The thing about a newspaper has always been that it's a place where an ink-stained wretch can go and be understood; and if its newsroom stinks of cheap coffee and nicotine (true of them all until a few years ago), and if the pay is wretched (more true now than ever), there was a chair you could park your butt on and a keyboard nice enough to believe that whenever you raised your fingers you had something great to say. Most importantly, you were with friends. The theme of the party at Bartolini's was "RIP Newsroom," and the reason is that after Wednesday there will be no SouthtownStar newsroom: the editors will come downtown with all the other Sun-Times Media editors and work in the company space at the Apparel Center, and the reporters will work out of their homes and cars.
And libraries. And Starbucks. And Caribou Coffees. Wherever they can plug in a laptop. "They're making lists of places they can go to work from," says former Southtown photographer Judy Fidkowski. "Which I found kind of cute."
Fidkowski took dozens of pictures at Bartolini's, like the one above, and posted them online. You will readily see that daily journalists are not beautiful people but their smiles are genuine. They are the smiles of old comrades happy to get back together even if there's no shortage of missing arms and legs. The picture at the top of this article might be the only one Fidkowski didn't take. She knows she handed her camera to someone—though she can't remember whom—because she's in the picture. She's the woman in the blue sweater right of center.
Fidkowski was laid off in 2001. Sun-Times Media is the residue of the international newspaper chain Hollinger International, which owned dozens of Chicago properties back then. At the time, according to the Breeden report, a 2004 study of corporate finances, Hollinger's former number one and number two, Conrad Black and David Radler, were fleecing the company of more than $400 million.
As I mentioned in the Reader, Fidkowski e-mailed an AP story on the Breeden report to former colleagues who'd been laid off with her. She highlighted a paragraph that said: "The report concluded that the amount of money looted from Hollinger by Black and others over the period of 1997-2003 represented just over 95 percent of the company's entire earnings during that time."
Fidkowski commented, "This AP piece finally tells us what happened to our jobs. . . . Gee, the layoffs at Midwest Suburban Publishing [a Hollinger subsidiary] were in the beginning of 2001. And they 'looted 95% of the company's entire earnings from 1997-2003.' . . . We were robbed, folks—we were robbed. I thought that I had finally gotten over it, and then I read this. We were robbed of our dignity, our income, our self-esteem by a bunch of low life, greedy 'robber barons.'"
Not that she was wrong about Black and Radler—they'd both soon be in prison—but the forces beginning to rob ink-stained wretches of their livelihoods went well beyond old-fashioned greed. The fellow on the far right in the above picture—the short guy with glasses—is former SouthtownStar business editor Bob Bong. He and dozens of others—including SouthtownStar managing editor Dennis Robaugh—were laid off in 2009. The then-named Sun-Times Media Group was in bankruptcy.
I talked to Bong at the time. "It's death of a thousand cuts," Bong told me. "It used to be a really good regional newspaper. I guess you've got to blame Conrad Black, but at least while Conrad Black was robbing the place it was making money." Bong said that for some reason a security guard saw him out the door, as if otherwise Bong might steal something. "There's nothing left to steal," Bong said.
Fidowski did some checking for me and said that back in 1997 the newsroom—then on South Harlem—contained about 200 journalists from the Southtown and other Hollinger papers in the south-suburban region. "Do you know how many reporters they have now?" said Linda Lutton. "Four."
Ten years ago Lutton, after a few years writing features for the Reader, joined the Southtown to learn daily journalism. She was assigned to the south-suburban education beat. Her biggest story was a series of articles accusing Thomas Ryan, superintendent of the Sauk Village school district, of stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the district to put his daughters through college. In 2005, the year she left the Southtown, Lutton and two other Southtown reporters received the Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting, a national award given by the Education Writers Association.
"A newsroom is where younger reporters learn from veteran reporters," she says. "I learned a ton. Everybody's wildly busy. The only opportunity you might have to talk to someone is when everyone's standing at the vending machine. I'll tell you something Phil Kadner told me when it became clear I had Tom Ryan, it was Phil Kadner who really pulled me back, who told me you don't get to feel like that. You do your job and put down what you find and that's all you get. You don't gloat. He made me realize this is part of your job—just to report this out and be as measured about it as possible. And he told me, 'You'll write a million more stories that aren't exciting like this. And that's our bread and butter. And you've got to figure out how to keep moving forward. And keep writing day to day.'
"Phil is very, very important to me," says Lutton. "He's a wonderful writer and he's completely dedicated to the towns he covers and telling their stories."
Kadner's a columnist. He could be working at one of the big dailies, but he likes it where he is. Or was. But now—sans newsroom, library, archive of old stories, and vending machine—there is no is. Kadner has nowhere to offer his services as mentor or institutional memory. "He'll now be assigned to his home," says Lutton. "I can't imagine what a loss it'll be."
At least he won't be alone there! Kadner's wife, Jeannie, the SouthtownStar's longtime office manager, was just laid off. Kadner didn't say much about himself to Lutton at Bartolini's, but he mentioned his wife. He was philosophical, she says. He reflected, "You don't need an office manager if you don't have an office."
Update: An earlier version of this post contained a link to photos on a Facebook page. That page was restricted, though, so we've removed the link.