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StreetWise Boss Feels the Heat

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StreetWise Boss Feels the Heat

The editor of StreetWise and other staffers went into open rebellion against executive director Anthony Oliver this week, asking the paper's board of directors that he "be immediately relieved." In a letter to the board, they described their appeal as "a desperate attempt to prevent an already crisis situation from further escalating."

But escalate it did. The letter was faxed to board members Monday. The next morning, when editor Charity Crouse and production chief Allan Gomez, both of whom had signed it, reported for work, they weren't allowed into the StreetWise offices, at 1331 S. Michigan. Crouse told me operations director Dianne Kenner notified them that the paper feared sabotage, and therefore they should consider themselves on leave until the board dealt with the situation.

A party Tuesday night for the staff and board was canceled, as word spread that the so-called leave was a prelude to dismissal. John Ellis, a former editor, was known to be flying back to Chicago from California to take over for Crouse on an interim basis, and I was reliably told that Kenner, who would not talk to me, was telling others at the paper that no one who signed the letter would go on working at StreetWise. That would include vendor and writer Rayford Allen, who says that when he came to work Tuesday he was handed a letter telling him his "contracting services" were no longer needed; the language puzzled him, as he had no contract with StreetWise and vended as usual that day. It would also include associate editor Kari Lydersen, a part-timer who didn't come to work Tuesday, and cashier Darlene Bunch, who reported and worked. Also working Tuesday, but by some accounts on Kenner's dismissal list, was John Sanbonmatsu, the recently hired director of the job-training and literacy programs. Sanbonmatsu submitted a separate letter Monday every bit the equal of the others' for blunt criticism.

The divide between Oliver and his staff had been widening for months. At the urging of board president Pam McElvane, a weekend retreat was held last fall at the home of editor in chief Jalyne Strong, but it settled nothing. Staffers remember with some bitterness that the "facilitator" was Oliver's friend Sharon Allen, whom he subsequently hired as an executive assistant.

A month ago Oliver fired Strong. McElvane tells me Strong left voluntarily, but the former editor showed me a letter she'd received from Kenner that said, "You were discharged from StreetWise for insubordination."

That insubordination was, in the view of Strong's former colleagues, legitimate protest. Their letter to the board recalled that on January 8 Strong had "initiated grievance proceedings" against Oliver and expected "retaliation" for doing so. Four days later it came. "During her departure on Jan. 12, Strong announced to members of the editorial department that she was being forced to leave the building by Mr. Oliver, and other staff members claim that they were told to prevent Ms. Strong from re-entering the building."

The charges in the letter to the board this week ranged far beyond Oliver's treatment of Strong. It accused him of "mismanagement, unconstructive leadership style, and refusal to deal forthrightly and directly with staff" and of tactics that "consolidate all authority...yet delegate blame." It complained that he failed to provide extra resources when StreetWise shifted from biweekly to weekly publication last March and again when StreetWise DC was launched last July, yet added "unnecessary and high-cost upper-level management positions, which serve primarily to create a buffer between staff and the Executive Director." It told the board that "of the six full-time staff members with supervisory responsibility" when weekly publication began, "only one remains."

Furthermore, the letter claimed, the editorial standards of StreetWise were in peril. "Mr. Oliver has recently stressed several times to the editor and other editorial staff that the content of the paper needs to be refined to be more in line with the 'future vision' of the organization--a vision which includes pursuing advertisers who might be turned off by critical editorial coverage....Additional plans for providing advertisers with access to editorial exposure threaten to damage the integrity of the paper as a journalistic news source....Attempts by members of editorial to raise this issue with Mr. Oliver are dismissed outright and met with accusations regarding our presumed 'political agendas.'"

The staffers, who asked the board for a written response by next Monday, added, "We anticipate retaliatory action, as Mr. Oliver has prohibited anyone on staff from contacting the Board without his permission."

The letter from John Sanbonmatsu agreed that Oliver had to go. Sanbonmatsu, who told the board he was still waiting for a job description, claimed he'd arrived three weeks earlier "to find the most grossly mismanaged organization that I have ever seen." Working conditions on the first floor, where vendors pick up newspapers and money is counted, were "wretched, and perhaps illegal....Of the three bathrooms there, only one was working, and this lacked toilet paper, paper towels, or a soap dispenser....The temperature ranged from between 45 degrees Fahrenheit near the front to perhaps 50-52 degrees in the back hallway. Fully one third of the overhead lights were not functional....The rear office, where I initially chose to set up shop...was unheated. By contrast, the upstairs was fully heated and brightly lit."

But what bothered Sanbonmatsu most, he continued, was "the attitude of the Executive Director when faced with complaints about these conditions." He said Oliver responded with "defensive outbursts" and "as recently as the last managers' meeting (January 31)...repeatedly rebuffed my and others' efforts to ameliorate the situation, claiming that the organization lacked sufficient funds."

If that truly was the case, Sanbonmatsu wondered, where had the money gone? "Why is it that, after years of receiving ample grants, the Work Empowerment Center [the job-training arm of StreetWise] has been moribund for months?"

McElvane didn't comment on the two letters. Oliver refused "to confirm or deny" that he'd read them and wouldn't discuss any of the issues raised in them. "I believe in economic empowerment for homeless men and women," he said. "It begins with the vendors, it ends with the vendors, it's all about the vendors."

When I first spoke with Strong two weeks ago, she refused to speak publicly about StreetWise because she believed that any criticism could imperil it. The readers who buy 90,000 copies of StreetWise each month from its 270 vendors (the figures are Oliver's) do so in large part as an act of charity, and many would happily keep their dollars in their own pockets if they had an excuse to. But some of the colleagues Strong left behind felt differently. They concluded that publicity was a necessary component of their own protest. "Collectively, we in editorial have been talking about whether we should approach the board in writing pretty much since Jalyne was fired," Crouse told me. "We waited to see if the board would respond to Jalyne, and the executive committee did not respond."

Oliver, who's 40 and has been at StreetWise more than seven years, was described to me as intense, passionate, and persuasive, and also as polished and ambitious, with an idea of someday running for Congress. He is clearly entrepreneurial. He's been pitching the idea of some sort of investment club to vendors, some of whom wondered where the money to invest was supposed to come from. "He cares about StreetWise and wants to help the homeless," editorial board member John K. Wilson told me, "but he may be taking StreetWise down the wrong track. The focus is moving toward doing anything to get some money." Wilson said he was not around to sign the staff letter but supported it.

This past Sunday, Oliver held a "state of the organization" meeting at the newspaper and passed around brochures for a huge, two-sided video billboard he wants to hang from the side of the StreetWise building. He also brought an information sheet touting SRA--for Socially Responsible Advertiser--a new proprietary trademark created to lure advertisers. "Research shows that smart consumers are likely to shop at businesses or financial institutions they feel good about," said the sheet. "Keep the emotional edge with your customers, the SRA emblem on your ad tells them: YOUR company is invested in community. YOUR company is interested in your customers' need to make a difference. YOUR advertising dollars are working to improve the community."

The StreetWise staffers tend toward the idealistic. Sketchy as the details of this SRA branding were, they sensed a commodifying and retailing of their newspaper's image of altruism. Not until the very bottom of the information sheet was there a mention of using SRA revenues to "put Chicago's homeless to work with dignity."

The SRA proposal "doesn't show any direct connection to the vendors," Crouse told me. "The vendors seem to be factored out."

One plank in the proposal stood out: "Use the StreetWise newspaper to publicize your company's philanthropic support to community organizations and social events." This sounded to Crouse and other staffers like an invitation to exchange advertising for news coverage. "The barrier between advertising and editorial is in jeopardy," Wilson says. "The editorial department has always been under pressure to be less critical."

Oliver acknowledged to me that the new Washington StreetWise has not been a success. Begun as a monthly produced in Chicago under Strong's supervision, it was recently scaled back to a quarterly. Oliver's man in Washington is an unpaid volunteer from Germany who will have to go home unless he's admitted soon to an American graduate school.

Their Words Against His

When you've wrung out the ambiguity, what's left is the news.

Late on the night of Monday, January 29, I got a call from a friend who was steaming. "Did you see today's Tribune?" I heard him shouting--I'm not promising word-for-word fidelity here--"They've got this story on page ten where Cheney says they're going to try to overturn Roe v. Wade! Can you believe the way they bury a story when it doesn't make their guys look good!"

I tracked down the edition and flipped through section one. There was the Cheney item, not just buried but camouflaged. It appeared at the very bottom of page ten, at the end of a one-column story headlined "Bush ready to offer plan on Rx drugs for elderly."

Here's how the story went: "Cheney, also appearing on NBC's 'Meet the Press,' also said the administration might look for a case that could lead the Supreme Court to strike down Roe vs. Wade, the decision protecting abortion. Cheney said the administration would look for ways to discourage abortion 'even if you could not, at this stage, build majority support for the notion of changing Roe vs. Wade.' He then was asked if that meant the administration won't seek to overturn the decision. 'I didn't say that,' Cheney replied."

Might look for a case? Somewhere between my friend's eye and my ear a dollop of ambiguity had vanished. Wondering how other papers had played Cheney's admission, such as it was, I leafed through the Sun-Times and New York Times. It turned out they hadn't even mentioned it. So, should I assail or praise the Tribune for burying a story nobody else carried at all?

I read the item again and noticed that the only visible support for the proposition that Cheney had said the administration might look for a test case was his response, "I didn't say that."

In other words, "I didn't say we won't." But how much weight could that double negative rightly bear? The Tribune's story had originated with the Washington Post. Perhaps something the Tribune edited out of the original story justified its characterization of Cheney's remarks.

I found the Post's story on-line. The Tribune had trimmed away nothing concerning abortion, but here's how the Post story had introduced the subject: "Cheney appeared yesterday on three of the five major Sunday morning shows, and suggested on NBC's 'Meet the Press' that the administration may be looking for a case that could lead..."

A Tribune editor had tweaked the story by substituting "said" for "suggested." But did even the more ambiguous "suggested" do the actual conversation justice? I went back on-line, to the site where Meet the Press posts a transcript of each show.

Well into the interview, Tim Russert had raised the entwined topics of John Ashcroft and abortion. "[Ashcroft] said in his testimony that Roe v. Wade, the abortion case, is settled law, and as attorney general he will not seek to overturn it," Russert began. "Is that the administration policy?"

"Well, I think it's clearly the role of the attorney general to enforce the laws that are on the books," Cheney replied. "And that's clearly what John Ashcroft should do and what he committed to doing as attorney general. That doesn't mean that there might not be efforts on the part of the administration to do what we said during the campaign. Both President Bush and I talked about the desirability of trying to find ways to reduce the incidence of abortion."

During the campaign, George W. Bush had said he supported the Republican platform, which declared, "The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed," and called for a "human life amendment" to the Constitution. And he said he supported a ban on partial-birth abortions. But on the stump he also said he recognized that the majority of Americans do not support overturning Roe v. Wade. Which was why, though the abolition of abortion remained a personal goal, he intended to reduce the number of abortions by working "to build a culture that respects life."

Cheney continued, "Even if you could not, at this stage, build majority support for the notion of changing Roe v. Wade, there are other areas out there where I think we can get majority support for, such as banning partial-birth abortions....There are other areas--advocating abstinence, making adoptions easier, working to encourage alternatives to abortion--I think that are things we would do as an administration."

Russert cut to the chase. "But you won't seek to overturn Roe v. Wade?"

"I didn't say that," replied Cheney, who would have upset a lot of people by saying either yes or no. Cheney left it at that. What he said next simply repeated what he'd said before. "President Bush and I have talked--both of us strong supporters of the pro-life position--and the president's made it very clear the policy of this administration will be to try to find ways to reduce the incidence of abortion."

Had Cheney said the new administration would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade? No. Had he said it might? No. Had he said it wouldn't? No. Had he said anything that could be construed as news? Not if he could help it.

Except that if the press had treated Cheney's remark as significant--as a veiled threat or a wink or a finger to the wind--that would have made it significant. Politicians such as Cheney are adept producers of obscurities that can safely be ignored on a busy news day and mined for portent on a slow one.

News Bites

"My own experience is that journalism students are better prepared in how to cover government than how to cover the private sector," says Loren Ghiglione, the next dean of the Medill School of Journalism. Medill already collaborates with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and with Northwestern's medical school and Institute for Health Services Research and Policy Studies on graduate programs that prepare journalists to specialize in the areas of religion and medicine. Ghiglione wants to establish more of these alliances, to prepare students to cover such beats as business and economics.

Northwestern announced Ghiglione's appointment last week. Currently director of the journalism program at the University of Southern California, he expects to take over Medill sometime this summer. He'll succeed Ken Bode, who as moderator of Washington Week in Review brought star power to Medill in 1997 but indifferent administrative abilities. He never won over his faculty, and his conspicuous dismay at losing the Washington Week in Review job in 1999 called his priorities into serious question within the Northwestern administration. Bode is expected to stay on as chair of the broadcasting department, which, because of a problem attracting students, might have more faculty than it needs.

"The only thing that is clearly a challenge for a number of graduate schools is, because of a decreasing number of graduate students, to figure out the economics of graduate programs," Ghiglione told me. Historically, graduate work becomes less appealing to young journalists when the economy is good and plenty of attractive entry-level jobs are available. So a good recession might solve Ghiglione's problem for him.

I asked him about other challenges. He said, "As the marketplace invites and encourages more convergence--reporters able to report for print, for radio and TV, and on-line, we have to ask, how do we prepare students for that? I'm not sure we have the answer.

"Another issue I'm concerned about is the ethics of journalism. It seems to me that as we move on-line, where fewer layers of people are reviewing copy, it invites inaccuracy and maybe a less careful journalism."

Perhaps, I suggested, the ephemerality and insubstantiality of on-line journalism simply make accuracy seem less important there.

"I don't think that's the right attitude," Ghiglione replied.

The New York Times published two lists last week, one of them the 30 National Football League playing fields as ranked from best to worst by the NFL Players Association, the other the same fields as ranked from worst to best by the same players.

The most curious thing about this exercise is that the second list wasn't simply the first list upside down. For example, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay was ranked the best field in the first list, but it was only the 24th worst in the second list. Carolina's Ericsson Stadium was named least worst but only second best. And our own Soldier Field was seventh worst yet 17th best.

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

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