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Better news for octogenarian media luminaries still full of beans comes from Dan Haley, the old owner of Skyline—the weekly paper that covers Chicago's lakefront neighborhoods from River North to Lincoln Park—and Ron Roenigk, the new owner. They tell me Skyline is not going to die and Ann Gerber is not going to go away.
"Of all the crazy things about Skyline, the greatest pleasure was getting to know Ann Gerber a little bit," says Haley. "I had all these preconceptions of what Ann Gerber was like, and she was just terrific. I pictured her being a little society maven sort of person, not the circles I travel in, but she is altogether down to earth and incredibly connected. So it's been a real pleasure. She's not a kid, but she cranks out copy and she hits her headlines."
Says Gerber, "I realize the fact I'm a gossip columnist makes me suspect and certainly not as desirable as people who do hard news." But, she asserts, "gossip is just an extension of people's talk. Gossip is news. Besides, I print true gossip."
Gerber and Skyline go back a long way together; she began writing a column for the Lerner chain, Skyline's original owner, in 1950. Lerner launched Skyline in the 60s, and aside from a brief, tempestuous sojourn at the Sun-Times in the 1980s, she's been a Skyline fixture ever since. Now Roenigk talks about running her on the front page.
Says Roenigk, "She's been doing this reporting in this format longer than I've been alive." He's 54.
Says Gerber, "I think I'm the long-running columnist in the world, at least in this country."
Haley's the publisher of Wednesday Journal Inc., which picked up three one-time Lerner papers—Skyline, the Booster, and the News-Star—from the Sun-Times Media Group in 2008 and sold the Booster and News-Star to Roenigk's Inside Publications a year later. Roenigk coveted their revenues from running legal notices. Last month Haley announced that Wednesday Journal could no longer continue publishing Skyline either, or the Chicago Journal—the handsome, elegantly written broadsheet it had launched 12 years ago to cover the South Loop, West Loop, and Little Italy.
Wednesday Journal got in touch with Roenigk, who again seized the moment. He bought Skyline for a song—he'll share the proceeds with Wednesday Journal for the first few months—and if Wednesday Journal can't find a new owner for the Journal, Roenigk's prepared to expand Skyline's circulation into those areas so he can run the Journal's legal notices too.
Early in the process of creating Chicago Journal, Haley looked around for a designer who could give it the look he was after—not that he could put into words what that look was. He came across a small ad for a designer named Phillip Ritzenberg—"he must be older than Ann Gerber," says Haley. He tells me, "I said, 'We're looking for a paper that has a genuinely retro look but is thoroughly modern,' and I thought, 'That doesn't make any sense at all.' And he said, 'You know, I think I know what you're talking about.'"
He did. The peach-colored broadsheet Ritzenberg came up with was stunning, and he wound up redesigning all the Wednesday Journal papers. I've got a recent copy of Skyline on my desk. It's a tabloid stuffed with the legal notices Reonigk likes so much, but the first page is airy and handsome. The Booster in my neighborhood was just as attractive until Roenigk took it over and transmogrified it into the Inside-Booster. But Roenigk says Skyline will remain Skyline, and though it'll become a quarterfold like the Inside-Booster, he's talked to his art director about retaining most of its current typography.
Gerber's glad to hear Roenigk's decided not to turn her paper into an Inside. "I think we are a little classier," she says. "When I talked to him last week, he hadn't decided what he was going to call it."
Skyline can't afford not to look good. It's got Ann Gerber's gossip, and readers who are here today and gone tomorrow.
"It's a different market than we're used to," says Roenigk. "It's not a community in the sense of people who are born there, spend their life there, and die there. It's the Gold Coast, Streeterville. Very transient neighborhoods."
Very wealthy too—meaning it's possibly an awkward fit for a publisher proud of how little he spends. "We have no debt," says Roenigk. "We spend what we can and squeeze out a profit whenever we can."
He shut down Inside Publications' office in Lincoln Square four years ago and now he runs the company out of his home. "I still have this whole recession-depression mentality," says Roenigke in a phone conversation. "It's just me and my dog here. The staff comes and goes. Right now I'm in the bedroom working on my computer."
Ann Gerber has already been over. "She had a Coca-Cola. She's a sharp cookie. She is not missing a step."
Gerber even has dreams and ambitions. This spring she intends to enroll in a fiction-writing class, in hopes of returning to the novel she wrote 63 pages of a couple of years ago. Her plot sounds like a dandy: the couple's old and fabulously wealthy, and each may or may not be scheming to murder the other. Paranoia reigns. Of course the story's inspired by people Gerber knows.
She doesn't know Milt Rosenberg but she's a fan of his. "He had a wonderful program," she says. "A long time ago, I have a feeling I was on his show, but I don't remember what for. Probably for gossip."