Story by Matt Wing
It’s 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday in January, and the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom is buzzing.
Reporters huddle below banks of ceiling-mounted televisions. Some lean forward at their desks listening to audio playing through computer speakers. Others anxiously click refresh buttons on web browsers.
Chris Fusco ’94 sits quietly in a modest office near the corner of the bullpen, taking infrequent bites of a breakfast bagel and sipping coffee from a paper cup while digesting the news of the day.
Three Chicago Police Department officers have just been acquitted in a Cook County courtroom on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct, stemming from the 2014 murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.
The killing of a black teenager by a white police officer garnered national attention, set off waves of protests, and prompted polarizing discussions of when necessary force becomes excessive — and how race factors into it all.
The Sun-Times covered each development in the case under Fusco’s direction.
Today will be no different.
Chris Fusco smiles, knowing he’s dated himself, when admitting his first newspaper byline sat atop a story in The Argus about the arrival of the first ATM on Illinois Wesleyan’s campus.
Working at IWU’s student newspaper gave Fusco the invaluable experience he needed to begin a career in journalism. The operation was run entirely by students, and mistakes weren’t pointed out by a faculty adviser until after they appeared in print.
That was the best way to learn, said Fusco, who first served as the publication’s sports editor before graduating to assistant editor.
“I think it was important for us to make our own mistakes and then try to learn from them,” he said. “When you’re a young journalist and you make a mistake, you have to feel it. You have to absorb that blow. You have to feel terrible about it, and it needs to sink in to the point that you’re never going to make that mistake again.”
Mistakes were made, to be certain. They were pointed out by faculty adviser and longtime IWU English professor James Plath.
“We would be pilloried in a sieving critique, although it was delivered in a very nice manner by Dr. Plath every week,” Fusco remembers, laughing.
But Fusco didn’t make many mistakes. He met deadlines. His copy was clean.
His talent was apparent.
“He was both enthusiastic and serious about working for the paper, and he seemed to get a rush out of the whole process,” Plath said. “Journalism was clearly a good fit for him.”
Fusco’s journalistic skills were further sharpened at IWU when he played a leading role in perhaps the largest project ever completed under The Argus banner. Hatched by student journalists at a dinner at Harry Caray’s Restaurant in Chicago during the Illinois College Press Association’s annual convention, the idea of a book chronicling a century of journalism at Illinois Wesleyan was proposed by the inspired students.
Fusco co-authored the book with Jennifer Barrell ’94, going through every issue of The Argus to write the definitive history (the two eventually married, divorced, and are both remarried; Barrell is now the director of event marketing at IMPACT Branding & Design). The endeavor required enough time at Sheean Library that Plath asked if the students could stay after hours. Plath was given a key with the caveat that he would have to accompany the student authors during all after-hours time spent at the library. Many nights didn’t end until well after midnight.
“Thankfully I wasn’t married back then,” Plath joked. “But, yeah, that’s one memory that will stick with me forever.”
With a breadth of knowledge and writer’s toolkit assembled, Fusco left campus to serve a Pulliam Fellowship at the Indianapolis Star, where he was mentored by a writing coach and afforded the opportunity to learn from guest speakers like former White House correspondent Helen Thomas and columnist Clarence Page.
He was on his way. “And it all began at Illinois Wesleyan,” Fusco said.
Chris Fusco left his Pulliam Fellowship at a major regional newspaper thinking he had made it.
He found out soon enough he hadn’t.
Fusco landed his first paying newspaper job at suburban Chicago’s Northwest Herald, where he was assigned a rookie reporter’s beat.
“You leave that (Pulliam Fellowship) experience with a vision of what a great profession this is and you’re at the top of it,” Fusco said. “But then you go and get your first job and realize you’re right back where you started.”
A year later, he moved on to the Daily Herald, another suburban paper, though one with a circulation that more than tripled the Northwest Herald’s readership. He was tasked again with a community beat, doing reporting that sent him on a tour of school, village, and county board meetings.
A promotion to the metro staff was soon earned. Fusco later became the paper’s lead political reporter and traveled to both political conventions in 2000 ahead of a controversial presidential election that, for the fourth time in U.S. history, resulted in the election of a candidate who had failed to win the popular vote.
But Fusco wasn’t around to cover election results for the Daily Herald. He accepted a new position at the Sun-Times that fall.
Though to advance in the newspaper world, as he had previously learned, he had to take two or three steps back before taking one step forward. He had to start over once more. “Again, rewind the tape, and start at the bottom,” he said.
Fusco started at the Sun-Times as a suburban reporter. He then moved on to a state-government beat, where he provided award-winning coverage of former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s eventful tenure. He also documented the rise of Barack Obama from state senator to president.
In 2009, Fusco was assigned to an investigative reporting role, at least in part for his ability to cover the occasionally scandalous world of Illinois politics. He began reporting for The Watchdogs, the Sun-Times’ investigative team charged with uncovering truth and holding those in power accountable.
His reporting on corruption of police, child-welfare and government officials won more awards. He and colleagues Tim Novak and Carol Marin shared the prestigious George Polk Award for local reporting for their years-long investigation that ultimately found a nephew of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley culpable in a decade-old homicide case, for which the nephew later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
It was difficult work, but Fusco had an ability to ask tough questions while remaining respectful. He was able to get answers. And he could clearly disseminate often-complicated findings.
“I think the public thinks a lot of things are black and white, and investigative reporters understand that there’s a lot of gray there,” Fusco said. “How you write one sentence can affect the entire prism of a story. There are so many challenges there — not to mention making sure you’re buttoned-down on every single fact, making sure every fact has been checked two or three different ways.”
Investigative reporting can be equal parts disheartening and redeeming. The often-depressing chore of reporting disturbing truth is sometimes counterbalanced by hope for change.
“The core issues are the same: you need to write clearly, understand the problem and tell the world about it,” Fusco says. “And maybe if you do enough reporting, somebody figures out a solution.”
Newspapers are in a fight for survival. In the last quarter century, print circulation and newsroom employment have been cut in half. Advertising dollars have dried up at an even faster rate.
Chris Fusco knows this, of course. But he also knows how some newspapers have successfully bucked the trend and remained profitable. And as a lifelong Chicagoan, he knows his city and its media appetite.
So, when the Sun-Times needed a managing editor in 2016, Fusco was the choice. And when the paper needed an editor-in-chief a year later? Again, Fusco.
“I have to wear a lot more hats now, and every day there’s a challenge that comes out of left field, and you don’t know what it’s going to be,” he says. “Some days it’s a news challenge. Some days it’s a challenge involving staff. Some days it’s criticism of a story or a front page or a headline, and you become the complaint department. You have to develop this Teflon coating and thick skin.
“But it’s a whole new level when you’re at the management level because you’re not the one who’s producing the content and yet you are completely and ultimately responsible for it, so it’s a lesson in trust. But I am very lucky that I trust the people here with my life.”
In his new role, Fusco manages both the newspaper’s print and digital content, the latter a responsibility growing by the day. “We’re essentially producing two products a day now,” Fusco says. “And the question is: are these two different products? Are they the same product divvied up two ways? Are there elements that work better for one or the other? And does that mean there should be things exclusive to one that aren’t in the other?
“These are all questions that we as an industry are grappling with.”
Fusco has an ally in Sun-Times interim CEO Nykia Wright, who ardently tracks website clicks and unique visitors and page views, and has empowered Fusco to combine his experience and knowledge of what will and won’t work with readership analytics prominently displayed on a newsroom whiteboard.
“He has the historical knowledge of the city and the institutional knowledge of the business. He understands where we have been, and he has a good idea of where we are going,” Wright said. “He has the confidence of the entire editorial staff, and that goes a long way in helping create a product that we on this side of the house can go out and sell.”
Reaching the next generation of readers through non-print mediums is not a new challenge, nor will it ever be fully solved. But another challenge to newspapers is one that few could have predicted three years ago.
Criticism of media and denunciations of “fake news” are commonplace today. President Donald Trump has publicly declared the media the “enemy of the people.” Some surveys have shown declining trust in traditional media.
Combatting the narrative isn’t easy, but the Sun-Times was among hundreds of newspapers — including The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer — to rebut the Trump narrative in its editorial section on Aug. 16, 2018. On its front page that day, the Sun-Times previewed its editorial section with the text: “Hey, Trump — here’s what this newspaper is really the ‘enemy’ of.”
“It is a dilemma every paper has to handle,” Fusco said of the current climate. “All we can do is keep doing what we’re doing, and showing the public that we are fair and committed to providing real news.”
As the Sun-Times’ editor-in-chief, Fusco is responsible for content on the front page, editorial page and everywhere else. He works a lot. He’s often in early. He usually stays late. When a big story is in the works — or a coordinated editorial condemning anti-media rhetoric is planned — the hours get long and the job can become a grind.
Fusco counts himself lucky to have an understanding family. His wife, Lori Rackl, is the travel editor at the Chicago Tribune and a former Sun-Times TV critic who understands the demands of the job. His son, Ben, a high school senior, spent more than a few days of his formative years in the Sun-Times newsroom watching his dad finish up a story or proof a front page.
When Fusco is able to escape the office, the former IWU tennis player runs, bicycles or swims. He’s run four Chicago Marathons and finished the Boston Marathon last year.
But those times are sometimes fleeting. “I’m grossly out of shape because we’ve been in a really crazy news cycle here right now,” Fusco says. “Between the midterm elections, the gubernatorial election and a still-up-for-grabs mayoral election here in Chicago, it’s been a grind the last few months. But it’s been fun, too.”
Fusco does enjoy the work. He has to. As the leader of a publication that bills itself as “The Hardest-Working Paper in America,” he embodies that spirit. His colleagues can attest to his work ethic.
“Chris is a very dedicated journalist, absolutely,” said Joel Carlson ’92, an IWU alum and Sun-Times night news editor. “He is one of those people I would say was born to do this.”
Fusco’s former faculty adviser at The Argus agrees.
“This is going to sound as clichéd as ‘he has ink in his blood,’ but Chris was born to be a journalist,” said Plath.
The verdict in the Van Dyke cover-up case is less than 30 minutes old, but plans are already being made for tomorrow’s coverage. It’s 3 p.m. and first edition deadline is seven hours away. The clock is ticking.
Editorial writer Thomas Frisbie slides into a chair in Fusco’s office to chat. Editorial page editor Tom McNamee sticks his head in and offers little more than a grunt, but Fusco seems to understand. They’re on deadline, and time is of the essence.
It’s a busy day, made busier by a mayoral candidate forum, co-sponsored by the Sun-Times and the National Association of Black Journalists, which will be hosted at the newspaper’s offices later this evening.
Fusco usually dresses like any character you’ve seen in a movie about journalism: slacks and a button-up shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbow. But today he’s wearing a jacket and tie — a fact he’s frequently reminded of throughout the day by his colleagues — ahead of this evening’s forum, where he’ll meet and greet candidates as the face of the Sun-Times.
The good-natured ribbing continues during a 3:30 p.m. production meeting, held inside a central room with glass walls offering all the privacy of a fish bowl. Fusco runs an efficient meeting, his laptop screen projecting the budget for tomorrow’s paper on walls both behind and in front of him. The meeting begins with discussion of the front page, potential headlines and coverage of the two major stories of the day: the Van Dyke cops case and the forthcoming mayoral debate. Other stories are discussed: a decline in city bus riders, the release of designs for a new terminal at O’Hare Airport, and the first whispers of a mayoral candidate being removed from the ballot (Dorothy Brown, who participated in the forum that evening, was eventually removed from the ballot five days later).
Fusco adjourns the meeting and its attendants get back to work, telling the same stories they’ve always told, but now in new ways. The newspaper game has changed and will continue to change. And it’s Fusco’s job help keep the Sun-Times ahead of the curve.
“The core function of journalism is still the same,” he said. “It’s the delivery methods that have changed. You call people, you look at documents, you do fair and balanced reporting.
“As long as we keep doing those things and people are willing to support us, journalism is going to survive, and I think it will survive.”