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Who Killed Marshall High's Newspaper/ Sun-Times's Contract Talks Go Quietly



By Michael Miner

In 1996 the Austin Voice came to the Board of Education with a proposal: the community weekly offered to help establish student newspapers at the eight west-side public high schools in its circulation area.

Brad Cummings, who's editor of the Voice, says Pershing Road liked the idea and offered seed money. But it was up to the Voice to find schools that wanted to be involved.

Just one did, Marshall High, and in June Keepin' It Real rolled off the presses. It was 16 pages long, and the writing, photography, and design were done by students. There was a column by the principal with the headline "The Real News Is the Good News," a report on the senior prom, a column on homosexuality and another on violence, a page of sports, two pages of creative writing, and a couple of students wagging their fingers suspiciously in the front-page photo montage. Cummings helped with copyediting and ad sales, Voice publisher Isaac Jones with the photography. Steve Sewall of the Chicago Civic Media Project, the Voice's partner in this experiment, was constantly at Marshall working with the 30 or so kids who signed on.

"The first week of this school year," Cummings told me in a recent letter, "I received a call from Marshall's principal, Donald Pittman, whose first words were '501.' I asked him if he was selling jeans now. He said that 501 is the size of Marshall's freshman class. They were expecting 250, but Keepin' It Real caused such a sensation across the West Side that they registered twice as many freshmen as they expected. 'We are the hottest school on the West Side,' Pittman told me. 'Every other West Side high school showed declines in freshman enrollments except us. Everyone wants to come to Marshall!' He attributes the newfound popularity to the favorable publicity created by Keepin' It Real. He asked us to come back and continue our work with his students, and we enthusiastically agreed, pending approval and funding from Pershing Road."

The Voice hoped to expand into as many as five more high schools this year, says Cummings. According to his letter, schools CEO Paul Vallas "personally assured me he would see we got into any schools we chose."

It didn't happen. Not only didn't the Voice launch student papers at any new west-side high schools, but the program's dead at Marshall too.

"Call the Chicago Board of Education's office of communications," says Pittman. "I didn't make that decision. The decision came from her office. It was a good venture for us, but the board was financing half of it for us, and once they did not sign on for their half, naturally we couldn't keep it going." He adds, "It was just a great thing at the right time."

The "her" Pittman refers to is Reanetta Hunt, the board's new communications director. Cummings says Hunt killed the program by telling Vallas that this year it would cost the board $400,000. "I don't know what she's talking about," says Cummings. The single issue of Keepin' It Real "came in at $18,000, which was absolutely exorbitant." But, he adds, the cost was so high because there were no economies of scale. This year, he says, "we'd have stuck to $1,200 per issue from each school, matched by $1,200 from the school board."

To demonstrate what she was talking about, Hunt faxed me the Austin Voice's proposed budget for this school year. Cummings had projected a healthy $349,920 in total expenses, most of it in salaries for such positions as a program director ($45,900) and a publication supervisor ($27,000). On the income side of the ledger, true enough, the contribution from each of the six schools was pegged at $1,200 an issue for nine issues, or a total of $64,800, plus another $64,800 from the school board. That left a huge deficit, of which $108,000 supposedly would be covered by revenue from ads sold by the Voice and student salesmen. And $112,320 would roll in as foundation and corporate grants. The Voice and the public schools "will formulate a joint strategy for securing this amount," Cummings mentioned in a footnote.

This footnote didn't get past Hunt. "We don't have the staff for that," she says. "We certainly don't have the funding for that. If we could do this we'd support it 100 percent. But we don't have the funding."

Cozette Buckney, the school system's chief educational officer, says the school board actually ponied up $36,000 for Keepin' It Real--Marshall needed a lot of new equipment before it could even think of producing a paper--reaching into its own pocket because the proposal came to the board in the middle of the school year, when Marshall's own funds were already committed. But if Pittman truly wanted to keep the paper around, Buckney says, he could certainly pay the entire $2,400 an issue from his discretionary fund. This might come as news to Pittman, who tells me Marshall could have afforded only six new issues of Keepin' It Real, even at $1,200 an issue.

John West, the Vallas troubleshooter Cummings bargained with, says Cummings wanted a financial commitment from the board that was beyond its means. And Buckney says, "We did not start this to have something we continually fund. The school system has never funded school papers. We've never been in a position to say to a school, 'We'll continually support your program.'" Besides, she says, the school board publishes its own paper, the Chicago Educator. "There's no point in us paying for two newspapers."

The new editor of the Chicago Educator is Reanetta Hunt. "We're in the process of working up a plan to allow students to come in and work on the paper as we go to print," Hunt says. "We already have a student page."

Sure, says Cummings. "Reanetta Hunt wants to put out some sort of PR piece and get the senior honors-English girls at Lane Tech and Whitney Young to write some poem, and she'll print it. Well, that's not our program."

I've been told that at a staff meeting earlier this year Hunt passed around copies of Keepin' It Real and said the people behind it wanted money from the board, but she intended to co-opt their program and keep the money for the Educator. I asked her whether she recalled making any such statement, and she was horrified. "We have a budget for the Educator," she replied indignantly. "There's been no new infusion of money since the Austin Voice or as a result of the Austin Voice."

All I can write with certainty is that there are no new student newspapers this year on Chicago's west side. One paper briefly came to life at Marshall High and was quickly extinguished. For the issue it lasted it was a blessing to a troubled school.

Sun-Times's Contract Talks Go Quietly

For the first time in memory the Sun-Times didn't report the settlement of its own contract negotiations with the Newspaper Guild. Perhaps, as Dan Lehmann, chair of the guild's Sun-Times unit, conjectures, this shows "the lack of interest, if not hostility, of the company to one of its major unions." But it might simply show that this year's talks never became must-cover news. Whenever the Sun-Times teeters on the brink of a strike, TV crews gather outside to see if the guild's deadline day will bring a new contract or a walkout. This year there was no call for Minicams.

"The guild had a history of being confrontational with the company," Lehmann told me when I asked him to reflect on the bargaining. "That was for a variety of reasons. The single most important was that, going back to the Field days, there was an ongoing position in the company to be confrontational with the guild. Whatever the ownership, they've always managed to start negatively, with what could be characterized as insulting initial proposals. The guild as a matter of course became prepared. So we have this arsenal of weapons that has been used, from informational picketing to leafleting of advertisers to writing advertisers and stockholders. We became a very aggressive union out of a need to maintain the integrity of the contract."

As usual, the 1994 negotiations took both sides to the edge of the abyss. Lehmann says guild members told him afterward, "'If you can find a better way to negotiate a contract, please do it.' I took those voices to heart. I made an early appeal to Ted Rilea [the paper's chief of labor relations] over a year ago to find another way this time. While these contract negotiations had their fits and starts, we did indeed find another way."

The two sides attempted "interest-based bargaining," a technique that had been touted to Lehmann by Department of the Treasury officials and unionized employees he met on his old federal beat. "The idea is you limit the number of issues to about a dozen and find in them areas of mutual concern," Lehmann said. "It works well on things like decent desks and chairs, keeping the place clean, et cetera. Where it starts to fall apart is when it comes to money. There's a razor-thin area of mutual agreement when it comes to money."

While interest-based bargaining held sway, the newsroom witnessed the phenomenon of joint union-management communiques going up on the bulletin boards. But when the economic proposals hit the table a "huge sea change" swept the paper. "When we got to economics we're still looking at it from the guild's standpoint, where the company wants to gut the contract," Lehmann said. "There was a huge, immediate shift in the way we started addressing our members. I did a posting."

He'd handled the guild postings up until then, and he'd kept them "straightforward and news oriented." But it was time to step aside. "When interest-based bargaining wouldn't get us there and time came to rally the members, I unleashed Nic. I put up a posting that said, 'Nic is back.'"

Unit vice chair Charles Nicodemus, the moral center of the newsroom and the hound of heaven at the heels of Patrick Huels and Edward Burke, was probably negotiating his last guild contract. He's expected to retire before the new contract expires in 2001. "He has poured his soul into the guild," Lehmann said of Nicodemus, and this negotiation was his swan song. And as it happened, Nicodemus questioned the high road Lehmann was taking to agreement. A master of brinkmanship, Nicodemus had been radicalized (Lehmann's word) by the way the Field brothers shut down his old paper, the Daily News, back in 1978, and he harbors deep doubts about management's willingness to do anything decent voluntarily.

Nicodemus's reappearance on the bulletin board galvanized the troops and "caused some consternation on the part of the company," Lehmann told me, but the rhetorical turn to defiant eloquence didn't signal a strategic shift. "It was to let people realize what would happen if we didn't mobilize," Lehmann said. "But I had in the back of my mind the need for another way to get to the endgame. When we got down to the last two nights [of marathon bargaining, in mid-November], I remain convinced we got as much as we were going to get by threatening to use our weapons as we would have gotten if we'd used the weapons. In the process we spared the membership and company a great deal of grief and hopefully started down a different road."

What the union got was a contract that kept the Sun-Times newsroom a closed shop--the company had put an open shop on the table the day negotiations opened, but the guild simply refused to discuss it--protected the pension plan and night differential; raised base salaries by 2 percent, 2 percent, 2.5 percent, and 4 percent during the coming four years; trimmed merit raises; and cut the pay of inexperienced new hires. Before the vote Nicodemus spoke passionately against the contract, but the guild ratified it by the overwhelming margin of 108 to 28. Abandoning Nicodemus felt like apostasy to some of the same members who voted to sign, and they wondered what would become of their guild once his spine vanished from the newsroom.

Having had his say that night about the contract, Nicodemus told me he now wished to hold his tongue. But Lehmann said, "He disliked the merit caps. He disliked the new apprentice rates. He disliked the decision to not force the contract issue with the company. With all of the weapons available to us, he thought--and I respect him for this--that we possibly could have gotten a better deal with the company by taking it on tooth and nail. And I disagree with that."

Lehmann believes he's paid a high price for his union activities. "I used to be a reporter. I used to work days. Now I'm on the desk, and I work until two in the morning. I have to take the long view that this too will pass. But it hasn't passed for the last year and a half. And there's no sign I'm getting off nights anytime soon." He's 46, his children are grown, and he and his wife never see each other. When he was young and starting out, he worked nights. He did it for years and had thought that stage of his career was over.

It's not just union activism that's put him back there. "In the downsizing of newspapers some adults have got to be around, somebody who knows the difference between Kinzie and Kedzie and has an idea of who Michael Bilandic was. Because there are so few of us, there isn't an option of putting a horde of younger people on nights--because that horde is gone. In '83 there were 345 guild members when the paper was sold to Murdoch. Today there are 225 members."

News Bites

There's no law that says a paper can't make itself useful. The headline across the front page of Tuesday's Sun-Times said "Cab strike today." The Tribune story ran in the bottom left corner of page one, with the cute but barely decipherable headline "Irate cabbies set to put it in park to protest city rules."

But I'm describing Tribune editions that sell in the city. Out in the far-flung suburbs the taxi story ran on page six of the Metro section or not at all. Has the Tribune determined that suburbanites who take the train into Chicago don't ride cabs once they get here?

The Tribune Company has shut down Exito!, its Spanish-language paper circulating in the Miami area, after six years of unprofitable operation. Chicago's Exito!, which the Tribune Company launched here in 1993 and modeled after the Florida version, will continue to publish. In a prepared statement the company asserted its confidence that the Chicago weekly will eventually become a "financially successful newspaper."

"There's something strange," says Luis Rossi, publisher of Chicago's competing weekly, La Raza. "When Hispanic papers are owned by Hispanics they're growing, but the ones owned by large corporations are not doing well. I don't know what it is, but you can say maybe they don't know the market."

I caught up with the Tribune's "Preps Plus Basketball '97-98" section when a stack was dropped off in the lobby of my daughter's high school. Number of pages devoted to boys' basketball: 9. Number of pages devoted to girls' basketball: 2. Number of pages devoted to a league-by-league analysis of boys' basketball: 4. Number of pages devoted to a league-by-league analysis of girls' basketball: 0. Two-year record of girls' team at my daughter's school: 27-5.

Something to think about. Philip Hersh on a retired figure skater in last Sunday's Tribune: "Janet Lynn was not a mere star but a quasar, glowing with primordial energy on the edge of consuming shadows, transcending time and space in a universe of her own singularities." o

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

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