The Socially Catastrophic Demise of the Light Feature Story

Mike Royko used to refer dismissively to the's Features department as "Birdland." Funny once. But now, maybe it's time for a bird to stand up for his land.
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When I go on about the social consequences of the death of newspapers, I sound a little disingenuous even to myself.

First of all, as a professional writer I'm mostly upset about having to compete for my daily bread with a horde of talented, hungry, unemployed journalist jackals.

And second, I'm not exactly one of the investigative reporters without whose work dirty cops will torture with impunity, the mob will bounce back to Capone-era prominence and the trucks will be rehired.

I've done some investigative pieces over the years, and some political profiles, but I've spent most of my time -- and found most of my joy -- writing feature stories for the Trib, Chicago Magazine and the Reader about weird and wonderful Chicagoans doing things of varying importance that you'd never heard of.

Mike Royko used to refer dismissively to the Tribune's Features department as "Birdland." Funny once. But now, maybe it's time for a bird to stand up for his land.

Of course, I'm mostly thinking of myself again. Without a Birdland, who would have paid me to chronicle:

  • The twenty-something dude brilliant enough to grind out a living playing online poker in his house, but dumb enough not to conceive of a better way to spend his life than playing 100,000 digital hands a month.

  • The business plan of the Chicago Avenue live-poultry-store proprietor, who thought he could combat gentrification by selling his pollos vivos to yuppies on the merits of the health and social benefits of organically raised chickens. Hoped the man in the blood-soaked apron, "Maybe they'll realize it's not as bad as it looks."
  • Yesteryear's young urban pioneers who came together to buy decrepit mansions on Jackson Boulevard for $20,000 in the early '70s and spent the next three decades raising their kids on an eccentric block and watching their investment grow to a million.
  • The married couple, both amateur boxers, who sparred with one another. "The only reason I ever hit you hard is to teach you," he told her lovingly. She agreed: "He works me out well. He throws good punches."
  • The old hairpiece maker, the struggling nine-hole golf-course owner, the hard-traveling local comic, the fat old men in the Turkish bathhouse, the suburban kingpin mayor who weeps from the pressure, the Chicago canoe maker, the overgrown Humboldt Park schoolmates trying to fit into their old drum corps uniforms 40 years later, the old Cubs fan whose father told him he was too young to go to the 1945 World Series and promised he'd take him next time they went.
  • And who but a Birdland editor with space to fill and money to spend would have dispatched a writer and a photographer to cover the senior gay softball tournament where a jubilant call after a home run was, "It looks like Richard took his estrogen today!" Or the desultory pulp fiction conference at a suburban hotel. Or the hideously awkward spectacle of well-meaning octogenarian white Christian missionaries fishing for souls in a Cook County jail "boot camp" full of befuddled black Christian teenagers.

    Of course, Chicago's population would not have suffered for a lack of any one of these stories -- or any of the thousands and thousands of other features that have been written in our newspapers about the novel things that go on here and the unique people who do them.

    But once all these types of stories cease to be published -- and features by their nature rely on the leisureliness of print reading and generous photographic layouts that lure in the semi-curious reader -- I worry we'll have lost the shared understanding and celebration of Chicago as an infinitely unpredictable, loving, misguided, charming, ugly, pretty and charismatic city.

    That's what Birdland was, and that's why Birdland was: Tucked into the hard stuff about the pols and businesspeople and celebrities who dominate Chicago news, a celebration of the equal truth that those people don't dominate Chicago people -- that we unselfconsciously flit through our lives singing own odd tunes, happy and sad and funny and mad.

    So we'll lose that, which seems like losing a lot.

    Especially if you're a bird.

    Chicago writer David Murray blogs regularly at Writing Boots.

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