Indiana University

Indiana University Journalism

Alumnus leads Chicago Tribune

Greg Ruhland | Aug. 18, 2008
Gerry Kern in Chicago
Courtesy Chicago Tribune
Alumnus Gerry Kern now leads the Chicago Tribune.
It isn’t easy keeping up with Gerould Kern, B.A. ’71. In his fourth week at the helm of the Chicago Tribune, the new executive editor steals an 8:30 p.m. break, still at the office, to catch his breath.

In July, Kern was named executive editor of the Chicago Tribune, an organization where he has spent 17 years of his nearly four decades in journalism, including IDS experience and years guiding other newspapers.

Not often does Kern look back. He won’t attribute his success to the wisdom of an IU journalism professor or even an early internship, however. Instead, Kern credits a beloved sociology class for steering him on the course he is today.

In a series of Indiana Daily Student columns, Kern was able to critique an unpublished book that his professor, teaching a class on war, had given him. The experience planted a love of writing about important issues.

“He, more than anyone, opened my eyes about current affairs and sociological trends,” Kern remembered.

After graduation, a degree in journalism and Kern’s Indiana Daily Student portfolio were enough to land him a job at a weekly newspaper group in Indianapolis.

Though he eventually worked his way up to corporate roles at suburban Chicago’s Daily Herald and then the Chicago Tribune, Kern said his first job was “classic.” He covered meetings, took pictures, composed pages and delivered them to the printing press.

The work paved the way for Kern’s transition to a larger daily: at a circulation of nearly 40,000, The Daily Herald was Chicago’s fastest growing suburban newspaper. Kern saw the Daily Herald explode in staff, in content and in audiences. By the time he became its executive editor in the late 1980s, circulation had almost quadrupled.

Today he attributes that paper’s rapid growth to a mobile focus. The Daily Herald was local enough to appeal to a broad base of readers, Kern said, yet it also covered enough of the greater area and the world to prevent readers from buying competitor papers.

But Kern himself could not be spared from rival Chicago Tribune’s wooing in 1991. He became its associate managing editor for metropolitan news in 1993.

“They had all the great broad coverage but not the local,” Kern said. “So they asked me to organize the suburban area and add zoning to what they were doing.”

Later, he became the Tribune’s associate editor and deputy managing editor of features, then associate editor. In the wake of company mergers, he moved into corporate positions, including vice president of editorial.

On the horizon, Kern said, are niche publications that the Chicago Tribune hopes to aim at particular demographic groups. He also hopes to launch new Web brands aimed at capturing the would-be newspaper buyer.

“Audiences are so fragmented now,” Kern said. “So we have to re-aggregate these audiences through many different channels. That’s the way we’re going to collect audiences in the future. It may be through multiple newspapers, Web sites and mobile news operations.”

Kern said a new look for the Tribune, due this September, will reflect content changes and a slimmer staff under the leadership of real estate billionaire Sam Zell, who bought the Tribune Company last year.

“There will be a transitional period where the operation has to exist on a different scale,” said Kern. “That means we’ll have fewer people than we have right now. We’ll still have in Chicago the largest news gathering operation by far, and we’ll have to make the best use of those people and those dollars than we ever have before.”

He is equally optimistic about the outlook for young journalists today.

“Challenge conventional wisdom,” he advised. “Really understand what people want and how to give it to them. I place a premium on curiosity, versatility and being able to work in a variety of different media.”

Outstanding journalists should also accept nothing at face value, Kern urged.

“There’s never been more media than there is now, and people are consuming more of it than ever,” said Kern. “Within this are huge opportunities, but you will have to be adaptable and be willing to innovate and create all the time, on your own. You can’t just stand back and not be a force for change.”

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