No more Mo: Why Tribune lost stellar TV critic to AOL

No more Mo: Why Tribune lost stellar TV critic to AOL

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Maureen Ryan

After 13 years of outstanding work at the Chicago Tribune, Maureen Ryan says she decided to call it quits as TV critic when “it just seemed that the Tribune’s priorities and mine were heading in different directions.” So different, in fact, that she doubts they’ll fill the position now that she’s left.

Ryan, 44, surprised colleagues last week when she announced her departure from the newspaper where she’d been writing full time about television since 2004. Her popular blog, “The Watcher,” was among the Tribune’s finest and most frequently quoted online features.

But she won’t be leaving her native Chicago — or the television beat. Starting Sept. 1, Ryan will join AOL Television as its lead critic under an arrangement that allows her to work from home. In announcing her hiring, editor-in-chief Sandra Deane said:

“We’re elated to have Mo bring her passion, expertise and unique voice to our site. She’s an established TV critic with more than 13 years experience at the Chicago Tribune, and we’re thrilled to have someone of her caliber join the AOL Television team.”

As much as she loved her job, Ryan admits she’d been growing increasingly frustrated at the space constraints of print. Her diminished profile in the newspaper reflected a trend that’s seen the role of TV critics reduced or eliminated entirely across the country in recent years. Looking back on her experience, Ryan said:

“I was incredibly lucky to be able to write about shows like ‘The Wire,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ‘Deadwood,’ ‘Mad Men’ and ‘The Sopranos’ for the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune also gave me an incredible amount of freedom to build up the audience for The Watcher website, and interacting with readers there was one of the most fulfilling parts of my job. But the Tribune’s needs changed over time, and my reviews seemed to be less and less necessary to the print product’s daily operation. In the past year, quite a few of my reviews, news stories and features appeared only online. While I loved writing for the site, it just seemed that the Tribune’s priorities and mine were heading in different directions. Hence my interest in AOL’s offer.”

Ryan, a product of Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, received a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis with a double major in English and psychology, and a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. You might say she was overqualified for the job of watching all those TV shows and writing about them. But she did it with style and professionalism, and now it’s quite likely that Ryan may be the last person ever to hold the title of Chicago Tribune TV critic. That’s a possibility she understandably laments:

“I’d be surprised if the Tribune filled my position. That fact may be a reality of the newspaper business, but it makes me kind of sad. I think a vibrant urban newspaper needs its own set of local columnists and critics — and of course, the Tribune still has many of those, thank goodness. Still, it would appear that, as far as the print Tribune is concerned, their need for TV pieces is sufficiently met by the Los Angeles Times staff. “It’s the Tribune’s call and the Tribune’s budget, and they may not see a need to fill the slot. But overall, I think the shrinking number of TV critics and film critics at urban dailies is an unfortunate phenomenon. Of course, I just made that pool shrink a little bit by voluntarily exiting. But I sincerely hope that the readers that I developed a relationship with at the Tribune check out my work in my new home. Fingers crossed!”