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Premature Congratulation/ The Onion Aims at New City



By Michael Miner

Premature Congratulation

By the grace of God, last week's Jeff Awards weren't a fiasco. The results were displayed hours ahead of time on two different Web sites, but few people noticed. When Second City producer Kelly Leonard arrived at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts for the evening ceremonies on November 10, his dad came up to him and said, "Did you know the winners were announced on-line?"

"What are you talking about?" said Kelly.

"I saw them on-line," said his father. "You're going to be happy."

Roy Leonard, a WGN radio and TV personality, had gone Net surfing that afternoon for material for his monthly Roy Leonard's Going Out Guide. He entered the Playbill on-line site, which offers theater news from around the world updated daily, and there it was: a long story announced by the headline "Reddin's Rage and Zimmerman's Mirror Shine In Chicago Jeff Awards."

"I said, 'Wait a minute! This thing isn't until tonight!'" Roy Leonard told me. "I kept scrolling down. It had a complete list of nominees, with the winners in bold type. I didn't tell anybody except Kelly. I said, 'Get an aisle seat.' I saw Scott Adsit sitting beside his parents, and I know he's going to win [for best actor in a revue, Second City's Paradigm Lost]. But I didn't tell them. I didn't want to take the fun out of it.

"They were thrilled," Leonard went on. "But I wonder who sent that out without an embargo on it."

Nobody did. Playbill on-line overlooked the embargo, and the Chicago Tribune on-line inadvertently expunged it. The Jeff Committee learned a hard lesson with miraculously little damage done: compromising secrecy to indulge the media is flirting with catastrophe.

The accounting firm of Friedman Eisenstein Raemer and Schwartz had added up the votes. The only two members of the Jeff Committee who knew the winners before the ceremony were Joan Kaloustian, who prepared the cards inside the presenters' envelopes, and Jerry Proffit, the chair of the committee's Equity wing who produced the awards show. On Monday before the show Kaloustian faxed the names to the Sun-Times. On Sunday night she'd E-mailed them to Playbill in New York. And the previous Friday--three days before the ceremony--Proffit had hand delivered the list to Richard Christiansen of the Tribune. This was an act of tribute: by accommodating the disgracefully early deadline of Tempo, the Tribune's feature section, the Jeff Committee was acknowledging the paper's unparalleled ability to put people in seats.

Kaloustian told Christiansen she was worried about a security breach. "I talked to him at length and expressed my concern that the longer the list was out the bigger the risk was, and I said why we didn't want to make a habit of it. And I was assured it wouldn't be an issue."

"I told her we would take every precaution and not to worry, everything would be fine," says Christiansen. "Just like the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable, everything was supposed to be taken care of. And everything was not fine. And I was most unhappy and in distress about it."

What happened? "We had a number of internal backup failures," says Howard Witt, the Tribune's associate managing editor for interactive news. The story Christiansen wrote for the Tuesday edition of Tempo moved through the Tribune's systems on Sunday night, "along with all our overnight reviews. And we put our overnight reviews up on America On-Line and on Metromix, our Web product."

Christiansen's story shouldn't have gone up with them, but it did. "We have two computer systems--one for the paper, one for the Internet sites," Witt explains. "When files are moved from the newsroom production system to the Internet system, internal notes contained in the story in the newsroom system get stripped off and don't get seen by the Internet people. A note on top of Christiansen's story embargoing it wasn't seen by the person who moved the story along to the Internet." Telephone calls intended to alert the Internet people wound up in the oblivion of voice mail, and the worst happened.

Witt said the Jeff winners went on-line around midnight. A director searching for on-line reviews spotted them there and called both the Tribune city desk and Proffit, who immediately called the Tribune too. The city desk called Witt at home, and by 3 AM the Internet had been purged.

And Playbill on-line? "I misread the cover piece from the attached file," says on-line reporter David Lefkowitz. "I assumed the awards were Sunday night. So they were posted a couple of hours until somebody called. It was just an honest mistake. When we were told 'Whoops! They're up too early,' we took them off."

"I didn't hear a lot of buzz at the event that people knew who won," says Richard Friedman, managing director of Northlight Theatre. "I'd like to have known we didn't win any. I could have gone out to the bar." So Chicago theater got off lightly, but the near fiasco sent a message anyway. "It makes us seem rinky-dink," says Friedman. "This isn't the TV show Early Edition, is it?"

What seemed rinky-dink wasn't simply the failure to keep a secret. It was the Jeff Committee's hat-in-hand posture before the Tribune. The 29-year-old Jeffs are still courting the spotlight. They've been a troubled award for years, and in 1996 four theaters--the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Marriott's Linconshire, and Victory Gardens--dropped out over the ground rules. To bring them back, the Jeffs were made noncompetitive--a decision that made them less compelling than ever in the eyes of the media. The need for a rescue operation became clear.

A year ago an advisory committee consisting of ten members from the Jeff Committee and ten from the League of Chicago Theatres was formed to tackle the perception that, as Kelly Leonard put it, "the Jeff Awards were a joke." The advisory committee met with directors, scenic designers, and other craftsmen to explain eligibility requirements; threw a media luncheon for local journalists to raise their regard for the Jeffs; and brought in a pro bono publicist to promote this year's ceremony.

Conversation at the advisory committee's last meeting before the ceremony, Leonard said, swung to the coverage the big night was likely to get. Richard Christiansen would be there, someone from the Jeff Committee said, but it wouldn't matter--because the Tribune wouldn't do anything but run the list of winners the committee always gave them in advance.

In advance?

"In general," Leonard told me, "the theater producers on this committee said, 'This doesn't make sense.' Even the Jeff people thought it's not great. There was a concern for how this looks ethically. Richard Friedman and I were saying, 'Don't give it to them.' But cooler heads said this isn't the year to rock the boat. The thought was that maybe we should readdress this after the awards."

Says Friedman, "I felt that it should be like only Price Waterhouse knows the results. My feeling is that spiritually, if the awards are in the air, someone's going to know it. I didn't trust that the big monolithic entities like the Tribune and Sun-Times could keep it out of their computers--so don't give it to them. Let them wait. It's letting the press dictate too much how an event is perceived."

Nothing is better at bringing about reform than total disaster narrowly averted. Everyone involved with this year's Jeffs seems determined that in 1998 the media won't know who's won until the winners do. We'll see. Howard Witt immediately apologized to the committee and decreed a number of new in-house safeguards to keep history from repeating itself. By next November the Jeff Committee might decide those safeguards are a good enough reason to go back to business as usual.

After all, what's the alternative to feeding the Tribune the results in advance? Christiansen tells me that either Tempo would have to wait a day before publishing the winners or, if he twisted enough arms, an overnight story would run in Metro, whose editors don't think the Jeff Awards are "newsy" enough to warrant coverage. And Chicago theater people don't want their highest honors buried in Metro.

But at the moment the Jeff Committee sounds inflexible. "This is just really inexcusable and frustrating," Kaloustian tells me. "Perhaps shame on us for being so trusting. The Tonys don't release their awards early. We won't either."

The Onion Aims at a New City

About a year ago Mitch Duneier, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, inquired into the sources of his students' worldly wisdom. Who read today's Chicago Tribune? he asked. One hand went up. The New York Times? Two hands rose. Who watches the local TV news? Six hands. NPR? Nine. What about the Onion? Now sixteen hands were waving in the air.

Duneier doesn't consider NPR a primary news source. As for the Onion--well, it's a humor paper, often very funny but newsy only in the sense that a sharp reader can work backward from the send-up to the reality that inspired it. If you're going to laugh long and hard it helps to know something about what you're laughing at. And that's one reason it makes sense for a robust specimen of college humor such as the Onion to move on to larger, greener, less benighted pastures than a college town.

"They're getting more ignorant, that's for certain," says Onion editor Scott Dikkers, pondering today's campus fauna. "Thank God for the Internet. The Internet reader is slightly older and more educated than the college reader, who was our bread and butter when we started out."

In January the Onion sets up shop in Chicago. It's already trolling for local advertisers, introducing itself as a "source of invaluable pleasure for post-college professionals...craving smart entertainment and an escape from the daily grind" and boasting of its "incisive social satire." It'll be free when a Chicago edition's printed here, though for the last few months the Madison version has been on sale for a dollar at Tower Records, which reports that business has been brisk enough that it's just increased its order.

"We're in Denver, we're in Milwaukee, but nothing like Chicago," says Peter Haise, the Onion's president and publisher. Why here, now? "Just because the natural progression of the economics of business makes things expand whether you like it or not," he said. "It's geographically correct. We're close by in Wisconsin. It's a large, large market. The bigger the market, the better we figure we'll do. We've been labeled a college paper a long time because that's where we started it, but we find it appeals to everybody. We figure everybody's beginning to appreciate the Onion, regardless of age. Well, not regardless of age."

The Onion was founded in 1988 in Madison by two University of Wisconsin students who quickly sold out to Haise, Dikkers, and a third partner, who's since departed. Dikkers, a Southern Cal film-school dropout living in Madison and drawing the ur-slacker comic strip Jim's Journal for a string of college papers, contributed three new strips under pseudonyms to the Onion and by issue three was its de facto editor. Jim's Journal reached 200 college papers in its heyday, but it's history now, and on the side Dikkers has gone back to movies. The Austin Film Festival just gave him an audience award for Spaceman, the saga of an alien-reared killing machine who's in search of himself.

"We want to be in a city of consequence," Dikkers says. Consequence isn't Madison, or Denver-Boulder, and certainly not Champaign-Urbana, a market the Onion has already entered and abandoned. "It was too small a market to sustain a profitable newspaper and keep people happy," Haise explains. "It was a dead end. That's what happens when you go to a college town. Madison calls itself a college town, but it's also a state capital--it's a reasonable market."

And Milwaukee, whose Onion was launched in 1994, isn't that city of consequence either. "Not as much as Chicago is," said Dikkers. "We're on-line, so I guess we're everywhere. But having a physical presence in Chicago--we're all going to like that."

Is it only a matter of time before you're based here? I asked him. "Maybe, maybe," he said. "We used to want to do it, but the idea of being in Madison has grown on us, because we realized there's nothing we can't accomplish here. I guess it was the Internet that taught us that."

The front of the Onion isn't site specific. Every edition shares the same poker-faced humor, articles with headlines such as "World Wrestling Federation, World Wildlife Fund Reach Acronym-Sharing Agreement" and "Home Homosexuality Test Now Available." Haise told me, "Our entertainment section--the ass end of the paper, as it were--is tailored to each market. We're not going to go full-blown with entertainment listings. You guys pretty much have the lock on that. For now." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Roy Leonard, Kelly Leonard photo by Kathy Richland.

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