By Michael Miner
All the News That Fits...
In the past quarter century two of Chicago's last four dailies folded, and now I'm sometimes asked to comment on the lost world of Chicago journalism. I respond, Have you looked lately at just about any downtown street corner? It teems with life. There are the Tribune and Sun-Times boxes, but also the Herald box, the Southtown box, the New York Times box, the USA Today box, the Reader box, the New City box, the N'Digo box...You might see 10 to 15 boxes cheek to jowl.
But though my eyes perceive a thriving garden, others see only spreading weeds. The fate of Maxwell Street taught us what happens to landscapes Mayor Daley deems unruly. When Daley was in San Francisco last year for the national mayors' conference he greatly admired some sleek, low "multiple news racks" on view there. Bring these to Chicago, he thought, and those squat, ugly boxes that clutter our streets can be dumped in the river.
For weeks City Hall engaged in fruitless conversation with Chicago's publishers over introducing the news racks here. The talks went nowhere for many reasons. The papers foresaw a loss of control, a concern any paper worth its salt immediately raises to a constitutional crisis. Within broad limits, a paper is free to place its honor boxes where it wants them, redeploy them to chase changing markets, service them, and adorn them with placards screaming each day's scoop. But a paper in a multiple news rack might share it with a dozen others. That paper can't unilaterally relocate anywhere, it can't mount placards, it can't even maintain its news rack on its own.
The proposed racks reek of subdued good taste, something as foreign to newspaper culture as origami. Those brightly colored honor boxes were plopped down on corners to trumpet, not whisper. Though I'm told the news racks now being designed for Chicago evoke the Prairie School architecture of the great Walter Burley Griffin, the fact is the racks all look a little too much like jewelry display cases for the papers' tastes. Newspaper people do not believe that quiet elegance moves their product.
Yet ironically, on the back of these handsome racks the firm that manufactures and maintains them will make its money by selling advertising. Even if this advertising is deemed inappropriate by the papers for sale within, those papers will have no control over it.
And so the papers found themselves protesting that between themselves and the public--a sacred space ruled by the First Amendment--two interlopers were elbowing in. One was City Hall with new rules and regs; the other was the news racks' French manufacturer, JC Decaux, a rank parvenu in newspaper vending, with no history in news racks beyond the model it had built for a competition in San Francisco.
Bridget Gainer, a City Hall budget analyst who's negotiated with Chicago's papers, says Chicago picked Decaux for a pilot program on the recommendation of San Francisco news agencies, and for its experience building what urban designers call "street furniture." But when the model arrived in Chicago and the papers here looked it over, they weren't happy.
Some protested that the individual boxes weren't even shaped right. The Reader, for example, can stuff about 90 papers in each of the ten boxes it has scattered around downtown. The new boxes would hold 10 to 15. Then we'll give you more boxes, the city countered. But why go to the trouble? The proposed news racks, in the view of Chicago's suspicious newspapers, were a solution where there wasn't a problem--and the racks were sure to create one.
Then push came to shove. On May 28 the International Pow Wow of the Travel Industry Association of America begins in Chicago. It's a meeting of tour operators and travel writers who, according to Crain's Chicago Business, could fetch the city $300 million in travel bookings in 1999. Daley wants to show these people a shipshape town. The city finally declared unilaterally that a pilot program was about to begin and that multiple news racks would be in place along Michigan Avenue and State Street downtown by May 22.
"There is a very clear perception on the part of the city that without deadlines, and tough deadlines, this thing is dead in the water," deputy corporation counsel Larry Rosenthal stated last Friday, facing a hostile throng of publishers, attorneys, and circulation chieftains in City Hall.
If they were quick about it, Chicago's newspapers could have a say in the terms of the contract the city would sign with Decaux, but Rosenthal made it clear the train had left the station. Alderman Burton Natarus had already introduced an ordinance denouncing "visual clutter" and authorizing the pilot program with Decaux. This Monday brought a kangaroo court of a hearing before the City Council's Transportation Committee. On Wednesday the full council voted.
"Without an ordinance staring us in the face, progress was unacceptably slow," Rosenthal said at last Friday's meeting. "If you help us write a suicide clause we'll put it in. If you won't help us write a suicide clause we'll try to do the best we can without you." He was referring to contractual language dictating performance standards that Decaux would have to meet to keep the pilot program alive.
Rosenthal took it for granted that the council would promptly pass Natarus's ordinance and that the city would promptly sign a yearlong contract with Decaux. If the publishers wanted a seat at the table they'd have to settle for the plank available. The deal was done. "I take it as a given all of you oppose it," he said. "I assume you're all reserving your right to sue us."
At the Transportation Committee hearing CTA president Frank Kruesi spoke feelingly of an underacknowledged outrage: passengers--especially ones in wheelchairs--bumping into honor boxes carelessly placed at bus stops. Spokesmen for downtown community and business groups demanded lovelier neighborhoods and hailed the new racks, though some saw a certain perversity in turning the backs of the racks into billboards. Entrepreneurs applauded the city's bold vision of tomorrow and let it be known they wouldn't mind a chance to bid on the Decaux contract themselves.
Not in the cards, said Alderman Thomas Allen, chairman of the Transportation Committee.
A man from USA Today pointed out that Decaux has said it will hire one person to maintain the 60-some news racks that will be set up along State and Michigan. USA Today alone has 18 people maintaining its downtown boxes, he told the committee.
Decaux has estimated the cost of the prototype racks at $12,000 each. A reasonable price would be a third that much, said the USA Today man, adding that though Decaux is donating the units, if they weren't so expensive the company would be less compelled to advertise on them. The man said, "We're not in the billboard business, and we don't want placement [of USA Today racks] driven by commercial [i.e., advertising] considerations."
The man from the Tribune said San Francisco's trial run consisted of a dozen multiple news racks (one of which was made by Decaux, the others by competitors). Chicago's beginning with 60. This isn't a test, he said. "This is the future."
Spokesmen for the smaller, more occasional press pointed to a troubling clause in Natarus's bill that insists, "In no event may a publication be prevented from being distributed in at least one multiple newsrack at each intersection within a multiple newsrack area," yet continues ominously, "except as the result of a preference given to publications with five or more different daily editions published each week." Sounds bad for us, they protested.
Aldermen wandered in and out during the three hours the hearing lasted, paying little sustained attention to testimony that had no bearing on the way they already knew they were going to vote. After the last witness was heard the committee promptly approved Natarus's bill by unanimous voice vote.
Decaux makes a wide range of products. There are kiosks and bus shelters, and if you've been to Paris lately you've certainly noticed, probably admired, and possibly put to grateful use the gleaming white automatic toilets that succeeded the old pissoirs in the hearts of bladder-challenged boulevardiers. Before last year's mayors' conference Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco talked the firm into donating a half-million-dollars' worth of street furniture that Brown could showcase along a one-block stretch for visitors like Daley.
If the news racks are merely the nose in Chicago's tent, the City Council undoubtedly recognizes it's the proboscis of a friendly animal that speaks a familiar language. The San Francisco Ethics Commission reports that during the last six months of 1997 Decaux was second most generous of the city's lobbyists in making payments "to influence legislative or administrative action." To advance its interests, Decaux signed on Willie Brown's former legislative aide, one of the mayor's closest buddies.
When Decaux bid $40 million last year for the right to supply street furniture to Sydney, Australia, a certain past unpleasantness in Belgium came to light. But Jean-Francois Decaux, head of international operations, explained away the 1992 conviction of founder Jean-Claude Decaux and the one-year suspended sentence he received. Young Decaux said his father's record was expunged once he explained he'd simply been making campaign contributions. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the son acknowledged that Decaux willingly contributes to political campaigns wherever those contributions are legal. "Everybody does it," he said.
"They haven't contributed to the mayor's campaign," said Bridget Gainer. "We know that."
To sweeten its bid, Decaux pledged a million dollars' worth of free advertising for Sydney on its street furniture around the world. It won the contract. When Chicago's new multiple news racks begin promoting the 2000 Olympic Games, you won't have to wonder why.
Toni Ginnetti has restored the lost honor of the Sun-Times. The paper whose sports section was rebuffed last month in the annual Associated Press Sports Editors competition has laid claim to a greater prize. Ginnetti, possibly the most savvy observer of the horsehide sport this town has ever seen, won the coveted 1998 BAT award. Always a contender, the Sun-Times's crack utility reporter copped the BAT for the third time in six years. The 90s will be remembered as her decade.
The BAT--which every schoolboy knows stands for Baseball Acumen Test--is given by Hot Type each spring to the scribe who the year before least disgraced his or her profession in calling the impending pennant races. Some years, even the best is sorry indeed. But on April 1, 1997, Ginnetti, no fool, picked five of the six races perfectly. She knew that Cleveland, Baltimore, Seattle, Houston, and Atlanta would all win their respective divisions and that the New York Yankees (behind Baltimore) and Florida (behind Atlanta) would move on to the playoffs as wild-card teams. She missed only San Francisco's triumph in the NL West, but so did everybody else; nine of the ten pundits competing from Chicago's two dailies, Ginnetti included, picked the Giants last.
"Thank God--after our debacle," said the elated Ginnetti, with an eye to Tampa, where the daily Sun-Times sports section, hailed by the APSE as one of the nation's top ten in four of the previous five years, got zip in the latest competition. Ginnetti continued humbly, "I think Dave van Dyck is our sage. I always kind of compare mine to his, and if I'm off I think, 'God, I'm stupid!' You know what I've found? Sometimes I'm a year off on my picks. My wrong pick last year was, I think, San Diego, so I think I'll pick them to win the West Division this year."
Van Dyck, who copped his most recent BAT in '96, is indeed a distinguished laureate. (Last year he and Ginnetti each finished just one playoff team behind champion Bernie Lincicome of the Tribune.) But Ginnetti's perspicacity is without peer. "I could be cagey and say it's women's intuition, but that's not it," she told me. Coldhearted lucidity might be more like it. "At the beginning of last year there were some people trying to be optimistic about the Cubs. But I remember saying to someone at spring training, 'This is at best a .500 team, and they're one injury away from being horrible.' And Mark Grace got hurt, and they were horrible."
Ginnetti led a strong overall effort by team Sun-Times. Jay Mariotti and Joe Goddard finished right behind her, each calling six playoff teams precisely, and the entire squad, also including van Dyck and Mike Kiley, averaged a sparkling 5.0. By contrast, the Tribune lineup of Lincicome, Bob Verdi, Jerome Holtzman, Paul Sullivan, and Phil Rogers turned in a mediocre 3.6. If the APSE judges had had these results to ponder, the outcome of that competition might have been dramatically different. There's still something to be said in journalism for understanding what you're writing about.
Which brings us to the awkward subject of the Whiffle BAT, Hot Type's annual booby prize. In an unprecedented turn of events, last year Lincicome won that too, for showing so little understanding of the new playoff system that he picked a third-place team as a wild card. That isn't possible--not yet, even though quality has long since vanished as the gateway to the postseason.
As usual, Whiffle competition was keen, but no contender rang up an odder record than Mike Kiley. When the '97 season was over Kiley had called only two division races right. Yet such are the vagaries of today's pennant structure that five of the eight teams he picked for the playoffs wriggled into them anyway.
Kiley saw the White Sox winning the AL Central, followed by Cleveland, his choice as the junior circuit's wild card. Instead, Cleveland won the Central, while the Pale Hose turned in a season to forget. And in the NL East, Kiley picked Florida first and Atlanta the wild card--a flip-flop of their actual finish. Kiley even had Florida winning the World Series, though he was wrong about their route to the Fall Classic. I remember when there was one route only. To Kiley, the Whiffle. Others might say he shrewdly worked the system, but he just reminded me of everything that's wrong with it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jon Randolph.