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Giving From Spleen/Sympathy for the Sun-Times

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By Michael Miner

Giving From the Spleen

The needy of northwest Indiana are truly blessed. This year they're benefiting from dueling Christmas funds.

Gary's Post-Tribune has launched its Empty Stocking Fund while imposing a news blackout on the venerable Christmas Neediest Fund of the paper's unionized employees. But the union presses on.

"It's going pretty good," said Gary Newspaper Guild president Joe Conn earlier this week. "We went out and bought close to $1,900 worth of toys Friday and probably $500 worth of caps and gloves. We've got about 200-some-dollars' worth of candy canes and stuff. We'll be wrapping presents this Wednesday and probably distributing them this weekend."

Those figures are a far cry from the fat years, when the Christmas Neediest Fund was the only charity in the house. Beginning the holiday season with about $2,500 rolled over from '98, the fund has received a $1,000 contribution from the guild and another $1,800 from individual guild members. But only a couple of outside donors have been heard from. But then, the Post-Tribune hasn't let the guild tell readers that the Neediest Fund still exists.

"They seem a little grumpy about it," says editor Eileen Brown. She means the union rank and file, and she concedes that the paper might have retooled its holiday-giving machinery with a little more concern for their feelings. But a change had to be made. "There was a Christmas fund here for years, and frankly I thought, as the new person coming in, it was sort of a disaster. It was just poorly organized. It just wasn't very much fun. There were four volunteers who did all the work. Last year my son, who's 12, helped wrap the presents--because of last-minute disorganization they had people from the neighborhood in wrapping the presents. The only place to do the wrapping was in the basement. It was dark and dingy and gross. He comes back up after three hours of wrapping--he looks like a chimney sweep."

Conn rejects this critique. "It is not run like the German army," he allows. "We have volunteers who do everything, but you can't do 250 families, wrapping gifts for 900 kids, two to three gifts per kid--you can't do that being disorganized. It's extremely well organized. It may not look like the General Motors assembly line to her, but she didn't do very much to help. We wrapped in the basement last year, and she got upset because her kid got dirty in the basement. And we got stuck in the basement because the marketing director took the room we normally wrap in and wouldn't let us in."

Though management never sat down with the guild in the past year to discuss a change, Brown thinks an alert leadership would have picked up on management's displeasure. Yet on November 12 Conn, a reporter assigned to the Post-Tribune's Valparaiso bureau, wrote a letter to publisher Boni Fine as if all were well. He informed her that the Christmas Neediest Fund had been going strong for 27 years, that last year the guild had raised $12,245 in donations and spent $10,959 on presents for about 900 children, and that there was more than $5,000 still in the kitty to get the '99 campaign off to a flying start.

"We typically like to kick off the campaign with a story on Thanksgiving Day and follow it up with alternating stories about people in Lake and Porter counties, running 8 to 10 through Christmas Day," Conn wrote Fine. "On behalf of the Guild, we would again ask for your support."

Fine said no.

In 1985 the Post-Tribune had become the Neediest Fund's official cosponsor, and with the paper's muscle behind it, the fund flourished.

Meanwhile, relations got so bad between the guild and the old owners, the Knight-Ridder chain, that when Hollinger International took over a couple years ago guild leaders briefly perceived the new owners as an improvement.

The thaw didn't last. Contract talks began in March 1998 and made no progress, and by last summer an angry newsroom was boycotting the company picnic.

"They decided to have a guild meeting on the same day," says Brown. "OK, ha-ha. That's really funny."

"People don't want to go where they don't feel appreciated," says Conn. "We haven't had raises since 1993."

A year and a half later the talks grind on. And the fate of the Christmas Neediest Fund indicates that amity isn't prevailing.

When the Post-Tribune launched its new charity, Brown naturally decreed that it be the one touted in the heart-wrenching tales the paper carries each December. The Neediest Fund vanished from the Post-Tribune's pages. Editorial columnist Virginia Thrower reasoned that readers who'd given to the fund or benefited from it in past years deserved an explanation. Thrower, who'd been present at the fund's creation in 1972, wrote a column that waxed nostalgic about the old days when "our house in Gary's Miller neighborhood became a warehouse for toys, knit scarves, turkeys and canned veggies." Now that the Post-Tribune has pulled out, the Neediest Fund has "gone back to its roots," she wrote. "That's almost like starting over again, but at least it isn't dead."

The approach taken by the new Empty Stocking Fund is to provide gift certificates to needy parents, who then pick out their children's presents. The Post-Tribune is partners in the fund with the local Boys & Girls Clubs (Fine is on the board). Thrower praised Empty Stocking as a "worthy endeavor." But she continued, "To those in the community who enjoy the hands-on approach, the Christmas Neediest Fund is still around and still needs you."

Brown wouldn't print the column. She said Fine, who was out of town, needed to see it first. Thrower wrote Fine pleading her case. "I do not object to the P-T taking a new direction with a new fund, but I think it is a disservice to readers to do it abruptly with no mention of the previous fund."

Fine (who didn't return my calls) came back and pulled the plug on the column. "I do not want to promote two xmas campaigns for reader donations and run the risk of confusing readers," she wrote in a memo to Thrower. "While I fully appreciate that this was not your intention, I believe that it will do just that."

Thrower says she's been writing a column since 1983, and this was the first one the paper had ever spiked.

Brown and Fine were sent to Gary from the Sun-Times when Hollinger, which owns that paper, bought the Post-Tribune two years ago. "This is a contentious place pretty often--it doesn't have to be, but it is," says Brown. "Nobody's a good guy here and nobody's a bad guy here. Hopefully in the end we'll use our contentiousness to raise a lot of money for worthy causes. It may happen."

Last month Brown explained the change in Christmas funds in a memo to her staff that went on to a second matter. "I thought I should explain to you why there was a cancellation fee attached to this year's Christmas party," she wrote. "It's not to punish people who get sick or who have family emergencies. The policy is in reaction to last summer's company picnic, where 100 people (mostly in the editorial department) were no-shows. That meant that 100 meals were thrown in the garbage."

"That's a hoot!" says Joe Conn. "They'll fine you if you don't tell them you're not going to the Christmas party."

Sympathy for the Sun-Times

Hollinger papers aren't known as happy shops--though it's fair to ask whose papers are. Reporters are like cops, in that both have a need to feel put-upon, and even the ones who are happy at work deem it unseemly to say so. In any case, at Hollinger's notoriously understaffed dailies the likelihood of overhearing anyone gush about his or her situation is small. A letter in an envelope with no return address--my favorite kind of mail--arrived the other day; inside I found a piece of paper with a paragraph from a recent Hot Type glued to it. It was a paragraph that put in a good word for the Tribune. Beneath it, this typed message appeared:

"Meanwhile, across the street, the paper is run by an editor who has a large cardboard cutout of a young, blond, attractive woman, dressed in a short-skirted suit a la Ally McBeal, legs crossed, Sun-Times in hand--perched atop a newspaper box like those found on streetcorners."

This cutout has become the in-house symbol of the era of Nigel Wade, who by persistent accounts oversees a newsroom where women beyond a certain age and IQ don't feel valued. The anonymous message continued for several more lines, adding to the bill of particulars, and at the bottom of the page a postscript was scratched in longhand:

"Perhaps these are reasons why the Trib came in 6th in a Columbia Journalism Review poll on the top 35 newspapers in the U.S.--while the beleaguered Sun-Times didn't even make the list."

Much as I appreciate the correspondence, I can't share its endorsement of CJR's polling. In its November/December issue, CJR listed the "editor's [sic] choices" of the top newspapers in America. The magazine had sent out about 150 ballots to editors across the country; each was asked to pick, but not rank, the nation's top ten newspapers, plus two "wild cards" worthy of notice. In a refreshing display of humility, an "independent committee" that was supposed to scan the results and make a final ranking recognized that it had nothing useful to contribute and let the editors' choices stand.

The New York Times wound up far out in front, having been mentioned by 101 of the 104 editors who responded. The Washington Post followed with 85 votes, the Wall Street Journal had 84, and the Los Angeles Times had 81. Then there was a drop to the Dallas Morning News, with 66 votes, and to the Tribune and Boston Globe, with 60 apiece.

CJR published the complete results on-line. The ranking continued on to the eight papers that tied for 35th place with four votes apiece, and then there was an alphabetical list of 76 dailies that "received 3 or fewer total votes." Here the Sun-Times could be found and the suburban Daily Herald.

"It wasn't a perfect process," David Laventhol, editorial director of CJR, told his magazine. "But when you consider the history of 'best newspaper' rankings, this is the most thorough peer evaluation in some time, if not ever."

Perhaps it was. But like a high school popularity poll, this kind of exercise is less a measure of your distinction than of the size of your reputation for being distinguished. The Sun-Times, which I'm sure most of the nation's editors rarely see, is still living with the reputation it acquired overnight in 1984 when Rupert Murdoch bought it. Whatever the length of the skirts its editor favors, his paper's a cut above what the industry seems to think.

News Bite

"England played an instrumental role in establishing Dec. 25 as the year's preeminent holiday. Many historians credit the British with coining the name 'Christmas' from 'Christ's Mass' around 1038," wrote Jeff Guinn of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, as reprinted in the Chicago Tribune last Monday.

The same historians are now at work looking for links between the French and the name "Noel" and the Spanish and the name "Navidad."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.

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