Journalism: The Value of Institutional Memory


By FF2 Media Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

truthIn today’s world of increasingly accessible information, with speed appearing to be more valued than accuracy, discernment is still needed … at least according to longtime Chicago Tribune reporter William F. Presecky. “Newspapers need somebody who sorts out information in a faithful, truthful way.”

Up until a few years ago, organizations could afford the economics of operating a newspaper, throwing their resources at a wide array of subjects. But like many breakthroughs, the internet changed everything — and newspapers struggled to capitalize on it. “It’s very difficult to continue an operation when you’re giving away your product to a growing audience: fewer people buying newspapers, more people reading your news site.”

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As depicted in the 2015 releases of news-centric films, Truth and
, asking the right questions is labor-intensive work which takes money and people. But when these aging operations can no longer afford a large staff, they eliminate the oldest, most experienced reporters. In doing so, they lose the benefit of institutional memory and reporters like Presecky, a 1968 graduate of what is now the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

While waiting to be drafted to Vietnam, he attended the Career Academy of Broadcasting School which led to a news writing job at KROS Radio in Clinton, Iowa. As the economic downturn of the early 1970s forced local newspapers and broadcast stations to shrink their staffs, Presecky moved back to Chicago to write for Life Newspapers, Advanced Schools and Abbott Labs. In 1976, he joined the Chicago Tribune where he remained for 32 years, covering local news (DuPage, Kane and Will counties), the Circuit and Federal District courts and Cook County government.

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“When I started out in the early 70s, there were people working at the Tribune who worked in the high-power newspaper days of the 20s and 30s. From them, you learn how to do the job. They passed on their contacts, they passed on their sources. They stayed a very long time, long enough to see generational changes in the area that they cover. Now you have, for the most part, very young, mostly inexperienced – but smart – young reporters. They are aggressive, but they don’t have the background that helps to do the job or the people to teach them.”

With news organizations now relying on internships and short-term residencies, they can no longer afford people to cover stories that traditionally had been covered. Local governments are not getting their stories told, “not exposés or investigative stories, but the most basic and fundamental information.”

spotlight_xxlgAfter three decades at the Chicago Tribune, William Presecky & Associates was formed in an effort to report on local government, which was previously covered by three to five news organizations. “Illinois has the largest number of local governments than any place in the country: municipalities, townships, counties, special service districts, school districts, all the people who impact your life in a big way. Not just in terms of the taxes you pay, but on the policies they put in place: how fast traffic moves through your town, how properties get developed and who is developing them. All those things are more or less uncovered. Nobody is questioning those local governments. It is a real dangerous situation that so few people are available to ask straight-forward, basic questions or witness the workings of government. The public is really short-changed as a result.”

Although jobs are difficult to come by, it has not dampened the enthusiasm for young people wanting to get into journalism … because there will always be a need for somebody to ask the questions. When citizens stop asking questions, they are at the mercy of people who do nothing but bend and hide the truth. “We pride ourselves on all these transparency items like ‘freedom of information’ and ‘open meetings,’ yet, the fewer people we have questioning these things, the more enticing it’s going to be for, particularly public officials, to lie, steal and cheat. If nobody is there to watch, it is like the tree falling in the forest, ‘Did it make a noise?’”

No matter how technologically advanced we get, finding the truth will always be important. To Presecky, there is no “good” or “bad” news, there is just news. Whether or not you choose to repeat it does not change the truth. “It’s not the most lucrative occupation, but it’s very rewarding knowing that you’re at least shining a light on something people otherwise wouldn’t be able to shine a light on themselves,” Presecky says. And after 50 years in journalism, he still lives by the philosophy of, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”


Photos: (Top) Covering the sports section for the University of St. Thomas newspaper (Middle) Working at KROS Radio in 1970 (Bottom) Chicago Tribune press passes

Editor’s Note:

Truth, despite some dramatic moments (mostly due to the film’s editing rather than James Vanderbilt’s script), is a worthwhile film to see.  It follows CBS 60 Minutes anchor Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes and the 2004 report on President George W. Bush’s military service that changed their careers. It touches on all the necessary aspects of journalism: research, credibility, revealing sources and the wave of criticism from the American public.

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Questions I ask my dad typically range from, “Is it possible to reattach a car antenna that I may or may not have snapped off while backing out of the garage?” to “Want to go get ice cream before Mom notices we’re gone?”

This week, with the new film releases “Truth” and “Spotlight,” I was honored to ask him questions, not as my dad, but as a reporter who wrote for the Chicago Tribune for 32 years.

So here you have it: the Pulitzer Prize winner himself, “Journalism: The Value of Institutional Memory.”

Thank you FF2 Media and Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner for giving me the opportunity. And thanks, Dad, for giving me my favorite work assignment yet. Oh, yeah, and thank you for life.

© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (11/05/15)

MANAGING EDITOR’S NOTE:William F. Presecky (aka “Bill”) is the father of FF2 Associate Editor Brigid Presecky. The simultaneous release of these two films Spotlight and Truth, provided Brigid with an ideal opportunity to do something she had never done before: interview her father–one professional writer face-to-face with another–to become better acquainted with someone she had rarely met before, Bill Presecky of the Chicago Tribune!

I am delighted to be the facilitator of this conversation, and I know all FF2 readers will be beneficiaries! Click HERE to read the second part of Brigid’s interview “Spotlight on Truth: The Story Behind the Story.”

Jan Lisa Huttner (11/24/15)

Tags: Brigid K. Presecky, FF2 Media, Journalism, Spotlight, Truth, William F. Presecky

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Brigid Presecky began her career in journalism at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. In 2008, she joined FF2 Media as a part-time film critic and multimedia editor. Receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Bradley University, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked in development, production and publicity for Berlanti Productions, Entertainment Tonight and Warner Bros. Studios, respectively. Returning to her journalistic roots in Chicago, she is now a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and certified Rotten Tomatoes Film Critic.
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