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Another Shift in Tempo/Lazy Like a Fox

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By Michael Miner

Another Shift in Tempo

Blair Kamin's long piece on Meigs Field last week came as a revelation: the Tribune's Tempo section wasn't merely edging away from a mistake but striding off in a new direction.

Maybe I should rip the Tribune for placing Kamin's story, a heartfelt endorsement of the mayor's plan for Northerly Island, back in features. Articles and columns supporting the airport all seem to run in section one, while this long-lost other side got planted in the back. When transportation writer Gary Washburn contributed a lengthy counterargument to Kamin three days later--a day at Meigs Field focusing on the pilots who use it--his story showed up on the paper's front page.

But by appearing in Tempo, Kamin's brief signaled a sea change in that section. Say what you will about architecture as a plastic art, about landscape design as a cultural issue, the central truth of the Northerly Island debate is that it concerns urban planning. And urban planning is the kind of subject Tempo was reinvented to avoid a year ago.

That's when the Tribune revamped the Sunday arts and entertainment section, dedicated Tempo strictly to arts and entertainment, and put both sections under the editorship of Rebecca Brown. In so doing the Tribune fixed something that wasn't broken. On the contrary, under editors James Warren and Rick Kogan Tempo had been home to some of the most diverse, engaging writing in the paper.

I asked Brown about the Kamin piece. She said, "That probably had an edge to it that, were I staying in the job, I might have looked at it and thought, 'That's not really a Tempo story.' There was a time I would have been the first one to say, 'This seems like a great Metro centerpiece.'"

Last Friday was officially Brown's last day as editor of Tempo and Sunday's Arts & Entertainment. She's moving sideways and up to a job she's already been working at nearly full-time for weeks, "market-segment manager for entertainment." Her new boss is the Tribune's vice president for developing businesses. Brown's happy.

What became clear halfway through her year as daily and Sunday arts czar, she told me, is that the combined job was too big for her. "I'm probably 50 percent responsible," she told me. "I wanted and encouraged that structure. We were all a little naive." She's going to be replaced by two people, and in the meantime entertainment editor Geoff Brown and the other editors of the two sections will be running them. It was Geoff Brown who penciled Kamin's essay on Northerly Island into Tempo.

Last November I described the new Tempo as "pinched around the intellectual edges." Banished from it, Rebecca Brown told me then, were human-interest stories "that don't really have a pop-culture slant to them." Now those stories are returning. "Perhaps we're trying to interpret more broadly the type of stories we're putting in there," says Gerould Kern, who took over as assistant managing editor for features several weeks after last year's new format was introduced. "[Kamin's piece] was an example of a couple of things I'm looking for. It's obviously a topical issue. It's timely. It has to do with architecture as an art, also with the historical implications of Daniel Burnham for the city. It also has a strong, informed point of view, which should be a hallmark of Tempo. There was an art involvement in this, Burnham's vision of creating a human landscape."

He went on, "These things are organic and evolving. I don't think there's been a real change of course."

Yes and no. Given enough evolution, a salamander turns into an orthodontist. Joanne Trestrail, a Tempo editor who just resigned, said the section's editors began feeling the wind shift a couple of months ago, as stories that didn't meet last year's guidelines were passed down from on high to be published anyway.

"Suddenly stories were appearing that none of us had anything to do with," she said. "Whenever there was a gathering of us, we'd ask if there was some new definition. When there are three million phone calls from writers it helps to have a definition of what the section is supposed to be about. But we never got a clear definition."

Yet evidence of revisionism became overwhelming. Monday's lead story was a discussion of private prayer in American life. "Prayer...has come out of the closet," Connie Lauerman began, then she cited Patti Smith recalling what her mother taught her and Bill Moyers's recent TV series. But the references were perfunctory. Rock and roll and public television have been Tempo staples for a year now, but Lauerman's article wasn't about either of them. It was about faith.

Lazy Like a Fox

A Hot Type reader writes periodically to denounce Channel 32 news, which apparently she can't live without. "I know I've whined about this before," she acknowledged in her latest E-mail, "but Fox is just so flagrant I have to mention it to you again. I refer to Fox's practice of taking feature stories from the Sun-Times and Tribune and ripping them off the next night, pretending it was all their idea."

Carping devotees of Channel 32 command little of my sympathy, but I considered her evidence. On Monday, September 9, Richard Roeper published a column about a new Homeboy line of shoes he'd spotted in a neighborhood store. One $60 style--called Corpse--especially troubled him. Roeper traced the Homeboy line to a German manufacturer, and reached the North American importer, who explained that Corpse "reflects the young street skate lifestyle."

Roeper, not as young as he once was, mused in his column, "In a world where kids are shot dead for their jackets or their sneakers, I'm missing the humor in a shoe called Corpse."

A day later Channel 32's Rhonda Guess filed her own report. "What's in a name?" she wondered. "If the name is Homeboy, controversy....A style of Homeboy sneakers with the word Corpse written inside the shoe and on the box are kicking up quite a controversy."

Guess talked to a couple of Homeboy consumers and to the same distributor Roeper had talked to. "All the word means is friend, compadre, patriot," said the distributor. Guess wasn't so sure. "The look is turning heads," she closed, "but some say it may be sending the wrong message."

Aside from Roeper's day-old column, the existence of which she declined to acknowledge, Guess apparently could find no evidence of the "controversy" she claimed was brewing. At least she offered none. When I called to ask if Roeper deserved the credit he didn't get, she turned me over to her managing editor, Gavin Maliska.

In no mood to be badgered over trifles, Maliska pointed to the tradition of Chicago news shops picking up each other's stories. He was right about that, and he could have added the corollary tradition whereby proprietary new developments are conjured from handfuls of dust. "Should we say that this story sprang from the germ of an idea taken from a Richard Roeper column?" Maliska snapped. "I don't think it's necessary. If somebody's stealing a story verbatim they should acknowledge it or they would be in deep trouble, don't you think? But Rhonda had something different."

Though my reader had scorned Channel 32 for heisting an idea, I found myself admiring the station for its panache. Guess's report was no simple rip-off of Roeper's column. It was a rip-off of Roeper's column, plus the comments of a couple of kids sporting Homeboy apparel, plus--an inestimable adornment--the pronouncements of the chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Bennett Leventhal: "If it wasn't meaningful, they wouldn't buy this shirt."

Guess: "One psychiatrist says what kids wear says something about their values."

Leventhal: "And is this the message that you want to give, even if you may not believe it yourself?"

I had no idea what Leventhal was talking about, but by bringing him on Guess raised Roeper's simple story to another level. I called Leventhal. He said his few seconds of airtime had been extracted from a 20-minute interview. In context, he told me, it would have been clear that the delphic question he asked wasn't about kids who wear Corpse but about the indulgent parents who allow them to.

Leventhal said TV stations call him all the time. "I used to refuse to do this stuff, and then I'd see people who weren't particularly expert do it and what they'd say was ridiculous. Even though I might do a 20-minute interview which leads to nothing on the air--or more likely 17 seconds or 12 seconds--in the process of the discussion I can teach the reporter a little something about the issues. Not infrequently I'll change the tenor of the story, based on their getting the facts."

The original tenor is invariably maximum shock value, Leventhal said, while the revised tenor may acknowledge a scintilla of complexity. "You don't always win, but if you win some of the time it's worth it."

It's possible Leventhal made some headway with Rhonda Guess. Despite the visual shock value of the T-shirts she displayed proclaiming "Pervert," "Pimp," and "Fuct," Guess declined to sermonize that a generation stands in need of immediate rescue. I sensed that Leventhal's own inclination is not to compare the Homeboy line unfavorably to a general-alarm fire.

News Bites

The Tribune's worthy quest for diversity has led it to take the long-awaited step of naming a Latino to its editorial board. What's surprising is who that Latino is: Alfredo Lanier, editor of Exito, the free Spanish-language weekly the Tribune publishes in River North, a good 14 blocks from the Tower. With an editorial board meeting to attend most mornings at ten, Lanier will be hailing a lot of taxis.

He'll also be delegating some of his duties at Exito, which in its fourth year hasn't reached a full head of steam. The paper's still losing money, and last January Mario Aranda, the original publisher, was fired. Luis Lewin, the Tribune Company's vice president for human resources, filled in until this week, when a new publisher arrived--Liza Gross, a native of Argentina with years of editing experience who'd been teaching journalism at Florida International University.

I get mixed reports on Lanier as an editor, but he was strongly endorsed by the new editor of Exito's principal competition, La Raza. "He puts out a fine product," said Jorge Oclander. "He's done a fine job guiding Exito to good quality."

Chicago magazine editor Richard Babcock won't be around the office much for a couple of months; he's watching the store at New York magazine, where he used to work, until it finds a new editor. K-III Magazines, which owns both city magazines, fired New York editor Kurt Andersen late last month. Andersen, a founder of Spy, was brought to New York two and a half years ago to give it an edge, which apparently made Henry Kravis edgy. The 1980s' notorious king of the leveraged buyout, Kravis is a partner in the company that controls K-III.

Managing editor Shane Tritsch will be running Chicago in Babcock's absence. Of more concern than who's giving orders is who's staying around to follow them. In the last six months three of the seven senior editors--Dale Eastman, Jeanne Rattenbury, and Gretchen Reynolds--have quit, along with political editor Greg Hinz, associate editor Kiki Yablon (who's at the Reader now), and assistant editor Lynne Nugent. Other editors preceded those.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rebecca Brown photo by J.B. Spector.

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