By Michael Miner
Chained to Their Desks
A press release is perfect for big news, unless it's news no one really wants to brag about. Then it spreads the old-fashioned way--by word of mouth.
Last March the Tribune announced big news and good news: "the largest digitization effort ever undertaken by a newspaper." When completed, said the Tribune, its "archive database will contain the images of 15 million clippings of content from the early 1920s through 1984." (Tribune stories published since January 1985, when the paper launched computer filing, have been available on-line for years.)
Not only that, but the database would offer the "full text and image" of every front page, and the full text of every obituary and death notice, going all the way back to 1849. "Our plan," associate editor Joe Leonard was quoted as saying, "is to market these archives to a world-wide audience beginning next year."
Researchers should cheer this news--and so should Tribune Company stockholders. It's the sort of daring exploitation of new technology the Tribune has become famous for, and it could turn the paper's archives into a major profit center.
Yet reticence rules. Aside from a brief item by reporter James Coates in the March 22 business section, the Tribune has published nothing about its vast undertaking. A lot of the old stories are being electronically scanned into the Tribune computer system, but articles on microfilm that's too degraded for the lens must be retyped. When asked this week who's doing this massive job of keyboarding, the Tribune didn't want to talk about it.
"All I can tell you officially is that we contracted with Progressive Technology Federal Systems [a Maryland firm]," said a spokesman. "We have no say in how they get the job done."
Back in July a much fuller account of the digitization marathon had appeared in Ohio's Columbus Dispatch, and the slow outward creep of awkward information had commenced. A local typographer who read the story mentioned it a few days later to Steve Berman, president of the Chicago Typographical Union, at the national meeting of union typographers in Florida. This month Berman described the Tribune project in the CTU newsletter, and a union member sent the newsletter to me.
And that's how I found out that the manual labor required to extend the Tribune archives back to 1849 is being provided by Ohio prison inmates paid 39 to 47 cents an hour. Before the inmates took over the work, it was being done by laborers in India paid comparable wages, the Dispatch reported.
Despite the Tribune's no-need-to-bring-that-up posture, this is a win-win arrangement. The 41 inmates of the Belmont Correctional Institution outside Saint Clairsville, Ohio, are learning a trade that could change their lives. "This is a constructive way for me to do my time," an inmate supervisor sent up for a 1985 murder told the Dispatch. "It's a benefit all the way down the line." Progressive Technology Systems is a good company, he added. "They haven't talked to me as an inmate. They talk to me as a person."
According to the Dispatch, Progressive Technology paid the Ohio penal system a million dollars for prison labor, which has worked out so well that the Tribune contract is going to be extended to two more prisons in the state. The Belmont prisoners work in air-conditioned quarters adjacent to a shop where other inmates tear up scrap cloth for eight hours a day and make about a fourth the money.
The Tribune has always been modest about the economies that have characterized its high-rolling expansion on the Web--for example, its adamant refusal to pay writers extra for republishing their stories on-line. Now it refuses to toot its own horn about redeeming the wayward whom it pays less than a tenth of the minimum wage.
Berman noted in his newsletter, "Now, if you care to use the information that the inmates have been producing, it will cost you during the prime time hours...$1.25 per minute for access time. Or, if you can wait, $0.15 per minute for non-prime time. I can't wait until the next time the Tribune runs a story about prison labor in China and how awful it is that we import such goods."
That's pretty hard on the Tribune. If the paper had to pay a union wage of $19 an hour to its keyboarders, the archive project probably wouldn't exist. Berman's numbers, however, are much too easy on the Tribune. You can no longer search its archives for 15 cents a minute, or even for $1.25 a minute. That fee structure pertained only to the Tribune's AOL edition, and the Tribune just abolished it. The archives now can be entered only through the newspaper's Web site, where articles must be downloaded on a pig-in-a-poke basis for $2.95 each. You can't tell if it's an article you actually want until after you buy it.
"It was a lot of work at our end and at AOL's end to keep the archives up and running," said Owen Youngman, the Tribune's on-line editor. "It's inefficient for us to support multiple ways of doing things."
The change surely makes sense from the Tribune's financial point of view, but it's a kick in the ribs of archive regulars. "It's such a total disaster for me," says a Chicago journalist who does lots of on-line research. Going to the Web page "unfortunately means paying $2.95 per article as opposed to 15 cents a minute for unlimited downloading." The Tribune's chasing us all back to the library.
Zazz Cash Snatched
Jim Coates didn't know that prison labor was hefting his paper into the next millennium. Likewise, the Sun-Times's Jeff Zaslow was still unaware two months later that more than 70 grand had disappeared from the proceeds of this year's Zazz Bash.
The news affairs office of the police department says the money was in one of four bags taken to the Sun-Times after the fund-raiser, which was held in four River North clubs on Friday night, September 17. The following Monday, September 20, the bags were delivered by a United Armored Services truck to the Bank One in the Loop.
But on September 30 the director of security for the Sun-Times notified police that $72,500 in cash had disappeared. Exactly when and by whom the loss was discovered remains unclear. Large bundles of bills brought to a bank for deposit are sometimes posted to the customer's account before the money is actually counted. The missing funds represent about half the total revenue of the Zazz Bash and almost all the profit, which was to benefit the Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Patti Dudek, who manages the trust, says she got a check and no one's asking for the money back. The trust received the check for a little more than $77,000 on September 24--presumably before the Sun-Times realized that the money to cover it wasn't on hand. Apparently the check was made good.
As for what happened to the missing money, Dudek wouldn't comment. Neither would officials of Bank One or United Armored Services, or Mike Weaver, director of security at the Sun-Times, or corporate attorney Linda Loye, who wouldn't acknowledge that any money had ever disappeared, even though police say it hasn't been found yet.
There's been no coverage in the Sun-Times.
Everyone benefits when journalists give advice on how the world should be managed--and when some other bunch is managing it. If reporters ruled, they might come up with a world that was more fun to cover than live in.
The latest evidence came out of major league baseball last week. In a shocker, Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez nudged out Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez for most valuable player in the American League. Headlines screamed. "Surprise Choice" (New York Times). "Debatable decision" (Chicago Tribune). "Debates rekindled" (Boston Globe).
Martinez, the unanimous Cy Young Award winner, "was seen by some to be the favorite for the MVP," said the Globe. The Tribune hyperbolized, "A controversial vote that will be lamented for generations in Boston." The Times predicted, "The bizarre nature of this year's voting, then, assures that the selection of Rodriguez will go down as one of the most controversial in baseball history."
So what happened? Rodriguez had a good year. Martinez had a spectacular year. Martinez received eight first-place votes, Rodriguez only seven. But 2 of the 28 voters didn't vote for Martinez at all--he wasn't even at the bottom of their top-ten lists. As the Times explained, Martinez was victimized by a school of thought that says, "Because pitchers are given their own honor, the Cy Young Award, they should not be considered for the m.v.p. award." One of the two recalcitrant voters had dropped out of sight by going on vacation. According to the Globe, the other, La Velle E. Neal III, "was inundated with calls" from aggressive reporters who demanded an explanation. Answered La Velle, "Basically, I'm not a pitcher-for-MVP guy."
So the big story, the story America's baseball writers did their damnedest to get to the bottom of, wasn't simply that Rodriguez was elected most valuable player. It was that Martinez was defeated because of a philosophical schism among the voters.
What the baseball writers weren't so quick to point out is that the Most Valuable Player Award has been around since 1931, the Cy Young Award since 1956. Forty-three years have gone by, and the voters still haven't agreed on the ground rules.
Who are these guys? Well, they're baseball writers, one member of the Baseball Writers Association of America from each big-league city. The reporters who dug out the story behind the story of the 1999 AL MVP vote are the same bunch--or sit a desk away from the same bunch--who did the voting.
La Velle E. Neal III covers the Twins for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. When Rodriguez won the MVP, Neal got to write a column explaining himself. "Writer had his reasons," said the headline, and Neal explained, "Once I decided to not vote a pitcher MVP, there was no reason to list Martinez anywhere in my top 10. That would have been hypocritical." Making the most of its opportunity, Neal's paper immediately opened an on-line chat room where fans could argue the merits of his logic. Most concluded (convincingly, I must say) that he was an idiot.
All this drama and excitement would have been avoided if baseball writers had agreed beforehand about what they were voting on. Or better yet, if they'd traveled the high road and simply covered the awards, letting somebody else decide who would get them. But who wants to avoid drama and excitement? We saw journalism at its liveliest as the best minds of the press box got to the bottom of their own fiasco.
Give reporters the chance, and that's how we'd run the world.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.