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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.”

That helps explain why Ebert, even at the height of his television fame, kept his word not to abandon the Sun-Times.

“He was a big-city newspaper man. He took pride in all the history of that,” said Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center who had known Ebert since 1975 and wrote for rogerebert.com.

Ebert tweeted links to his reviews, posts from bloggers he admired and old pictures from long-ago film festivals. He was willing to interact with the public and answer their tweets, emails and Facebook messages. The effort earned him an army of followers on social media in addition to his newspaper readers and TV audience.

“He kept adding ways to communicate with people because he loved doing it,” filmmaker and longtime friend Anna Thomas said. “He was in an ongoing conversation with a couple hundred million people all his life.”

It was that adaptability that made Ebert’s career so lasting, said Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who wrote for rogerebert.com and was a host on “Ebert Presents At The Movies.”

“In whatever direction readers went in, he would work within that medium,” Vishnevetsky said.

Beckie Stocchetti, program director for the nonprofit group Chicago Filmmakers, said she was a fan of Ebert’s newspaper reviews and followed him on Facebook, where he presented a platform for dialogue about film.

“It made him feel accessible, and it made the field accessible,” she said.

And even if younger readers had abandoned the newspapers that he so cherished, he was able to show them, as a newspaper man, the value of the written word.

“Working with him made you want to be a much clearer writer because he came from this great tradition of newspaper writing,” Vishnevetsky said.

Ebert even let readers share in his health struggles as he and his wife, Chaz, dealt with the cancer that cost him parts of his jaw and the ability to eat.

“He attracted legions of people to what he called his journey,” said John Barron, a former Sun-Times executive editor. “People were fascinated with that and how he was so open.”

That Ebert never left Chicago meant something to others who left to pursue movie careers.

Actor Joe Mantegna, who sometimes crossed paths with Ebert in the city’s Old Town neighborhood, said Ebert made it harder to dismiss Chicago as a backwater and helped open the way for the city to become a film and art center.

“We as actors, they’d always remind you that you were from the Second City,” Mantegna said. “Siskel and Ebert helped us get out of that Second City thing.”

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