By Michael Miner
Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me
On September 20 the Sun-Times paid a small price for a valuable wake-up call. Architecture critic Lee Bey had a pretty good story to run that day. He was the only reporter who'd found out that the next day--September 21--Mayor Daley intended to announce a new program to protect and rehab Chicago's bungalows. Forewarned, the Sun-Times prepared to make the most of Bey's scoop: photographs of architectural details, a floor plan, even a rendering from a 1922 magazine ad were rounded up to decorate it.
At the last minute the paper decided--with Bey's blessing--that the story would be even more effective if it were published the morning of Daley's announcement instead of the morning before. Unfortunately, nobody thought to tell the Web-site editors. The story held out of the newspaper September 20 showed up on-line, alerting the Tribune to what was going on. The next day the Tribune had a story in print too.
It was no big deal. Bey's story was better. When he realized he'd lost his exclusive he'd gone back to work and come up with a new paragraph in which the mayor reminisced about growing up in a bungalow. Besides, the Tribune had none of the Sun-Times's illustrations. What's more, stories about bungalows aren't how the dailies keep score. But because the next lost exclusive might be catastrophic, the Sun-Times immediately reformed its procedures. The Web-site editors were ordered to call the news editor every night at ten and go over the list of stories scheduled for print. Reporters called it the paper's "fail-safe" system.
One month later it was put to the test. Sunday, October 22, was the day of the Chicago Marathon, and Sun-Times photographer Brian Jackson took a spectacular picture. He'd positioned himself ahead and above the field of 30,000 runners and shot the vast wave just after it began to move. When editor in chief Michael Cooke saw the photo a brilliant idea hit him: he would wrap the Monday morning paper in Jackson's picture, blowing it up to such a size that it covered not only the first page but the last.
There was one problem. Investigative reporters Abdon Pallasch and Chuck Neubauer were all set to go with a big story on how state supreme court justices from Cook County--principally Justice Charles Freeman--rewarded friends and political cronies by appointing them to the bench. The story was scheduled to run on Monday and it was too good to be anywhere but on page one. But Jackson's photograph couldn't wait. Even a front-page box alerting readers to Pallasch and Neubauer's story inside the paper would spoil the visual effect of that sea of marathoners.
So Sunday night Cooke made the obvious decision. He took Pallasch and Neubauer's story out of the Monday paper and moved it to Tuesday.
At ten o'clock Sunday night the Web-site people called news editor John Dodge to double-check Dodge's list of stories going into the Monday paper. When Dodge didn't answer his phone, the Web-site people left a message on his voice mail asking him to call back if there were any changes. Dodge didn't call back. He'd taken the day off to run in the marathon.
"On the bright side," says Pallasch, "this gave us a situation where we were able to provide the main subject of the story with a copy of the story 24 hours in advance of publication--and he didn't find any errors." Justice Freeman read the story on-line Monday morning, and someone who called the paper on his behalf to complain about its "snotty tone" didn't accuse it of any factual errors. That could only have been good news for the paper's libel attorneys.
On the not-so-bright side, once again the Tribune saw a Sun-Times story a day too soon. There are lots of bodies in the Tribune newsroom to throw at this kind of a breach, and by Tuesday morning, when Pallasch and Neubauer's story was all over page one of the Sun-Times, the Tribune was in print with its own version, written by Maurice Possley and Robert Becker, with contributions from Rick Pearson and Christi Parsons.
For 24 hours the Sun-Times newsroom believed things could have been worse. The Tribune's story, which didn't approach the Sun-Times's for detail, had been buried in the Metro section. But Freeman was running for retention on the supreme court, and on Wednesday the Tribune published an editorial that said he didn't deserve it. Drawing almost exclusively on Pallasch and Neubauer to make its case (not that it acknowledged this), the Tribune asserted that Freeman "is absolutely blind to the critical need to fill the judicial ranks with the best and brightest lawyers."
The blunt judgment threw the Sun-Times newsroom into a funk. The normal culmination of an investigation is the hard-hitting editorial that places a newspaper's full institutional authority squarely behind the revelations of its own reporters. There hadn't been a peep from the Sun-Times. The long Tribune editorial validated the Sun-Times story but also took it away.
A week later the Sun-Times editorial page finally had something to say on the subject of Charles Freeman. It supported him for retention.
Fluff With a Cherie on Top
"It's just a cute page, a socially oriented page put out on a slow Saturday," says marketing boss Jaclene Tetzlaff, defending Cherie's Night Out, the Sun-Times's new weekly picture page. It's a page that makes the ongoing Chicago-Scene.com snapshots of guys and gals in clubs look tony by comparison.
The newsroom, where the first reactions ranged from shame to contempt, has nothing to do with Cherie's Night Out. The marketing department puts the page together, and Tetzlaff told me this week that she'll add some sort of label that says so. This confession won't clear up everything. Astute readers will go on wondering how marketing managed to commandeer an entire page of the Saturday paper and what it hopes to accomplish with so many tiny snapshots that aren't quite in focus.
Cherie's Night Out is an attempt to duplicate the magic of Susie's Night Out, a picture page launched in the Vancouver Province in June, soon after Michael Cooke left that paper to become editor in chief of the Sun-Times. Susie's Night Out is much admired by Sun-Times publisher David Radler.
Susie Wall, a freelancer, produces Susie's Night Out. It runs twice a week and once in a while takes up two whole pages. "We're covering the party scene in Vancouver from a fresh young perspective," she says. "We're very fashion heavy and not too heavy on the gossip side of things. It's much more fluff and fun and pure entertainment."
"Can you find me a Susie?" Cooke asked Tetzlaff.
A star was right under their noses. The marketing department's Cherie Quarles is, virtually by definition, a hip young nightlifer, having recently married rapper Brian "MCB" Quarles, who's performed with Liquid Soul.
Quarles didn't want to talk about her new adventure. Tetzlaff explained that Cherie's Night Out "creates goodwill among the arts-and-entertainment crowd. We'll be covering openings--theater openings, restaurant openings. Actually Cherie and I had a fantasy to have Barney's or someone sponsor our clothes."
Susie's Night Out quickly ran into trouble with the newsroom's union, which objected to a pseudoeditorial feature written by a freelancer and is taking the Province to arbitration. Cherie's Night Out has met exactly the same resistance. A meeting was scheduled this week between the Chicago Newspaper Guild and Sun-Times management to discuss the paper's growing reliance on outsiders to stuff the news hole with trivia.
Cherie's Night Out is one example. Chicago-Scene.com is another. A third is Next, a new Sunday magazine that's scheduled to debut in the Sun-Times November 19. Editor Christine Ledbetter has been shaking the trees for freelancers. An advertisement posted on an on-line jobs bulletin board says, "Looking for fine writers with solid reporting skills who can spot a trend months before....Chicago Sun-Times is the eighth-largest newspaper in the country and the home of writers such as Roger Ebert. Style is everything."
Last week I wrote that the Sun-Times's endorsement of George W. Bush--by no means the first Republican that newspaper ever supported for president--nevertheless signaled that the Canadian tories who now run the Sun-Times were asserting their political convictions. I continue to believe that. But let the record show that the Daily Southtown, which has its own editors but is also owned by Hollinger International, endorsed Al Gore.
A couple of op-ed columnists on opposite sides of most arguments recently disappeared together from the Sun-Times. "We had a little disagreement," says former senator Paul Simon. "I was going to do a column about why I was for Al Gore. Anyway, they were not inclined to do that. One thing led to another."
Simon dealt with editorial-page editor Steve Huntley, who "was very gracious about it," but Simon gathers the decision "came from higher up." He's philosophical. "They have taken on a more conservative coloration," he says. "I have an idea that some of the things I've written may have gone against the grain there. I can't complain. They ran my column for three months and paid me $300 a column."
Huntley says Simon was on his way out regardless, thanks to a general housecleaning. The same with Dennis Byrne, who left the Sun-Times after almost 20 years there--the last two of them as a freelance editorial columnist--and had spent ten years at the old Daily News down the hall.
The first of his occasional Tribune columns ran on Monday. "Let's just say that about the time that the Sun-Times didn't want me anymore, the Tribune decided it wanted me," he E-mailed me. I've always appreciated Byrne, who can make me so angry I can't rest until I've worked out in my head exactly why he's wrong.
If you're the sort of wonk who not only reads the Audit Bureau of Circulations' semiannual release of newspaper circulation figures but compares the ways they're reported in different newspapers, you might have spotted an oddity two weeks ago.
According to the Sun-Times, its own daily circulation increased slightly while the Tribune's dipped "an average of 1.2 percent to 618,097 copies."
According to the New York Times, the Tribune's daily circulation for the April-September reporting period averaged a rounded-off 618,100 copies.
According to the Tribune, its circulation increased 0.6 percent to 661,699.
It's a case of apples and oranges. The figure the Tribune now reports to the ABC isn't the average of its daily circulation; it's the average of its Wednesday through Friday circulation. Advertisers want their ads in Wednesday and Friday newspapers, because on those days readership soars--Wednesday has the food sections, and Friday the entertainment guides. The Tribune has been taking measures to push those Wednesday and Friday numbers even higher--such as giving away those days' papers to Sunday subscribers.
On Monday and Tuesday, Tribune circulation averaged 552,595, down 4.5 percent from the previous year.
If you looked hard enough through the full ABC report you could find that out, and then make an apples-to-apples comparison of the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and other dailies. That's what the Sun-Times and New York Times did. The Tribune's numbers are legitimate--they're just different. Advertisers know what they're looking at.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.