Walking into Tribune Tower at 435 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Ill. can thrill even seasoned journalists. The neo-Gothic building is a well-known Chicago landmark, and the lobby is full of quotes about press freedom from Joseph Medill to Voltaire. But when you take the elevator up to the fourth floor of the building, which houses some of the editorial offices of the Chicago Tribune, there is a shift to a more conventional newsroom atmosphere. There are cubicles, dozens upon dozens of haphazardly stacked boxes, a broadcast news set, staff milling around and in the middle of everything – Jane Hirt, the managing editor the Chicago Tribune.
Hirt, 45, took her current position at the Chicago Tribune in August 2008, after former managing editor James Warren resigned, and a copy of Hirt’s first issue as managing editor hangs on the wall in her office with a photo of President Obama smiling on the cover. Underneath Hirt’s inaugural issue of the Tribune is her last issue as the editor of RedEye, which has a caricature of Hirt herself on the cover as a blonde Britney Spears-esque pop star. In real life, Hirt is friendly and unassuming as she takes a seat at the boardroom style table in her office, late one Friday afternoon in April, wearing a muted palette of navy and black with a silver owl pendant.
Hirt got into the journalism business by chance. Her parents were both educators in Hirt’s home state of Nebraska – her mom is a grade school assistant principal and her dad was a high school science teacher. When she started college at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Hirt planned on studying medicine and dentistry. “I started out in biology, but after a year of taking all those science classes, I realized that I just didn’t love them and I knew that it would be a really long haul if I had to keep taking them,” Hirt explained. “My best friend was a News Ed. major and I flipped my major to her major, which is just one of those impulsive things you do when you’re younger, but that’s what college is for – to try new things and figure out what you like.”
Hirt worked three journalism internships: one at the Omaha World Herald, one at the Orlando Sentinel and one at the Chicago Tribune to solidify her interest in journalism. When she started her post-grad internship at the Chicago Tribune, about a week after she graduated college, Hirt worked at the sports copy desk, “I had never read a sports page in my life so I really had to learn fast and I was petrified,” said Hirt with a laugh. “I wasn’t sure if I should take the internship, but I read everything I could my hands on. I was the only girl on the copy desk and I was one of the youngest people there, but I listened and learned.”
When her internship ended she nabbed a spot at the national foreign desk at the Chicago Tribune where she stayed for twelve years, working her way up as the copy editor for foreign correspondents, to the copy desk chief and then to the national foreign news editor before moving to the Chicago Tribune’s then new startup RedEye in 2002. “I’m really proud of how successful RedEye is,” said Hirt. “Instead of changing the Tribune we wanted to create something new to get younger people to read news. It came out before Facebook, before the iPhone, before social media and there were really no others like it in the U.S.” Hirt credits it as one of proudest accomplishments of her career, “Most startups don’t last, but RedEye’s only been around for 10 years and it’s already part of the Chicago landscape,” said Hirt.
Cara DiPasquale has worked with Hirt for over 10 years and was part of the initial RedEye team as a Features Editor when the publication launched. She still works with Hirt, but now she contributes to the Chicago Tribune as Planning Editor. DiPasquale describes Hirt as a colleague and a friend citing their RedEye days as the most rewarding time of her career as well. “Back at RedEye, in the beginning, it was the best kind of crazy. Jane’s the most passionate and so creative and we had a ton of laughs and a ton of camaraderie. There’s just so many funny things that happened because the sensibility of the newspaper was different and cutting edge,” said DiPasquale.
Now back at the Chicago Tribune, Hirt’s day-to-day can vary. Her constant tasks are attending the news meetings at 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. and she picks the front page. She then usually touches base on all of the different platforms: mobile, apps and video. Hirt is the first Chicago Tribune managing editor to be in charge of the digital media as well as all of the print content.
The newsroom has certainly changed a great deal since the Chicago Tribune started business in 1847. “I think that I benefitted from the generations who came before me who really had a hard time in the newsroom because it was not a woman’s job,” said Hirt. “Of course, I have seen people who don’t like me try to make me out like I’m some dumb girl and that’s very disappointing, but I’m not a dumb girl so it doesn’t bother me.”
On March 28, 2013, The Tribune hosted an event at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel in Chicago, Ill. where Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg discussed her new book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead with Joycelyn Winnecke, an associate editor at the Chicago Tribune. The venue was completely sold out – 840 people bought tickets, 1000 people watched the live stream, 500 people were on the waiting list, and over 7,000 people have watched the video since the Chicago Tribune released it to their YouTube channel on March 29, 2013. Hirt could identify with Sandberg’s somewhat controversial message that women are often overlooked because individual women are so often afraid to “lean in.”
Hirt attended the event and met Sandberg at the end of the live interview. “I think it’s really an eye-opening book because as I read it I thought – ‘Oh crap, I do that!’ I think it’s consciousness raising, I think it’s the new feminism and I’m really glad that people are reading it and learning it and it is part of institutions and cultures to change, but the individuals also have to,” said Hirt. “I lean forward. And I got here because I lean forward.”