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Weekly on a Roll/Cheap Copy/Little Murders

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A month on earth is scant proof of staying power. Yet so fresh, so screwy is the concept behind Chicago's newest free weekly that all this column's doubts are swept before it, including grave ones about distribution, profit potential, and suitability for reading without poking out an eye.

The Chicago Scroll is one page thick. But that one page measures 60 vertical inches. A spinning curtain rod held to a fan rotor by duct tape--founder Matt Asher's "Scroll-O-Matic"--twists these inches into a lethal white baton.

"I like the fluidity of it," Asher told us, touting news that unrolls. "I like the notion of not having breaks at random times. You really can't not look at certain things. If you read the feature story from the beginning, at inch 8, say, to the very end of the scroll, inch 60 or whatever, then your eyes go past every single thing in the issue. With the Reader you can chuck Section Four--I don't mean to dis or anything--but with the Scroll your eyes go past everything.

"I like the notion of having one single canvas as a design element. It makes the layout a lot more complicated, because every item affects the placement of everything else on the page. But the potential is there to create a completely integrated design. I also think the scroll format meshes very well with some of the themes we want to get across, notions like seeing the similarities between seemingly different things, [such as] in the way that what appears at the top of the scroll has an intimate relationship with what appears at the bottom of the scroll."

I suggested to Asher that he'd designed himself into a dead end, that serious growth, the kind of growth most founders of free weeklies pray leads to early retirement, was pretty near impossible. "I've done experiments," he said, "where I've rolled up a bunch of them taped together. The practical limit is about 15 to 20 feet before it gets really thick and pretty much unmanageable. But we're considering going to two sides and going to nine-point [type]. We're using ten-point now and a fairly generous amount of leading."

Asher concedes that economics probably will drive him to a back page. But he anticipates this concession to common sense as an aesthetic defeat. "I would love to keep it all on one side. We could consider printing just ads on the back side. I'm giving my business manager license to select the ads any way he wants."

Asher is 22. He works construction part-time for his landlord. His spotty academic career began with engineering courses at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where both his parents teach. He took notes in scroll fashion on tracing paper--a fateful "idiosyncrasy." Two summers later he was a student of art and design, and he and his roommate, James Beckum (the Scroll's copy editor and cartoonist), were restlessly employed laying sod. They decided to drop out and come north to Chicago. In a month they were here.

Asher studied English and journalism at Roosevelt University and helped edit the student paper, the Torch. A weekly column persuaded him of his power to stir the multitudes. "I was able to rouse a fair amount of reaction from fairly apathetic students. I got a fair amount of hate mail and whatnot. I've attacked things that I guess were sacred cows. I've written some things that were very negative about religion. I attacked Vietnam veterans in a piece--that's had a lot of hate mail coming in."

These successes drove him to a larger stage. "I decided at the end of this past semester that I'd like to wash my hands for the moment of formal education."

The Scroll's press run is about 1,000, Asher said. Wrapped in rubber bands, the scrolls are distributed at downtown colleges and a couple of spots in Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Issue four, out this week, carries a reprint of his Vietnam veterans screed. Why? I asked. Because he's light on staff, and it was already in the can, he said. "And because I believe very passionately in it."

Asher's beliefs run deep. "Pages are fascist," declared issue one.

Constant reader David Peterson told the Sun-Times the other day that they'd just published another plagiarist. Not much gets by Peterson, a radical critic of the mass media, least of all anything written by Daniel John Sobieski.

Like Peterson, Sobieski writes frequent letters to the editor, albeit ones of archconservative orientation. But occasionally Sobieski's views receive the loftier billing of commentary. On April 22 a Sun-Times Forum carried his tribute to a law that allows Floridians to tote concealed weapons. At the time Illinois' General Assembly was considering similar legislation.

Predictably reactionary, thought Peterson on reading the piece. He soon thought worse. While thumbing through recent issues of American Rifleman and American Hunter seeking their perspectives on the militia movement he came across an article by Marion Hammer, first vice president of the National Rifle Association, that both these NRA journals carried.

"I have numbered each of Sobieski's paragraphs, one through ten, accordingly," Peterson wrote Leslie Baldacci, the Sun-Times's editorial board member responsible for the weekly Forum. He urged Baldacci to compare these passages with bracketed portions of the Hammer article. The most telling parallels:

Sobieski: "Though opponents of concealed-weapon laws deny that citizens lawfully carrying firearms for protection deter acts of crime, research conducted for the U.S. Department of Justice suggests otherwise. When asked: "Was there ever a time in your life when you decided not to commit a crime because you knew or believed that the victim was carrying a gun?' 40 percent of felons said yes.

"Comparative crime rates in the FBI's 1993 Uniform Crime Report clearly make that point. The violent-crime rate is 22 percent lower in states with concealed-weapon laws than in non-permitting states."

Hammer: "Though carry law opponents deny that citizens lawfully carrying firearms for protection deter acts of crime, research conducted for the U.S. Department of Justice strongly suggests otherwise. When asked, "Was there ever a time in your life when you decided not to do a crime because you knew or believed that the victim was carrying a gun?,' 40% of felons said "Yes,' with three-fourths of them saying this had occurred "a few times' or "many times.'

"Comparative crime rates clearly make that point. The violent crime rate is 22% lower in states with Right to Carry laws vs. restrictive states."

Peterson reminded Baldacci that her former boss, Mark Hornung, had submitted his resignation after plagiarizing from the Washington Post. "It seems to me," Peterson wrote, "that the Sun-Times is honor-bound to publish some kind of apology to its readers for the crime that it has allowed Daniel John Sobieski to perpetrate."

When I called Baldacci I found her troubled by the similarities, though not as appalled as Peterson encouraged her to be. If she'd known better she wouldn't have run the piece as written. "Do I regret that I do not read American Rifleman magazine and am not enlightened?" she asked rhetorically. "A lot of people read it, but I do not have that luxury."

The Sun-Times, she told me, has viewed Sobieski as something of a resource. Forum pieces aren't paid for, and the woods aren't full of contributors. "It's an age where there are dwindling numbers of people who bother to take pen in hand and fire off a missive to the papers," she said. "Which is a grand tradition, but fewer and fewer people do it--and even fewer do it well. We've run things of Sobieski's before. There hasn't been a problem."

Sobieski, whose number is unlisted, knew I was trying to reach him but didn't call me. He did talk to Baldacci. "He sounded, you know, surprised and apologetic," she said. "He said mea culpa." Last Saturday's Sun-Times carried an acknowledgment that Sobieski had "neglected to credit American Rifleman magazine as a source on several points. "I regret the oversight,' says Sobieski. "It wasn't intentional."'

"For whatever reason, they like this gentleman's material," mused Peterson, who's gotten nowhere trying to break into Forum from the left, aside from one piece that ran "in edited form" in 1992. "But the thought that he neglected to give his sources is just ridiculous. He just thought he could put one over on them."

Suppose 21 young women had been strangled in Lincoln Park in the last 18 months. Well, not all in Lincoln Park--some as far away as the Gold Coast and Belmont Harbor. Suppose the 21 unsolved crimes hadn't been committed in identical fashion, so there was good reason not to lay every last one of them at the feet of a single unknown killer. Even so, women in the neighborhood were getting terrified.

Would the media have laid off?

Instead, the women died in and around Englewood. The City News Bureau--the local wire service--reported every death to local news desks, and by mid-April WMAQ AM's managing editor, Tom LaPorte, had decided "there were too many of these things to ignore." But it took a community meeting two weeks ago in Alderman Shirley Coleman's offices to get the rest of the media stirring.

Actually, says Steve Huntley, metro editor of the Sun-Times, back in March his paper had "started calling over to the Police Department about the word going around about a serial killer. The people we touched base with were very good, very reliable sources. Each time they said there was no evidence a serial killer was on the loose in Englewood."

LaPorte heard the same thing from police, but he interviewed residents and ran stories anyway. "I never used the word "serial,"' he says. "I said police are comparing similarities in the murders of as many as 40 African-American women in Chicago."

After two suspects were arrested and charged with eight of the murders, the Sun-Times asked in last Sunday's Morningline: "Have the police done a good job in investigating the Englewood murders?"

Monday's results: 72 percent said no. Next question, except the Sun-Times didn't ask it: What about the job done by journalists?

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

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