Thursday, May 21, 2009

Congratulations to the Orland Park Prairie

It started out as Jack Ryan's vengeance against the news media and in a way, he got it. Three years later, the Orland Park Prairie is one of the most successful and best community newspapers in the suburban Chicagoland region.

In a way, Ryan's troubles brought great things for Chicagoland and America, if you think about it. When he withdrew from the race for the U.S. Senate in 2004, because of salacious rumors surrounding his divorce from Hollywood actress and wife Jeri Ryan, Jack Ryan actually opened the door to the creation of a great community newspaper. He also paved the way for the rise of Barack Obama to become our nation's president.

Ryan always blamed the news media for his troubles, although he should have blamed his consultants who told him to mislead the media about the troubles detailed in his sealed divorce records. The Republican Chicago Tribune pounced on Ryan, a Republican himself, hammering him for "misleading the public" into believing he wanted the divorce papers permanently sealed to protect his children. When the documents were released, the facts showed otherwise, exposing Ryan's candidacy to such an avalanche of criticism, he could not sustain his Senate candidacy.

(I met Ryan during a fundraiser organized for him during the senate race by a close friend, Mike Searle.)

When Ryan stepped aside, the Republicans couldn't find concensus to back Jim Oberweis, the arrogant blow-hard who makes a great banana split but a lousy candidacy. Oberweis can't seem to control his ego or bring himself down to Earth to be close enough to voters. Instead, Illinois Republicans backed Alan Keyes, one of the most obnoxious candidates to ever run for Illinois public office. Keyes lost in a landslide to Obama, who became the U.S. Senator and parlayed his appearance before the Democratic Convention to position himself as the underdog in a battle to fight U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton for the presidency.

You know the rest.

Yet Ryan's experience pushed him to design a newspaper that would be different than most, one that he told many local mayors would focus not on the mud and yellow journalism that often sells papers ("if it bleeds it leads" is the motto of most Front Page Era journalism) but rather to focus on the "good news" that often gets shunned aside or is totally ignored by not only the major metropolitan newspapers but also the so-called "community newspapers.

The one major competitor is the troubled SouthtownStar. The former Southtown Economist that later became the Daily Southtown was gobbled up by the Sun-Times years ago and drained of much of its talent. Many of its best reporters and writers were pushed into retirement, leaving a handful of overworked journalists. It's two major columnists are driven more by meanness and personal agendas than journalism, and readers see it. They love to dish it out but they just can't seem to take it. The SouthtownStar is a great newspaper, a place where I cut my own teeth in journalism winning several awards including one of three Lisagors before moving on to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Chicago Tribune saw the advertising obese Orland Park Prairie and launched their own weekly tabloid, the well-written Trib Local. But the Trib Local doesn't focus on specific communities but rather on regional community news, diluting its strengths. It can't give enough focused concentration the way the Orland Park Prairie and its sister publications can.

Heather Warthen, the editor of the Orland Park Prairie, is a talented writer who snoops out the best local stories. Her writing is refreshing, entertaining and complete. She doesn't play politics and covers everyone. And that's refreshing, making it the best read newspaper in Orland Park.

Pick up your copy of the Orland Park Prairie, the flagship of a growing cookie-cutter chain of community newspapers making their way out into the growing Western suburbs. On its three year anniversary, the Orland Prairie is succeeding where others have failed.


-- Ray Hanania

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