’s e-book division might want to consider it. The real inside story, warts and all.

In the meantime, we’ll be watching Robert Feder at his new home base as he demonstrates what a columnist today is able to accomplish. Journalism in the Twenty-First Century Chicago Media Madhouse.

Photos and text Copyright 2013 by Walter J. Podrazik

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