Ebert showed willingness to adapt to new media

CHICAGO – Roger Ebert started out as an old-school newspaper man, the kind that has all but vanished: a fierce competitor who spent the day trying to scoop the competition and the night bellied up to the bar swapping stories.

Then newspapers fell on hard times, either laying off huge chunks of their staffs or disappearing altogether.

But Ebert didn’t merely survive. He flourished, largely by embracing television and later the Internet and social networks. As the American news media and even the landscape of his beloved Chicago changed, Ebert evolved, too, gliding seamlessly from one medium to the next and helping to blaze a path forward for the beleaguered industry he loved.

Ebert, who died Thursday at age 70, rose to fame at the Chicago Sun-Times, which struggled to survive after two of the city’s four dailies closed. The nation’s most influential movie critic was always willing to experiment and adapt. Every step into new technology widened his audience.

“Roger was one of the great conversationalists, whether it was in bars or on the street corner, and when he could not speak, he found a way to speak,” said Rick Kogan, a longtime Chicago Tribune writer who knew Ebert for decades. “In many ways, he was generations ahead of his time.”

Ebert, who quit drinking in the late 1970s, arrived in Chicago when gritty steel mills and stockyards dominated an industrial city. Slowly, they were replaced by gleaming skyscrapers.

Ebert kept his newspaper job but grew into a television star, along with his crosstown rival, Gene Siskel of the Tribune.

When cancer took Ebert’s voice, he did something that many in his generation would not: He embraced the digital age and kept talking.

He talked to his 800,000-plus Twitter followers. He talked to the 100,000 friends on his Facebook page, and he talked on his own blog. All the while, he kept talking in the pages of the Sun-Times, his employer for more than 40 years.

In the process, he demonstrated to other journalists who grew up in a print world that tweets had value.

“When I first went to Twitter, I thought it was stupid,” said Michele Norris, a host and special correspondent for National Public Radio and a former Tribune reporter. “But he used it to rant and to educate and to push and cajole and make people laugh and think.”

Chicago’s surviving newspapers have seen their staffs slashed, but Ebert never lost his love for newsprint. It was there on his desk: the student newspaper he continued to read for decades after college. He once wrote a scathing open letter to former Sun-Times sports columnist Jay Mariotti, who on his way out the door said newspapers were “destined to die.”

“Newspapers are not dead, Jay, because there are still readers who want the whole story, not a sound bite,” he wrote.

In the same letter, Ebert explained his decision to stay at the paper during the time it was owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

“I was asked, ‘How can you work for a Murdoch paper?’ My reply was: It’s not his paper. It’s my paper. He only owns it.”