Chicago Tribune creates podcast to lure younger demographic to investigative series marking 40th anniversary of Tylenol murders

Earlier this week, a friend of Chicago Tribune investigative reporter Christy Gutowski was walking past her 22-year-old daughter’s bedroom and heard Gutowski’s voice. Gutowski hadn’t stopped for a visit, however. Her voice was coming from a podcast the news outlet launched in an attempt to reach a younger demographic of its in-depth reporting.

The eight-episode Unsealed podcast, which debuted last week, is paired with a series of investigative stories about the Sept. 29, 1982, Tylenol murders that killed seven in the Chicago area. The killings caused a nationwide panic and forever changed the way over-the-counter drugs were packaged in the United States.

“We’re all storytellers, and we want to create different ways to reach different audiences,” Gutowski said. “It’s an honor to get to do something in the 175-year history of the Chicago Tribune that no other journalist has done.”

(Photo by Katy Warner via Flickr)

Gutowski first proposed the idea of investigating the unsolved Tylenol murders five years ago, in time for the 35th anniversary. But then she and Stacy St. Clair, another Tribune investigative journalist, both got assigned to the trial of Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago Police officer who was ultimately convicted of killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. About a year ago, after covering the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha together, they picked the idea up again for the upcoming 40th anniversary of the crime.

They knew that this time, the story was more urgent because of the age of the story.

“Witnesses were dying, memories fade, records get lost and one of the main suspects had already died, another is in his mid 70s, and we thought ‘time is running out, let’s take a look at this’ and that got us started,” Gutowski recalled.

At about the same time, former Chicago Tribune senior editor Amy Carr was talking to At Will Media, a New York based podcast production studio, about doing an audio series about the Tylenol case. Carr reached out to Chicago Tribune Executive Editor Mitch Pugh to find out if the Tribune would support the idea, Pugh told GJR in an email. Pugh, who became top editor in August 2021, agreed and enlisted two of his best reporters — Gutowski and St. Clair —to write the newspaper stories and script and narrate the accompanying podcast. 

The Tribune is publishing the stories online on Thursdays and in the print edition of the newspaper on Sundays for six weeks. The first story in  the print series is free and unmetered, meaning it doesn’t count against the number of free articles a reader has access to before hitting the paywall. The second  part two is metered and parts 3-6 are behind the paper’s paywall, Pugh said. 

The 8-episode podcast, which debuted with two episodes on September 22, will drop one episode a week going forward until October 27 and is free to listen to and download. Pugh and Will Malnati, founder of At Will Media, will serve as executive producers for the podcast. Additionally, the podcast is made in association with audiochuck, a company that has produced several highly rated podcasts.

Podcasting to go along with investigative stories is becoming more popular for traditional media outlets, according to Diana Fuentes, executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, an nonprofit group that is supported by the Missouri School of Journalism.

“People tend to be interested in serials and investigative reporting lends itself to that,” Fuentes said.

She added that interest in podcasting among traditional media outlets has forced her organization to schedule training and workshop sessions on the topic at its annual meeting next summer. 

Gutowski and St. Clair estimate that they have worked together on more than 100 stories in careers that saw them first team together at the Daily Herald. The duo teamed up again at the Chicago Tribune in 2010 when Gutowski was hired by the Tribune. (St. Clair joined the paper three years prior.)

Among the stories the two reporters have teamed together for include, for the Daily Herald, the 1993 Brown’s Chicken massacre in Palatine, Illinois in which seven were killed and the 1999 story about Naperville mother Marilyn Lemac, who was convicted of killing her three children. While at the Chicago Tribune, they worked together on the Rittenhouse trial and the trial of Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke, among dozens of others.

During the Van Dyke trial, the Chicago Tribune teamed up with WBEZ to produce “16 Shots,” a podcast about the murder of Laquan McDonald and surrounding issues. However, for the podcast about the Tylenol murders, it would prove to be a very different experience for the two reporters.

“With 16 Shots, WBEZ had a vision and the expertise,” Gutowski said. “They knew the story that they wanted to tell and how to tell it. When we got involved, we helped with the reporting end of it. We didn’t really help put together the narrative. So, we had to learn a whole new form of storytelling.”

St. Clair agreed and said it was both exciting and terrifying.

“Christy and I worked on 16 Shots with WBEZ and that was a great learning experience, but this was different. We had to figure out the audio, how to be audio storytellers,” St. Clair said.

She added that from the beginning, the Tribune took the reporters off having to do daily stories and gave them nine months to totally focus on the Tylenol case and complete the stories and podcast.

“We had the backing. Mitch Pugh wasn’t in the newsroom that long and basically said, ‘we’re going to take this chance with the two of you, go out and show us what you can do.’ That’s pretty thrilling at this point in your career when you are allowed to try something new. Thrilling and terrifying.”

Greg Pratt, a Tribune City Hall reporter and leader of the outlet’s union, said he is happy to see the Tribune dedicating resources to a project like this.

“This is a very collegial newsroom where people are happy to see each other do good work,” Pratt said. “That’s the reason we stick around. It’s certainly not the good pay. So, people are happy to see the support.”

Although Gutowski and St. Clair have been print reporters for years, a podcast required them to employ different skills than they were used to using.

“Podcasts are very conversational,” Gutowski said, adding that when writing for print there is much more attribution and reliance on documents.

An example of conversational storytelling in the first episode of the podcast is when the listener is taken inside a small rental car with Gutowski and St. Clair on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts during a 5-hour stakeout of the main suspect in the unsolved case. Then, suddenly the man appears on a sidewalk and the reporters approach — something hard to convey in a newspaper story and something unusual for both reporters.

“You’re not going to find a lot of first-person clips with our bylines on them, that’s just not how we roll as reporters,” St. Clair said. “So, it is a little bit strange to involve ourselves in the story but we’ve learned that podcasting is such an intimate relationship between host and storyteller. You’re literally in their ear so we had to let them get to know us, at least a little bit.”

St. Clair also said a lot of things that are often praised in print do not translate to audio storytelling.

“One of the things that was hardest to learn but also most interesting to learn was that a sentence that looks beautiful on paper can be just awful when spoken. Finding the beauty in simplicity and telling a story in an audio way has been really challenging for us and also really fun.”

Both reporters also credit At Will Media producers Claire Tighe and Jessica Glazer for helping to keep their writing conversational and “easy on the ear,” along with voice coach Christina Shockley for teaching them how to enunciate and talk slower than they were previously used to.

The podcast required both reporters to do another thing they had never done in their careers before — have sources sign releases allowing the recordings of the interviews to be used in the broadcasts. They both said that they did not receive any pushback from sources and took special care to ensure confidential sources would remain just as protected in the podcast as they are in the print stories.

Gutowski and St. Clair also said they are excited to reach a younger demographic than traditional newspaper readers through the podcast, like the daughter of Gutowski’s friend.

Fuentes agreed, but added it’s not only the younger generation who is attracted to podcasts.

“I think it does help attract a younger demographic but I also think it attracts an older demographic too,” Fuentes said.  “People who remember the old radio serials, the old classics, because those were always popular.”

While the podcast required Gutowski and St. Clair to do a lot of different things than what they were used to, old fashioned shoe-leather reporting and getting details certainly was not something unusual for them.

“I think Stacy and I are both the type of reporters and writers that get the name of the dog, notice the color of somebody’s hat,” Gutowski said.

While the podcast is largely new ground for the Tribune, the serialized format of the print stories is something Gutowski and St. Clair also had never done before. 

“People have to follow it to the very end to find out certain things that aren’t addressed until later,” Gutowski said. “It’s a very different form of writing and it’s very long. Readers have to follow the course of the stories over the next several weeks, which is really exciting.”

Ironically, although the plan was to stick to the serialized format, during the course of their reporting, Gutowski and St. Clair learned that investigators were pushing prosecutors to press charges against a long-time suspect in the case. The Tribune published a news story Sept, 22.

“We didn’t put it all out because we are committed to this serial effort but we knew that this week being the 40th anniversary there would be a lot of competitors, so we wanted to break some of our news,” Gutowski said.

So far, feedback from their sources, victim family members and readers have been very positive, St. Clair and Gutowski said. Although numbers on listeners and readers were not disclosed, Pugh said the Tribune is keeping an eye on things and are pleased thus far.

“We will certainly have access to podcast downloads versus UVs/PVs/single-copy sales/direct subscriptions from the series,” Pugh said. “What we would like to see is a general increase in the amount of search traffic we might expect from a project like this and significant referral traffic from social accounts and other platforms related to the audiochuck empire. So far, we’re pretty happy with what we are seeing in terms of audience trends on our site.”

Bob Chiarito is a Chicago-based freelancer who has written for The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Agence France-Presse and Thomson Reuters.

Journalist’s book on former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan fills in gaps of two storied careers

Ray Long is either the luckiest man in Illinois journalism or he has an inside source.

His just-released book about former Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan came out only a few weeks after a headline making 22-count federal indictment was filed by the U.S. Justice Department against the 79-year-old career politician. 

“I turned it in January 2021,” said Long of his manuscript. “And I was disappointed that it didn’t come out by Thanksgiving. And then, it didn’t come out by Christmas.”

Long paused. The Chicago Tribune investigative reporter and former Springfield bureau chief was sitting at a small table signing books at the doorway to the side room of the Billy Goat Tavern on lower Michigan Avenue in Chicago.Then, with a slight humble smile, he added: But the delay turned out to be a great thing.”    

“Ray’s timing is unbelievable,” said Pat Brady, former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. Brady was one of about 150 journalists and politicos who came to celebrate the release of Long’s book: The House that Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer (University of Illinois Press).

“The pairing of Ray Long and his subject matter of Mike Madigan is wonderful,” said Marj Halperin, a Democratic analyst and communication consultant. “They truly are each icons in their own way.”

The turnout was a tribute to Long, a 25-year veteran of Springfield coverage, who is as well-known to people who are either in or follow state politics. It included some who knew Long when he began, such as retired Tribune reporter Jim Strong and current newsroom colleagues, such as Chris Jones, editorial page editor.

“Ray is intensely focused on his work,” said Terrence James, a Tribune photographer. “And more important, he is a profoundly grounded human being.”

But also many of his colleagues who are also Long’s competitors.

“Ray is the perfect guy to write this book,” agreed Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown. “Ray—like everything else on the Madigan story—has been Johnny-on-the-spot,” adding: “But there are probably two dozen of us (political reporters) kicking ourselves.”

Ray Long signs his new book. (Photo by Susy Schultz)

Madigan was part of Ray’s beat for more than 25 years, which is how many years Long has covered the state capital for various news outlets, including the Sun-Times, AP and the Tribune. Through it all, Long has often been called by many who know him a man of integrity and a top reporter.

“I am unafraid to tell someone who beat me on a story that they did a good job and over the years, maybe that’s made a difference,” said Long in response to being accused of being a good person and reporter. “I also treat everybody with respect even when I am writing tough stories. I try to be fair and accurate and I think I am just persistent.”

A quick unscientific poll of Long’s editors who showed up at the Billy Goat back up Long.       

“I’ve worked with Ray at two different newspapers, the Sun-Times and Tribune,” said Joyce Winnecke, who was also Long’s editor. “He’s always been one of the hardest working and most decent reporters with really great instincts, illustrated with the timing of this book.”

“There really isn’t another journalists so positioned to write this,” said John Dowling, who covered Springfield for the Associated Press with Long and in another iteration was also Long’s editor at AP.  “He’s covered Madigan his whole career from the time he became speaker to his downfall. He has seen it all. And he is someone who was in covering Illinois politics, has also seen the bigger picture.”

Long has written numerous detailed and hard hitting stories about former Speaker Madigan in the past.

Yet, for decades, many thought Madigan was untouchable.

“Madigan and his acolytes always said he never crossed the line but this time he is alleged to have crossed the line in many ways,” said Long. 

Madigan’s many titles gave him power over state money, legislation, reapportionment and slating. It won him friends but it also meant even those who opposed him would go out of their way to not anger the Speaker. 

“I’m not saying that he was guilty of things before but he has been involved in a number of eyebrow raising scams in the past. And I’m not saying that he was dirty his entire career—we never proved that and he was never charged with anything.”

Ray Long signs his new book alongside PR representative Joanna Klonsky. (Photo by Susy Schultz)

Then, why was an indictment so long in coming?

“Sometimes the feds don’t really audit the papers,” said Long.

Madigan was a political student of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the first Mayor Daley. The power Madigan amassed in his nearly four decades as Speaker shaped Illinois politics, policies and the state itself as Long outlines in his book: 

Loved, revered, hated or feared, Madigan commanded an outsized role. It all played into the Madigan Mystique — which still exists somewhere between real and perceived power. Whether one viewed Madigan as a genius, a jerk or both — and plenty of people populated each camp — he managed consistently to mesmerize his admirers and frustrate his foes. Madigan’s political opponents found themselves beaten down so often by his persistent but subtle force that he became known early on as “The Velvet Hammer.”

A few years ago, the protective walls started to crumble. Madigan’s friend and associate, Michael McClain was indicted in late 2020 along with two former Commonwealth Edison executives. In the indictment, Madigan was not named but he was identified as “Public Official A.” A few months later, Madigan was deposed as House Speaker and in February 2021, he resigned as Democratic Party chair about 50 years after he had entered politics.

On March 2, Madigan was indicted on “racketeering and bribery charges for allegedly using his official position to corruptly solicit and receive personal financial rewards for himself and his associates,” according to the news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. McClain was also indicted, a second time, for carrying out Madigan’s directives. Both Madigan and McClain have pleaded not guilty to the charges and denied any wrong doing.

The indictment frames the nefarious activities as occurring in the last decade. But Long’s book serves as a primer on the Speaker’s full career. It includes details that only a reporter such as Long would have.  

“It is so good, it should be required reading,” said NBC5 political reporter Mary Ann Ahern. “It’s just great. It really fills in a lot of the holes on how things happened.” Ahern and Long have known each other since their early days in journalism when both competed against one another as reporters in Peoria.

“He is such a solid fantastic reporter. He’s the real deal,” she said. “Every reporter, young and old, should read this book. It’s a primer for the way the state has operated.”

So, does this mean the book also marks the end of an Illinois political era?

Said Ahern: “Who knows. It may continue. I’m not sure we always learn from our mistakes.”

Susy Schultz is a Chicago-based journalist and nonprofit executive.

It’s getting hard and harder to find a newspaper for sale

Late last month, my son and I were photographed outside of Columbia College Chicago for a story about my employer’s new policy limiting children on campus

The Chicago Tribune photographer captured him in a wrap on my back, his blue Vans untied and a floral mask covering his face. It was my baby’s first newspaper photo. 

I’m just old school enough that after I saw the story online (and after I shared it on social media) that I decided I should get a copy of the print edition for the scrapbook I will put together for him one of these years, probably after he’s gone to college.

Photo by Shannon Kokoska via Flickr

I am not a print subscriber to the Tribune. In fact, I am embarrassed to admit that I currently do not get a single print newspaper subscription delivered to my home. I have stacks of New Yorkers that I don’t have time to read and library books at my bedside that have been there for weeks, automatically renewing without me opening them.

I am a working parent of three little boys, and my days of being able to sit with the Sunday newspaper and read it over coffee are behind me, for now. I’m busy in the morning getting my children ready for school, frantically answering emails and trying to plan my day so I’m most likely to scan the headlines online and flag stories I want to read later in the day. I still pay for and consume journalism through a number of digital subscriptions. But I consume almost all of my news online right now.

Nonetheless, I wanted my son to have a copy of the picture, something to save, to yellow eventually. So I stopped at a convenience store to buy the paper. Sorry, the clerk told me. They don’t sell the paper. I tried another store. And another. And then another. I must have searched a half-dozen stores within a one-block radius of my north side Chicago home looking for a print copy of the paper. 

Once again I went on a search, trying gas stations, more convenience stores and even several coffee shops. I finally find a copy at the grocery store.

The last time I had to look this hard for a newspaper was when I was living in Oman in the Middle East. It was the fall of 2011, and Arab Spring protests had broken out in the sleepy sultanate. I had seen piles of newspapers, untouched, in the stores for weeks before the protests began. They rarely carried actual news and certainly not news that challenged the government. But after the protests started in Oman, the newspaper publishers became emboldened and started carrying actual news. It was suddenly difficult to find a newspaper and not because the government was confiscating them. People were actually buying them because they had information that was valuable.

The only other time I’ve not been able to find a paper in Chicago was in 2016 when the Cubs won the World Series. I was at The Washington Post when Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s first Black president and was able to get my souvenir copies in the newsroom.

There was nothing particular about the Wednesday my son’s photograph ran in the Chicago Tribune.

I ultimately posted on our neighborhood Facebook page to see if anyone with a print subscription could give me the paper for that day. A couple of neighbors responded, and I picked up my copy the next morning. But the story wasn’t there. It ran a few days later on the front page, which I found out about when a neighbor texted me a picture that his mother-in-law had taken and sent.

I had a different relationship with The Washington Post when I lived in DC undoubtedly because I worked there. But the Post also prided–and sold itself at the time, as a local newspaper with a national reputation. 

I’ve had a harder time feeling connected to Chicago’s largest daily. The Tribune does some incredible journalism, and I have much respect for its reporters and editors, some of whom were colleagues of mine at our student newspaper in college. But the paper has never really felt like a hometown newspaper, not in the way that a newspaper should.

It strikes me that this disconnect I feel is one that others can relate to; we mostly consume our news online in a format that feels impersonal even when our clicks generate personalized ads. (The latest Pew Research Center survey from earlier this year found that more than eight of 10 Americans read their news online.)

We know our readers, our future is digital because it already is. We know our neighbors are more likely to read us online than in print. 

But I also think if we want to keep or regain the public’s faith in what we do, if we want to be relevant to younger and younger audiences, we have to find a way to reclaim that hometown feel that newspapers used to have, that idea, however fleeting it now seems, that we were connected.

It’s hard to feel connected when you can’t even find the paper.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

Michaels next to go at Tribune

For those who study or pay attention to the media and how they work, it is completely fascinating watching the effects of the New York Times’ story about the Chicago Tribune.

The story characterized the Tribune offices as a frat house and when the story came out, people noticed. First, it isn’t often that one media company takes such a well directed shot at another company. Second, this had all the juicy details to create a scandal. And we all know what happens when there is a scandal.

The Tribune Company had enough problems before this hit. Bankruptcy, layoffs, bad press because of its owner Sam Zell, and lawsuits from former employees suing Zell all affected the credibility of Tribune Company. But this story? It hit the media world like a meteorite.

And the Chicago Tribune is on the run. Lee Abrams resigned late last week and the Chicago Tribune ran a story in Wednesday’s Tribune announcing that Randy Michaels would be leaving the Tribune by week’s end. He had to. The heat from the media spotlight is affecting Tribune Company’s image and it needs any sort of positive news it can find while it goes through public bankruptcy proceedings.

John Kass, the Trib’s political columnist, wrote a column today about what was really happening at the Tribune. It read like the protests you see from a political figure who has been caught in a scandal, an acknowledgment that something is wrong, then a recap of all that is being done right.

Memo to Kass, who has put enough political figures’ feet to the fire to figure this out —  It won’t work. The frame has been set. The Tribune is a frat house and the two men who ran the frat house, Abrams and Michaels, must pay.

They’ve paid.

So has the Tribune. It’s credibility just took another hit. And the bloodletting at the top, however much deserved, won’t make it any easier for those doing their jobs in the trenches. As for the story, it will be interesting to see how much longer it continues to run.

Abrams out at Trib

Lee Abrams resigned from the Chicago Tribune Friday. It’s not often you get to witness the media eating their own but in Abrams’ case, cannibalism was allowed.

Of course, the press never considered Abrams one of their own. Abrams was a radio guy whose ideas affected the radio business on a number of occasions. When Sam Zell hired him as his Chief Innovation officer, Abrams took a radio approach to newspapers. The Columbia Journalism Review did a story on his attempt at changing newspapers in 2008.

By most media accounts, Abrams was never accepted by many of those in the newspaper industry. And when the New York Times ran its account of the atmosphere created at the Chicago Tribune, it was hard to find many in the media who took the Trib’s side. But this was just start of the Abrams saga. A week after the Times story hit the press, with media still buzzing about its effects, Abrams sent out a memo to his staff that could be considered racy at best. This did not go over well. The Sun-Times, usually quick to kick the Trib when it’s down, reported the story with a sense of almost shock.

The Tribune storyabout the memo by media columnist Phil Rosenthal was almost apologetic for Abrams, quoting Abrams who said the video was in poor taste.

“”The video in bad taste was a parody of a cable-type reality show,” Abrams wrote. “It is not something that we would ever air on our TV stations — in fact quite the opposite — we show this as an example of what NOT to do. But, still, I understand that it was very inappropriate to distribute a link to the video to a wider audience.”

The story even mentioned the Tribune’s harassment policy, which is mentioned in the New York Times story.

The media industry piled on to this story. The press found former workers at the Trib who were suing Zell and asked their opinion; when the Tribune broke the story about his resignation, there were cheers at the  Los Angeles Times.

So Abrams is gone. But is the story over?