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Highway to Hell

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Dawn Reiss's first big professional assignment might have been a bad idea to begin with, but she's glad, just barely, that she took it.

In 1997 the Sporting News took a flier, posting on-line the stories sent in by three college buddies from MIT and Princeton who were spending the summer on the road, hitting every single major league baseball park. This experiment, says assistant managing editor Barry Reeves, turned out to be an "amazingly fantastic" success.

But though the Sporting News was founded back in 1886 as the "bible of baseball," baseball's been superceded. Reeves says that today nothing comes close to the National Football League for attracting visitors to the paper's Web site. The NFL pages lead in hits 11 months of the year and run a close second to the March Madness of NCAA basketball.

Which is why when the Sporting News decided to send collegians back out on the road it wanted them to hit the football stadiums. The advertising department in New York was told to make the trip happen.

Advertising's job was to find what Reeves called a "marquee" corporate sponsor, and late last summer the search paid off big-time. Associate publisher Paul Rothkopf calls the mix of Visa, the Sporting News, and the NFL "a confluence of very great things." On the paper's Web site, beneath Visa's motto "It's everywhere NFL fans want to be," three young adventurers would live out "a fantasy" (Rothkopf), by taking "the ultimate road trip, every fan's dream trip" (Reeves).

It was up to Reeves to find them, and there wasn't much time to look. "We had ten days to get a pool of candidates and make the hires," he says. "I called a few elite journalism schools and either talked to the intern coordinator or to the student-newspaper adviser. In 30 seconds on the phone they could tell me whether they had a strong candidate."

Dawn Reiss, a native of Glen Ellyn, was a natural. An athlete who'd rowed varsity at Indiana University and nearly qualified for the Olympics trials, she'd just graduated and was interning in Fort Worth for the Star-Telegram. She overnighted some clips to Reeves, who called her references and interviewed her by phone. She didn't even meet Reeves until after he'd hired her.

The season was just a week away when the Sporting News assembled its team of travelers in Saint Louis. The others were Brian Murphy, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, and Jeff Carlton, a senior at Northwestern. "They didn't give us much instruction," says Reiss. "They told us to make the stories fun." What if they didn't even like each other? "It was deal with it, basically."

In a nutshell, the Sporting News was throwing together three strangers in their early 20s and asking them to drive incessantly for four months, logging what would turn out to be more than 25,000 miles and seeing 30 games in 17 weeks. The paper designed the route, which Reiss says was constructed with an eye to hitting big games, not to minimizing time on the road. The paper didn't ask about their driving histories. Last week I described the setup to an insurance industry spokesman, and she thought it called for the sort of "high-risk" auto insurance policy few companies would write. That wasn't an issue at the Sporting News, which simply added Reiss, Murphy, and Carlton to its blanket policy.

Before the season ended, all three would be ticketed for speeding, one of them for driving 100 miles an hour in Nevada. Other misadventures were duly chronicled at www.sportingnews.com/nfl/roadtrip. In early November, for example, they reached their motel near the Saint Louis airport at 1 AM. Facing a 6 AM getaway and a 12-hour drive to Dallas, they left a lot of their gear in the backseat of their Grand Prix. In the morning they discovered a window had been shattered and the car looted. Reiss lost $500 worth of clothing. They rented an Impala and continued. Later that day Carlton would write, "We're normally quick to laugh at just about anything. But as I finish this story, Dawn is driving the new rental car silently through the rain and Murph is trying to nap. The jokes may begin again tomorrow, but right now, there's nothing too funny about any of this."

The Sporting News called their Web page "Ultimate Road Trip--They're living the ultimate NFL experience." Says Reeves, "They were living their lives right there [on the Web site]. That was the connection and their value to us as a brand. You and me would never have the time or energy to do such a trip. But wow! Gosh! I'd love to do it."

"They wanted it light and fun," says Reiss. Her personal preferences as a journalist are investigative reporting and long magazine articles, but this wasn't the time or the place. "When you write on-line," she says, "it has to be a lot shorter--shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, more spacing, a totally different rhythm."

She didn't always keep it light. "The things readers liked most weren't the NFL stories. They were personal stories, like what it was like to spend Thanksgiving in Detroit in the press box and then in a hotel room eating a hamburger, when I'd never spent Thanksgiving Day away from my family before. The trip allowed me to reflect on my life, and it changed me. I got to see starving people in Tijuana--I wrote about that. I wrote a story about seeing kids crawl in garbage cans for food and how they had all these bars for rich Americans."

A story she filed in late November began: "Two days ago I was in Charlotte, N.C. After 21 hours of driving, I'm now in the Land of 10,000 Lakes....En route to Minnesota, the climate gradually changed from the warm and sunny hours of open car windows to rain and sleet to freshly falling snow....This is the hardest part of the trip. After spending Thanksgiving in Detroit we drove to Cincinnati for a Sunday night game to the Monday nighter in Charlotte, to Thursday's game in Minneapolis, then on to Buffalo for a Sunday game, followed by a Monday nighter at New England. After that, the pace slows down with a flight to Miami and a Monday night game in Indianapolis."

Reiss's story got more wryly affirmative as it went on. Even today, when Reiss has every right to wish she'd never heard of the Sporting News, she's "60-40" on the side of not regretting that she went. "There were things difficult about it," she says. "But overall, it was a positive experience."

The Monday-nighter at New England was Reiss's last game. The plan was to leave Foxboro, Massachusetts, the next day and drive to Indianapolis--a 900-mile jaunt--put the Impala in a garage, and pick it up again after Miami. The Impala didn't make it to Indianapolis, and Reiss didn't either. On Tuesday, December 5--a bright, sunny day when everyone was wide-awake--the car was totaled just 15 miles out of Foxboro. It was sheer luck Reiss didn't get killed.

Two weeks went by before she could write about it. "I don't remember much of the accident," she reported, "but this is what I have been told. Brian was driving on the interstate, when a car driven by an elderly lady started to swerve into our lane. Brian honked. She overcompensated. Her car went up on two wheels. She hit the guardrail and spun around toward us. To avoid a head-on collision, Brian swerved into the other lane in front of an 18-wheel oil tanker. The truck driver tried to stop, but couldn't. He plowed right into us. The Chevy Impala's large trunk was diminished to mere inches. I was sitting in the backseat at the time of the accident, typing on my laptop. The impact of the truck crumpled my body and thrust me into the driver's seat. The seat belt, which saved me from flying through the windshield, was choking me. Jeff hazily called Brian's and my names, but there were no responses.

"The truck driver is the real hero of this accident. The tanker flipped, and 8,000 gallons of oil spilled on the highway. Its driver jumped from his rig and cut the seat belt loose from around my neck with a knife as I lay unconscious."

Hours later, Reiss came to in the middle of her CAT scan. Murphy and Carlton were patched up and kept on going, but Reiss was hospitalized for three days with five broken ribs--two weren't discovered until after she got back to Glen Ellyn--and a punctured lung. "I'm a little religious," she says, "and I feel God saved me for a reason. The doctors told me there was no medical explanation why I'm alive."

Today she's mending at home. She's hoping she'll be allowed to go to the Super Bowl, but she told me last week, "They say it's going to be a full year before I make a full recovery. I haven't been able to sleep a full night. I took morphine in the hospital, then codeine for a month, and now Motrin. I'm not a big painkiller person. I'm going to physical therapy twice a week."

If you're interested, pictures of the pancaked Impala are still posted on the Web site, along with the articles all three travelers wrote about the crash. But the Sporting News doesn't call attention to them. Go to the Web site and you'll read this: "Looking back on a long and winding road. For Jeff, Dawn and Brian, the Road Trip was indeed Ultimate, as they had the experience of a lifetime, absorbing the sights and sounds of professional football while going all across America. But the many highs--like Dawn's amazing day with Dick Enberg and Dan Dierdorf (pictured)--were not without the occasional lows. It was quite a trip for the senses, and lucky for us, they took time to chronicle the best and worst of the road."

Mike Nahrstedt, a senior managing editor at the Sporting News, has been in close contact with Reiss since the crack-up. "I don't think it was a flaw in the concept," he says. "The accident they were in could have happened to anybody. Could we come up with a different itinerary that involved fewer miles? I mean, yeah, if we see a stretch that's clearly a long, long drive we could try to work around it. It would be foolish to say there's no other way to do this."

"We've done exceptionally well for Visa," says Rothkopf. "We are meeting and exceeding everything we promised."

Will you do it again?

"I sure hope so."

News bites

The telephone system at Star Publications kept me on hold for 29 minutes and change last week before a human being finally picked up. I said I wanted to ask Larry Kelly, publisher of the Star chain of weekly papers in the southern suburbs and also of the Daily Southtown, about personnel cuts that had just been made at these Hollinger International papers--about 30 employees in all, I'd been told, out of a combined staff of roughly 500.

A month before, when Hollinger completed its purchase of Fox Valley Press, it had held a similar housecleaning there. Fox, a Copley Press subsidiary, published daily papers in Aurora, Elgin, Waukegan, and Joliet, plus a three-times-a-week paper in Naperville and 13 weeklies.

While I was waiting, automated messages told me repeatedly that the Daily Southtown was "your complete daily news source" while at the Star papers, "We're taking local news to a whole new level." Kelly never did come to the phone. But he spoke that day at a staff meeting, announcing that the survivors would have to wait a couple of weeks for more details but assuring them they were "the chosen ones."

"Whatever that means," says someone in touch with reporters there. "Employees don't have one clue about what's going on."

Was Linda Chavez borked? It's important to get this right. The rise and fall of public figures should never be chronicled carelessly. "Linda Chavez got borked," said the Sun-Times editorial protesting her fate. "Borked, of course, is the word that entered the contemporary political glossary after the Democrats launched a successful no-holds-barred fight to deny a Supreme Court appointment to Robert Bork."

But Chavez doesn't think she got borked. She stated her case in last Sunday's Sun-Times, and she made an important distinction. "During my days as secretary of labor-designate, I spent most of my time preparing to answer attacks on my record. I was fully prepared to defend every word I had written, every policy position I had taken in a long, public life." Every word written and every position taken is a lot of ground to cover, Chavez being a syndicated op-ed columnist who's held various public positions, including director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under Ronald Reagan.

She went on, "Democrats and interest groups openly warned that they would try to 'Bork' my nomination, referring to their successful efforts to defeat Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork on the basis of his long paper trail on controversial issues."

But, she continued, "I never got that chance. Instead, my opponents went on a search-and-destroy mission, willing to use anything in my past, even acts of kindness, to derail my nomination."

Borking, in other words, is the overzealous use of candidates' public records--not their private indiscretions--to hang them with. Zoe Baird wasn't borked. Clarence Thomas wasn't almost borked. John Ashcroft might be about to be borked--if something he asserted at, say, Bob Jones University comes back to haunt him. What happened to Chavez--done in by a past relationship with an illegal immigrant she hadn't mentioned to George W. Bush's vetters--wasn't a borking.

In fact, the borkers were still warming up when Bush told Chavez to get lost.

The Tribune, which had carried Chavez's column, knew she hadn't been borked. "It wasn't the crime, it was the cover-up that snared Linda Chavez," said its editorial. "What's not understandable, or forgivable, is selective amnesia. Chavez simply wasn't candid."

Chavez is back writing her column again. The Tribune dropped it, the only one of 70-odd papers carrying it that did. The Sun-Times picked it up.

It takes a special sort of skill to transform a judgment of someone you don't want to criticize into a judgment of someone you do. The Tribune did this beautifully last fall in its George W. Bush endorsement. The Tribune takes the flaws of capital punishment seriously and Bush doesn't, so how did it deal with Bush's shabby record? By hammering Al Gore for not making more of an issue of it.

The same sort of thing happened last week when Jack Higgins picked up his pen to comment on the Linda Chavez nomination. The Sun-Times's editorial cartoonist sketched three gleeful Democratic operatives in a "voter registration" office. One of them held a newspaper headlined "Chavez House Guest." Another was chortling, "You're darn right she's illegal. We have her voter card right here."

"Is Chicago sexy?" asked the Sun-Times's Sunday supplement Next, which last Sunday was again ad free and down to 20 pages from 24. Next rounded out its report on this cutting-edge topic with a list of "sexy getaways." One of them was Hot Rooms, at 1 E. Erie, which presumably earned a berth on the basis of its name. As it happens, Hot Rooms is to Chicago's hotel industry what Hot Tix is to its theater industry--it's a clearinghouse for discounted reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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