Does the Tribune Love Its Free-lancers?; Saying No to Woodstock; Our Flagging Vigilance | Media | Chicago Reader

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Does the Tribune Love Its Free-lancers?; Saying No to Woodstock; Our Flagging Vigilance


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Does the Tribune Love Its Free-lancers?

The trouble with Chicago magazines, speculated James Warren recently in the Tribune's Tempo section, could be "editorial ennui." It could be a lack of "a cohesive community here of magazine editors and writers . . ."

It could be umpteen other things.

One of which could be that "Chicago just doesn't have the free-lance talent to sustain many publications."

Read his story carefully, and you'll see that Warren himself doesn't necessarily think this. But blood is boiling at the hint that his editors do. For Warren went on to say, "Some Tribune editors wince when the subject of freelancers arises, asserting that they turn away reams of ideas and pieces because they're so poor."

Well, sure they do! Everyone's a writer; we turn away the same reams over here at the Reader. They're turned away at Vanity Fair and Esquire and Rolling Stone, too. What does that tell you about the real writers? Not much.

"It was an unnecessary cheap shot," said frequent Tribune contributor Magda Krance (making a distinction from the necessary cheap shot, which is a cornerstone of journalism). What really riles Krance and her fellow free-lancers is the disingenuousness of Warren's anonymous editors. Without us, they say, that big, fat, sassy Tribune would never hit the streets.

Tempo, Tempo Woman, Tempo DuPage, Style, Weekend, Friday, Travel . . . What would they be if they had only their staffs to rely on?

Tempo, actually, would be what it is. Tempo editor Mary Umberger took a hard look at her budget last winter and decided to push her staff of eight writers a little harder and stop paying for piecework. "I'm in Warren's camp," she said, "in agreeing in general that the free-lance submissions I get are not very good."

Despite making huge profits, the Tribune operates on the premise that these are hard times, and that editors like Umberger with large staffs had better use them.

Other sections, though, don't have large staffs, or any staffs at all. "I couldn't put out Friday without free-lancers, and a lot of other sections couldn't do without them," Randy Curwen, who's Friday's editor, told us. "There are some damn good free-lancers out there. If I had the chance I'd hire them immediately. And so would a lot of other editors around here."

We don't think Curwen will get that chance. The newspaper business is moving in the opposite direction. Publishers have come to appreciate the value of the writer-for-hire who never takes a paid vacation, never dips into the kitty for medical benefits, and who, when times are tough, can be sent packing with no bother about severance or unemployment comp. Fifteen months ago, the Tribune started up Tempo DuPage, an eight-page regional Sunday section, and didn't hire a single new person. Free-lancers write virtually everything in it.

"I feel I have accumulated a really strong network," Denise Joyce, who edits Tempo DuPage, told us. "These writers I'm using I feel hold their own against any writer I've dealt with." In June, Joyce threw a luncheon for her regulars at the Morton Arboretum. This was not a nod to useful riffraff; it was a salute to the future of journalism. Koky Dishon, the Tribune's associate editor for features, came out from the Tower to honor Joyce's team.

"I have never met such an energetic, sharp group in my life," Dishon told us. Dishon created Tempo DuPage. She also created Friday, and has gone to similar parties for its contributors. Again--"They're very good. These are people who, if you had the opportunity, you would hire."

"Because we have no openings," she doesn't. There are no openings because the Tribune is happy the way things are.

"Let me tell you why I think free-lancers are important," Dishon said. "They bring many different voices to the paper--you can go hire two people, and pretty soon those two people will find niches and do the same story over and over. If you use the same money and find different people, you'd get different voices and different stories of the community. To me, that brings to the paper something you can't have on staff. That's what newspapers need--they need a variety of voices."

We asked Dishon what she thinks of the city's magazines. "I don't see any city magazines that I think are as exciting--let me put it this way--that are as exciting as Chicago is."

Could the Tribune's free-lancers, the ones anonymously sideswiped in Warren's piece, fill a magazine that were?

"Could they? Yes. I think whether sections and magazines are exciting depends on how exciting the editors are. It's no big mystery."

Saying No to Woodstock

Woodstock slouches toward America to be reborn next week, and NAFTAT is ready for it. Eugene Dillenburg just filled us in on Boycott the Past Week, August 14 through 20, and absolutely no one will be too busy to participate.

"Let me tell you what we're not doing," said Dillenburg. "We're not having a demonstration. Demonstrations were the 60s and we don't want to repeat anyone's old mistakes. And we don't expect to shut down classic rock overnight, although we would dearly love to. We're not naive enough to think we have that kind of power.

"So what we are doing is calling on our membership and the public at large to take a personal approach to the boycott. For one week, just be aware of how nostalgia has permeated our culture. Every time you hear an oldie on the radio, make a mental note. Every time you see a TV commercial with Motown in the background, or every time you see a tie-dyed shirt on the street, just make a mental note."

At the end of the week, Dillenburg guarantees, "you will be amazed and perhaps sickened."

Resistance doesn't get any more passive than that. Anti-60s activists--to coin a paradox--are encouraged by NAFTAT to do more. "We all know that the media is going to be saturated with Woodstock remembrances," said Dillenburg. "Time, Life, Rolling Stone, Oprah Winfrey--everybody is getting into the act. So we're encouraging anybody who would like to to write in to these magazines or call up these talk shows and remind those people that the 60s aren't everything they're cracked up to be--and more importantly, they're over!"

Regular readers of this space will recall that NAFTAT stands for National Association for the Advancement of Time, which was cooked up by Dillenburg and a couple of cronies, Bruce Elliott and John Kenney. First hailed in this space, its message then spread by the AP and USA Today, NAFTAT became for a brief period this spring more famous than NATO or the USMC.

"We had like over a hundred [media] appearances that we know of," says Dillenburg. "We were in the New York Times, Washington Post . . . We started getting letters from Norway, so we figured, OK, something must have run there."

NAFTAT's celebrity tailed off, but picked up again as the Woodstock anniversary approached. The LA Times ran something, and Dillenburg was juggling calls from San Diego and Cleveland as we spoke. A press release NAFTAT sent out July 14 was a factor in the rebirth.

July 14? we asked. Did you choose that date intentionally? Dillenburg didn't see what we were getting at. The French Revolution, we pointed out, astonished to have caught him napping.

"That's really nostalgia," Dillenburg marveled. "That's way back." No, NAFTAT hadn't thought about that. "We were trying to time it so it would arrive around the 20th anniversary of the moon walk. Of course, August 14 is a very nostalgic day as well," Dillenburg went on, rallying impressively. "It's the 20th anniversary of the British occupation of Northern Ireland. Nobody's talking about that."

We asked Dillenburg if NAFTAT is prepared to distinguish between thinking usefully of the past and wallowing in it. "What I find myself going back to lately is the idea of substance and style," he pondered. "Take, for example, the 40s. The 40s gave us World War II. The 40s gave us the zoot suit. And 40 years later, it's fairly easy to tell which was a major turning point in world history and which was a silly fashion . . ."

Similar distinctions about the 60s are needed to cut through the smog of sentimental confusion, Dillenburg observes.

"People think because they wear tie-dye they're making some statement about world peace and civil rights. Whereas in fact, tie-dye is just the 60s zoot suit."

Our Flagging Vigilance

No one's happier than Hot Type to see a great nation gird its loins, yet we're puzzled that America intends to pounce only on flag burners. There are hardly any flag burners. On the other hand, entire multitudes of folks sometimes fail to stand straight and take their hats off smartly and spit out their gum when Old Glory passes by. And George Bush would let them go scot-free!

And what about the national anthem? Surely Eugene Dillenburg will forgive us for reminding you that back in 1968, what really fried millions of Americans wasn't assassinations and it wasn't riots--it was how Jose Feliciano sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the fifth game of the World Series in Detroit. Jose Feliciano was damn lucky not to have been strung up from the foul pole. And yet 21 years later, there are still no federal laws against this kind of behavior!

The light of liberty should shine evenhandedly into every single dark corner where such insolence lurks. Otherwise, what is the point of writing patriotism into the Constitution?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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