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Hyper Activist

With a bulldog's tenacity and a head full of facts, Dan Baron is the underdog's secret weapon.



For the past several years the Community Media Workshop has been publishing "Newstips," a bimonthly guide to many of the overlooked issues and activities of organizers and activists in the neighborhoods of Chicago.

Most of the credit for this unusual publication has gone to the workshop's founders, Hank De Zutter and Thom Clark, two former journalists who maintain a network of connections to publications and reporters all over town. But almost all of the hard work behind "Newstips"--all the writing, editing, and research--is done by a behind-the-scenes journalist few people know or have even seen.

His name is Dan Baron, and he writes at least 20 150-word news blurbs a month on all sorts of neighborhood characters, issues, and disputes, including breaking news items the dailies will follow at their own rambling pace.

He's been doing it for almost seven years now, and it's through his eyes and ears that one can see the rapidly changing dynamics of organizing, politics, and neighborhoods in Chicago. "Basically what I do is get on the phone 40 or 50 times a week or go to meetings," says Baron. "And what I see and hear I put into 'Newstips.' I like to think that if you read through my stuff you see a brief chronicle of the times."

Baron comes from a family of news junkies, though his work gives no clue to some of his main passions, such as movies and sports. "His bachelor party was like none I'd ever seen," says De Zutter. "We spent much of the time watching his friends from college trying to stump him with obscure questions, like 'Who was the reserve middle linebacker on the Bears in 1968?' They couldn't beat him."

Baron graduated from Highland Park High School and earned a degree in English rhetoric and history from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1984. A few years later he found himself working for a PR firm, writing press releases about such things as kitty litter. He gladly gave up that career to become a freelance writer and eventually found himself putting out publications for the National Training and Information Center, a Chicago-based outfit that trains labor and community organizers.

It was out of NTIC's cramped and smoky near-northwest-side offices that he met his first activists and organizers--an oddball bunch of often myopic and humorless creatures who were willing to work long, grueling hours for next to nothing in pay. "It was in that office, from [NTIC founders] Shel Trapp and Gale Cincotta, that I learned how a not-for-profit has to struggle to get attention, how they strategize and try to use whatever leverage they have," says Baron. "It was very valuable education. And they're not as humorless as you think--at least Shel Trapp and Gale can be sort of funny. I remember they hired a hypnotist to get people off of smoking. You have to understand how significant this was--back then everyone in organizing was a smoker. They all got so incredibly crabby. Shel was yelling across the room at me to get him cigarettes."

In 1990 Baron went to work for the Community Media Workshop putting out "Newstips" on a freelance basis. "Hank and I had done a version of 'Newstips' for some time when we hired Dan," says Clark. "The purpose was to generate some good hard-news ideas for other reporters to cover, to find some issues and voices that are not always at the top of a news editor's agenda. We hired Dan to put it out because we just couldn't do it on our own."

There's nothing fancy about "Newstips." It's three or four single-spaced pages on yellow copy paper with no photos or graphics. There's little space for more than a recitation of the main facts of an issue, followed by the names and phone numbers of its central characters.

Putting it together can be a thankless task. Among activists Baron is known as "one of the best journalists in the city," according to Howard Greenwich, research director for the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a city budget watchdog organization. But many reporters use the sheet as a glorified Rolodex, filing away the names and phone numbers Baron provides and then using them for stories--but rarely if ever citing him or "Newstips" as the source.

"There's several ways a story can make 'Newstips,'" says Baron. "Hank and Tom run workshops for organizers and groups, and I learn about issues that way. Or I reach them by phone."

He's a compulsive phone caller who takes on a different identity once he hits the phone. Soft-spoken and unassuming in person, he's aggressive and persistent on the phone. "I met Nancy Radner, the woman I married, over the phone," he says. "She was working for a not-for-profit, and I was sitting in my shorts in my apartment talking to her about neighborhood reinvestment. About 40 minutes later I decided to drop my journalistic ethics and ask her out for a date. I hadn't even met her. She just sounded like a person I would want to meet.

"I guess I've made 50,000 phone calls over the years. I can be pretty obsessive about these things. My head is filled with so much information, so many names and phone numbers in the way I used to remember batting averages as a kid. Sometimes it all gets mixed up. Occasionally someone will say to me, 'What's the name of this group working with infrastructure?' And I'll say '.341.' That's what Willie Mays hit in 1954--you can look it up in the Baseball Encyclopedia." (Actually, he hit .345).

Baron has uncovered some classic features, including the story of the East European immigrant who publishes his own newspaper for immigrants out of his apartment in Ravenswood (the Tribune picked that one up). And he wrote about the potential for riots on the west side a month before the violence following the 1992 Bulls championship.

Gradually he's changed "Newstips." "We're less likely now to print just one or two sides of a story," says Clark. "We'll present names and phone numbers of people with different views on an issue. We never wanted to be seen as publicists for public-interest groups. We've always seen ourselves as journalists trying to find sources and ideas, but Dan's helped us get better at this over the years."

Many activists contend that Baron's work is particularly important in the age of Mayor Daley, when so few alternative voices are being broadcast. "We characterize Chicago these days as a frontier town without a marshal," says Howard Greenwich. "Mayor Daley's running roughshod over everybody and calling all the shots. I don't know if the City Council has ever been so quiet. It's pathetic--the mayor has complete power. Hardly anyone's willing to speak up."

It's been a tough adjustment for community groups, who depend on the city for funding and other types of assistance. "There's much less of a willingness to speak out than there was when I started among community groups," says Baron. "So many people only want to talk off the record. They keep referring me to other people who will want to talk. They're worried about the consequences of speaking out."

It's also difficult to find reporters willing to amplify an opposing view. A classic example is school reform. In the years before Daley the dailies often published articles on waste and arrogance at the central office. Now both papers are more likely to write about abuse by local school councils, while praising Daley and school CEO Paul Vallas for taking control over personnel, curriculum, and finance matters once handled on the local level.

"Daley's consolidated so much power--you can see the evidence all the time," says Baron. "School reform was once regarded as a great community triumph, a triumph of organizing. Now there's a lot of questions being raised about it. There seems to be much praise of Vallas--as though it's good that we're moving away from local control.

"I sometimes think we're at a key transition point in local history. I see this not only in news coverage but in the perspective of many activists. A lot of people I worked with have been shaped by two key social movements--the '68 convention and Harold Washington's campaign. I came to Chicago in '85, so I project on these things, but they're not a part of my past. I wonder if organizers are going to have to take it beyond '68 and Washington. Maybe I've been watching the relatively quiet time between great movements." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Baron photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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