The Man Behind the Obit for Facts
How outrage over a politician's outlandish statement triggered an Internet sensation. Weds., April 25, 2012.
By Caitlin Johnston
Editorial assistant Caitlin Johnston (@cljohnst, email@example.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Blame it on the communists.
Chicago Tribune reporter Rex W. Huppke found himself growing increasingly disgusted with what he saw as rampant truth-twisting coming from all sides of the political spectrum. He was beginning to wonder where all the facts had gone.
And then Florida Republican Rep. Allen West announced at a town hall meeting on April 10 that there were up to 81 communists in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"As soon as I saw that Allen West thing, I was just like, 'That's it. There's nothing left now,' " Huppke says. "If someone can come out and say that off the cuff and with nothing grounded in evidence, then I say that pretty well does it for facts."
Huppke, 41, a general assignments reporter who has been known to write the occasional satirical column for the Tribune, approached Deputy Metro Editor Mark Jacob with a story idea―an obituary idea, actually. Facts had died. And it was time to pay tribute.
The result was a piece that quickly became an Internet sensation.
"Sometimes I wonder whether he comes up with crazy ideas just to test me to see if I say, 'Yes,' " Jacob says. "Generally, what he's really trying to do is try to see how imaginative and different he can get in the newspaper."
Huppke's past columns have asserted that high gas prices are distracting us from the real energy issue―developing jet packs―and have encouraged politicians to call him up and yell at him rather than reporters out on the campaign trail. So he wasn't too concerned when he pitched this idea to Jacob.
"He's used to hearing me say I want to write about jet packs," Huppke says. "This was tame in comparison."
Though he's known for his moments of offbeat inspiration, Huppke always reports a column, no matter how out there it is.
"It needed a spine or a backbone of some sort," Huppke says. "I like to do stuff that's funny or satirical or goofy or whatever, but you need some sort of substance to it."
Jacob gave him the go-ahead on Tuesday night last week to write the column for the following Thursday's paper. So he tried to track down some experts on facts. After all, every obituary includes comments from friends and family. Why should Facts' be any different?
A Google search later, he had stumbled across Mary Poovey, an English professor at New York University who had written a book on the history of facts. "Let's face, it there's an expert out there for virtually any subject you can imagine," Huppke says.
He interviewed Poovey and Northwestern University sociology professor Gary Alan Fine Wednesday morning, wrote the story in the afternoon and the link was live by the evening. By late Wednesday night, the link had a fair amount of love on Twitter and about 80 Facebook shares. Not too bad.
"Usually, if something's going to hit and really click with people, it happens quickly," Huppke says. "That was a positive sign."
Then the piece exploded. During an interview Tuesday afternoon, Huppke said he had received more than 100 e-mails, and the story had been Tweeted 3,505 times and recommended on Facebook more than 24,000 times. Its overall shares, via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, Google+, Digg, Reddit and Tumblr, totaled more than 88,990 at that point.
"I've never seen that happen," Huppke says. "It just really freaked me out a little bit. It was kind of staggering to see."
The article was still among the most-read stories on the Tribune Web site five days after it went up, Jacob says. It was a total word-of-mouth (or word-of tweet) sensation. Sure, new sites can attract a large audience with pictures of two-headed cats and Kim Kardashian, but this was different. This resonated.
"It wasn't one of those cheap kinds of clicks," Jacob says. "Those are empty calories. With this, they'll read all the way to the end, and they'll talk about it and remember it."
Internet success like this shows that people are actually concerned about the current war against facts, Huppke says. It was a funny article, and it was meant to be funny, but, at the heart of it, it's deadly serious.
"That's another charm of the column," Jacob says "It was funny, it was fresh, but it made a point that maybe Facts hasn't died, but it's seriously ill or it's seriously under attack in society, and someone needs to come to Facts' rescue."
While Huppke has had stories do well online, this one surpassed everything else by leaps and bounds―and will probably dwarf everything else in the future.
"Seeing it take off like that was not just gratifying like, 'Yay, I wrote something popular,' but more like, 'Yay, people are thinking, and maybe a little concerned, about the way people are being dishonest or engaging in fact-bending or that sort of thing,'" Huppke says.
Eventually, the pendulum needs to swing back and people need to take a hard look at how facts and truth are treated in social and political discourse, Huppke says. Whether it's the fault of a 24-hour news cycle or politicians becoming more manipulative or something else entirely, it's a problem.
"At some point, the public is going to start demanding a little bit more honesty than what it's getting right now," Huppke says. "At least, I hope that's the case."
This nonstop twisting of facts isn't limited to a particular ideology, Huppke says. It's a nonpartisan phenomenon, in his view, frustrating people on both sides of the aisle―and those in the middle, too.
In addition to getting reader feedback, Huppke has heard from just about everyone he's ever met in the journalism industry. And, most important, his wife, Catherine Cornell, liked the piece."She's my biggest critic as well as my biggest fan," Huppke says. "She doesn't pull any punches, which is extremely helpful, although at times infuriating."
Before coming to Chicago, the two lived in Bloomington, Indiana, while she pursued a law degree from Indiana University and he covered Indiana for the Associated Press.
A chemical engineer earlier in life, Huppke decided about six months in that he made a big mistake. It took him another couple of years to switch fields, but he eventually moved to the University of Missouri. where he received a graduate degree in journalism. After a brief stint in Colorado and five years in Indiana, where he covered the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, he moved to the Chicago Tribune. He's been there for the last 10 years.
Though he works for the metro department, Huppke also writes a workplace advice column in the business section every Monday. In addition to his general assignment work, he does enterprise reporting and the occasional news column. It's a nice array of work that should prevent him from getting bored anytime soon, he says. And he does his best to keep things interesting.
"One of the most dangerous things for newspapers is boring the readers to death," Jacob said. "Newspapers have got to avoid that. They have to be interesting and edgy and fair. It's hard, but it's doable."
What works about Huppke's writing, Jacob says, is that it tries to tackle things nobody's tackled before. Sometimes, having a little fun, taking a little chance and thinking a little wacky in a serious way can be a good thing, Jacob says. Especially when newspapers are struggling to maintain an audience.
"There's a kind of sameness and safety-first idea in journalism that can sometimes be very dangerous to our long-term health," Jacob says. "Rex actually thinks about a lot of serious things in politics and culture, but he always tries to have fun. There's not enough fun in newspapers, and there's not enough fun in life."