Senior Vice President/Editor, Chicago Tribune
Initially, Gerould Kern wanted to be an astronomer. “I grew up during Sputnik and the space walks. I built telescopes, spent time learning about space and physics, and always read the afternoon paper to see what was new with space flight,” he explains. “After a while, I wanted to learn more about the paper and how it was made.” Interestingly, Mr. Kern’s foray into journalism may have been an ironic destiny calling. He laughs, “My father wanted to be a journalist…he ended up a scientist.”
Mr. Kern grew up in Indianapolis, earned a BA in journalism from Indiana University and moved to Chicago in 1975. He worked for the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights until 1991, longer than he anticipated. “I thought I’d be there only a few years, but it was a great place to work,” he recalls. Until one day, his phone rang…it was the Chicago Tribune’s then metro editor, Ellen Soeteber, asking if he wanted to work there. “One thing led to another, and I was hired on Christmas Eve in 1990. It was one of the most exciting days of my career. I remember walking down Michigan Avenue with all the Christmas lights, feeling like I was three feet above the sidewalk.”
Nearly 24 years later, the 64-year-old editor has climbed out of the ‘dark ages’ of print but has fond memories of the old days (as evident by the collection of typewriters proudly displayed in his office). “I remember when I first started, right before computers,” he says. “You could tell the time of day by the sound of the newsroom. It would start with a scatter of clicking and build its crescendo. Around 6pm, the place was thundering with people typing their stories. Computers are much more quiet, but there’s still a tremendous amount of activity even though there isn’t the din, perhaps, of the newsroom in the old days.”
In an age when everything is online and people often get news from Twitter, Mr. Kern says what you don’t get is true reporting. “There’s unique value in it. Perhaps the most important journalism is watchdog reporting, opinion leadership and the views of our critics – they help people navigate their daily lives.”
With 2014 being an election year, we all witnessed the typical mudslinging between candidates immediately after the primaries. And when the Tribune covers politics, Mr. Kern says the paper “vets candidates and tells the truth about what was said. That includes explaining the gamesmanship and motivation of each politician. We do that year-round, but we have a higher degree of obligation during an election year as people go to the polls and make choices.”
But how does the Tribune decide on the exact issues to investigate and how they’re covered? “The Editorial Board is a very important group,” explains Mr. Kern. “They produce editorial and op-ed pages and articulate an institutional point of view about how the Tribune views the issues and expresses them in our editorials. They’ve also expanded their role to be the convener of conversation in the public square. So the Editorial Board provides a watchdog function, as well. They hold politicians and institutions accountable and see that they’re being honest…not trying to game the system. Frankly, there are very few institutions out there that dedicate themselves to accountability journalism.”
Mr. Kern is quick to point out that the editorial pages are separate from news reports, which are not and should not be driven by the opinion pages. “Our opinion leadership is simply an important way that we act on our commitment to citizenship.” This notion is the driving force behind the Tribune’s new Plan of Chicago – a campaign that asks readers for their input on the city’s most important issues and how to fix them.
“This campaign draws its inspiration from Daniel Burnham, whose plan of Chicago in 1909 basically gave the city its foundation,” details Mr. Kern. “But there was a lot of work that he wasn’t able to do. The city is physically beautiful, but he also wanted to address social issues. However, the commercial interest that sponsored his plan initially didn’t want to do that. So we’re trying to generate a conversation to complete the plan and ensure that the problems we face today are addressed in a holistic way. Our role is to be a leading citizen and look out for the welfare of the community. To take a long view on what’s good for Chicago and Illinois, and convene people in the public squares to debate these things. We’ve written a lot about failing public schools, the crime issue, public debt…they’re interconnected. You can’t really solve one without addressing them all. We want to help create a new vision for Chicago’s future. We think that’s essential to our role as a news organization; and opinion leadership through editorials and commentary is a way that we do that.”
When not at the office, Mr. Kern spends time with his wife of 41 years, Jewell. “We attend the symphony, the opera, Steppenwolf. And the restaurant scene in Chicago is fantastic.” They also enjoy spending time with their three children, Jara, Justin and Garrett, two granddaughters and one grandson, who all reside in the area.
Since Mr. Kern’s day job includes ample reading, it’s hard for him to read for fun, off-hours at home. “I read a book and start to fall sleep,” he admits. Luckily, he has a 35-mile commute from the northern suburbs so he’s found that listening to books on CD is the way to go. “I get all my books on audible.com and listen to about 25 or 30 books a year. I love reading about history and just listened to a book on Henry VII called The Winter King, which explains how the Tudor Dynasty began. Listening to books is a fantastic thing. So when I’m no longer editor, I’m going to have to drive around in my car a lot because I really like that.”