All the News That's Cheap to Print
"That I'm not thrilled about the budget situation goes without saying," said the Tribune's editor Howard Tyner. "That it means that the Chicago Tribune as we know it is going to end is nonsense. We have vast resources available to us."
But fewer than Tyner deserves. Just two weeks ago the Tribune Company announced that third-quarter earnings had jumped 24 percent from the same quarter in '93. The company's newspapers were primarily responsible, and of these the Tribune is still the horse that pulls the cart: it produces a third of the company's $2 billion in annual revenues.
Instead of being thanked the paper was Brumbacked. To be Brumbacked is to be upended and shaken by the heels until even more coins drop from pockets into the palms of shareholders. The term honors CEO Charles Brumback, a hero to the industry for the example he recently set squeezing costs to protect profit margins during some of the bleakest seasons newspapers have known.
Now the one large cloud on the Tribune's horizon is the soaring cost of newsprint. The paper mills are finally rebounding from several years of depression, and the Tribune faces newsprint costs in '95 that could exceed this year's by $25 million. If '95 corporate profits are to exceed '94's--and corporate Brumbackians decree they must--that money must be recouped. A good place to look for millions of dollars is the editorial budget.
So the Berlin bureau and the Toronto bureau are being abandoned, while Moscow is being reduced from two correspondents to one. The travel budget has been eviscerated, and some syndicated features will be eliminated. As of January 1 the paper will change noticeably, readers be damned.
"Everybody at the Tribune is shaking their heads and saying, 'What the fuck is going on?'" says a reporter. "We can use the momentum [from '94] and become whatever we want to become. Instead we're trying to become the Sun-Times. Maybe now we'll become a better local paper. We'll have to, because nobody's going anyplace."
Whether the decree originated with Brumback himself is unclear, apparently even to Tyner. Brumback established a corporate culture fixated on cost cutting, but he separated himself from the effects of it by several layers of management. Tyner reports to publisher Jack Fuller, who reports to executive vice president of the Tribune Publishing Company Joseph Cantrell, who reports to executive vice president of Tribune Media Operations James Dowdle, who reports to president of the Tribune Company John Madigan, who reports to Brumback. Any of these suspects could have ordered the cuts.
"Many things are laid at his door," said Tyner of Brumback. "That's convenient. But there are many layers of people in the company. I suspect the CEO of the company isn't sitting around micromanaging the Tribune."
Tyner suggested we wait and see how bad the carnage turns out to be. He said the cuts we'd heard of "have been discussed along with other things. The budget hasn't been finalized. Some things were done that were reversed."
But as foreign editor Jim Yuenger told us, "I keep hoping against hope, but I'm hanging on by my fingernails."
Tough Strike Talk
While at the Sun-Times . . .
The Newspaper Guild unit there has set a strike deadline of 12 PM next Monday, the day before the elections. Not coincidentally, guild employees at Pioneer Press announced an identical deadline. Pioneer is also run by the Sun-Times Company, which is now owned by the ax-waving American Publishing Company.
The 250-some guild members at the Sun-Times have been working without a contract since October 1. At Pioneer the old contract expired 16 months ago.
A strike deadline is a bomb that ticks triennially at the Sun-Times, and last-minute rescues are a part of company lore. But give any disaster enough chances to happen and it will. One week before zero hour the two sides remained an immense distance from each other on wages--management offering a 1 percent increase spread over three years, while the guild asked for a 9 percent raise the first year and 6 percent the second of a two-year contract--and on night-differential pay.
Astute bargaining in previous years brought the guild a 10 percent bonus for any shift that fell even partly between 7 PM and 6 AM. Management has been offering a bonus of no more than $10 for each shift that starts between 4 PM and 6 AM.
"The bottom line is, we think this will take $1.3 million out of the pockets of employees over the three-year life of the contract," said Dan Lehmann, a guild spokesman. Over that much money, he said, the guild would walk.
"We did the little-boat thing," said Achy Obejas, born in Cuba. "We escaped in a 28-foot boat in 1963. My mom has really suppressed a lot of the trauma involved, and last August when the exodus was going on she really freaked out. She had nightmares reliving that whole journey over and over again.
"I was six and a half. I remember it, but in a much different way from my parents. It's very impressionist and surreal. You know how kids don't know what's going on but can smell emotion. The first day there was an unexpected storm, and the extra gasoline fell overboard. We drifted for quite a while until an oil tanker picked us up."
Both her parents were PhDs. In Miami her father became a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. Fortunately Washington stepped in, offering the couple a chance to go to Indiana State College and earn American teaching degrees. Obejas grew up in Michigan City. From the beach on a clear night she could see the lights of Chicago. "I thought it was like the Emerald City."
There was one other Cuban family in town. "But they were pro-Castro, so my father prohibited us from talking to them. Better to be lonely than traitorous."
Today Obejas is a free-lance writer identified particularly with Latino and gay and lesbian topics. After a long association with the Reader she's now writing the After Hours column for the Friday Tribune. And she just became a literary figure.
A mood of displacement winds through We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?, which is a collection of short stories, most unusual for a first book. Even more unusual, Obejas had no difficulty finding an agent and a publisher, Cleis Press. Schmoozing at a literary conference led to both. The first edition sold out.
How do you account for this success? we asked.
"The first thing is you notice the damn book," she conceded. "It is so colorful." The eye-popping cover is the work of Nereyda Garcia-Ferraz, a local artist.
"The other thing is there really is not a whole lot on the market about Latinos in the U.S. I also think there's very little minority gay literature--I don't know why I'm using the word 'minority'; I hate it--and most of what you find is African American.
"There's like a handful of Latinos who are suddenly getting a lot of attention. Sandra Cisneros. Luis Rodriguez, and Ana Castillo. We're all Chicagoans."
"My own personal theory is because we all have the experience of living here. We've all broken out of our specific little ethnic ghetto. Every other city has its one dominant ethnic group. In Chicago you have the interesting phenomenon of having this bouillabaisse of ethnic groups and Latino types living side by side. You can go to a Mexican restaurant in the heart of 26th Street and look at the jukebox, and, yeah, it'll be mostly rancheras. But, yeah, you can look at one column and it's salsa. I read stuff from Cuban writers in Miami--it's so damn local in terms of its scope and its sensibility that it's almost scary."
The virtual baseball season is finally over, and there's no consensus champion. The White Sox prevailed in the Sun-Times's computer-simulated World Series, besting Atlanta in six games. But banker Bruce Winge's nothing-but-his-own-brain-cells countersimulation, done for Hot Type, ended in the traditional heartbreak: the Montreal Expos kept the crown in Canada by edging the Pale Hose 5-4 in the 12th inning of game seven.
The shattering defeat of the hometowners is not incontrovertible proof that Winge's methods are superior. But it makes a powerful argument.
Jay Mariotti, writing on deadline Monday night: "Most alarming is how the new-age Bears played like pansies on a night two warriors were honored." A copy desk is supposed to block this kind of language. The Sun-Times let it pass and repeated the offense in the headline.
Sun-Times reporter Neil Steinberg, author of If at All Possible, Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks, is out with a more profound book, Complete & Utter Failure. The section we particularly admire examines the National Spelling Bee, which, as Steinberg observes, inflicts on nine million children a year humiliating public failure at a skill they're too young to know is useless. Steinberg notes in passing that the "Chicagoland" competition is sponsored by the Tribune. That's where 60 years ago Colonel McCormick rode to the rescue of the antiquated English language with "fantom," "lether," "crum," "trafic," and "frate."
The Sun-Times has resigned from the Newspaper Association of America, saving itself about $200,000 in annual dues. But don't expect Charles Brumback to take Tribune austerity this far. He's vice chairman of the NAA and expects to get the top job next spring.
Actually, Oliver North was right: President Clinton isn't his commander in chief. A president is commander in chief of the armed forces, not of the country. North may not grasp this healthy constitutional distinction, but the media should.