In Search of the Suburban Reader
It was Pat Colander who spotted the eerie parallels: this paper's readers and the inhabitants of Naperville, the DuPage County suburb 35 miles to the southwest, show up in the computer readouts as peas in a pod.
An erstwhile Reader staff writer who made a name for herself chronicling the weird and grotesque--she's Chicago's leading authority on the disappearance of Helen Brach--Colander knows what to do with an uncomfortable fact. She turned her insights over to the Copley Press, Inc., which had a problem on its hands.
A San Diego-based newspaper chain with the instincts of Croesus, Copley lusted after the Naperville market. Its desire resembled a laying of siege--Copley papers were returning handsome profits all around--in Wheaton, Elgin, Aurora, Roselle, Streamwood, Hanover Park, Bartlett, and Joliet; but Naperville, dominated for decades by the family-owned Sun, would not submit.
"They wanted to go into this market very much," Colander told us, "and they should have. It's a really upscale crowd. But there'd been all these failures against the Sun. My argument was they had to try a really unique approach. It had to be something they couldn't get anywhere else, and that included the Chicago Tribune. We couldn't beat the Sun on their terms on their turf."
Colander had gone to work for Copley last March as production editor in Wheaton. Her second day there, her bosses asked for her ideas about the Naperville market.
Offer a lot of listings, Colander brainstormed, her Reader years fresh in mind; round up writers who are fresh, offbeat, humorous, really good. The Sun was bulk-mailed; we should try bundle-dropping, she said, the way the Reader does.
"They had done some limited research on the demographics," Colander told us, "and I got a readership survey from the Reader, and there were certain similarities. Educational level, income level, professional-technical people, age group--pushing 40. They go out to eat a lot, go in for expensive forms of live entertainment. I think there are a lot of similarities."
There are also differences. "They own more homes and they have more kids out here," Colander said; and she supposed that out in Naperville more people tend to be Republicans, not that advertisers care what they are.
Copley didn't hear a better idea from anyone else, and Colander was told to go ahead. She produced a prototype last July, and the first issue of the free weekly Naperville City Star rolled off the presses in mid-September.
"I'm deliriously happy in this job," Colander told us. "I never thought I'd get a chance to start a newspaper."
Having never set foot in Naperville, we're free to make the usual irresponsible assumptions. This is a town of 25,000, less than half the size of the 43rd Ward, and we wonder what there is to say about it. We mentioned a couple of cover stories that raised our eyebrows: "In Search of McMahon," which at great and whimsical length tracked a rumor (false) that the Bears quarterback might buy a house out there; and "Native Son," an exhaustive profile of Sun- Times after-hours reporter Dave Hoekstra, who was around for a few years as a teenager.
Hailing notables who moved out or never moved in struck us as a fairly desperate way to celebrate a community.
Colander isn't worried. She thinks there's lots of local stuff to cover and the Star is covering it--like the priest who got booted out of his parish for actually preaching poverty.
"I also think people in Naperville are interested in a lot of things everybody is interested in," Colander went on. "The interest in Jim McMahon extends beyond Naperville. Those people don't live in a vacuum and they don't want to live in a vacuum. Our first issue had a review of Burn This. It was an international theatrical event. I think people in Naperville are as interested in that as anybody else. We want to be as comprehensive as we can."
The Star isn't making money yet. But "I think we're not hemorrhaging. Everybody likes this paper--everybody, the managing editors of the two other papers in the Elgin division, the publisher, the general manager--there's sort of like a soft spot in their heart for the paper, even though they don't like it struggling financially and they're not used to it. Copley never loses! They're not used to ever losing money."
Colander moved out to the 'burbs for the usual reasons. "We were going to have the second baby and I wanted to live near my mother who lives out here and I wanted my kids in public school," she said. "I figured we could hack it with one kid in private school, but no way with two."
The Naperville schools are great, she says. Her husband Paul Ansell is general sales manager for radio station WTWV. "He's given up acting," Colander told us. "He has responsibilities now."
She said, "It's not too bad to get downtown. We get downtown every Saturday still. But I do sometimes wish I could walk down the street to Riccardo's.
"But I was doing a lot less walking down the street to Riccardo's with two kids anyway."
A reader spots something that might be a case of plagiarism.
Last June 7, an editorial cartoon by syndicated Pulitzer laureate Pat Oliphant appeared in the Sun-Times. A human skeleton lies in a wasteland, one bony hand still holding high a sign that declares: "No testing for AIDS."
Last December 10, an editorial cartoon by Pulitzer laureate Richard Locher appeared in the Tribune. A robot from Mars contemplates a human skeleton lying in a wasteland, one bony hand still holding high a sign that declares: "No AIDS testing."
Our correspondent had been put off by the first cartoon, which he therefore remembered when he saw the second. "For what it is worth," writes this official of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "no one I know opposes testing [per se] for HIV antibodies. . . . It is the absence of protective safeguards or nondiscrimination agreements regarding antibody status that makes many people leery about the test."
We marvel at the coincidence, which Locher assures us is what this is. "I didn't see his cartoon," he insisted, speaking of Oliphant. "No, I have no recollection of his." We marvel all the more because this is the second such coincidence brought to our attention inside of two weeks.
Last November, Matt Groening, author of Life in Hell, which runs in the Reader and other publications, drew a strip on toy guns. "I will not have you playing with war toys," says big bunny, as he confiscates junior's ray guns. Junior thinks it over. "Zap! Pow! Blam blam blam!" he resumes, now blasting away with his index fingers.
A few days later, Pulitzer laureate Tony Auth of the Philadelphia Inquirer drew (and the Sun-Times published) the following: panel one--"Remember . . . no war toys again this year!" says Dad to Mom as they compose their Christmas list; panel two--Junior and Sis run by, blasting away "bang bang bang" with their index fingers.
Auth doesn't remember seeing Groening's cartoon. "I certainly didn't borrow [the idea] from anybody," he insisted; his inspiration, he said, was the annual appeal by a Saint Louis cartoonist named Bob Staake for cartoonists to take sides against war toys.
We didn't get to Oliphant, but we asked Groening what he made of this. "That sounds pretty similar," he allowed. "However, that's such a general observation about kids and Christmas that it could very well be an example of synchronicity. When you're drawing, trying desperately to think up ideas constantly, every so often an idea comes to mind that you wonder, where did that come from? Did I see that someplace? But I try to be forgiving and hope others will be forgiving of me."
Groening said he and Lynda Barry have a pact. They phone first, and then they rip off each other's ideas. "I was going to think of that," they tell each other.
Locher told us that back in the early 50s, Vaughn Shoemaker of the Daily News and Ed Holland of the Tribune "did exactly the same cartoon on exactly the same day. There was a dragon with his tongue hanging out and an American was standing on the tongue. The point of the cartoons was that some people wanted the Americans to appease the Chinese."
Locher has problems beyond our insinuation that he cut a corner. As authors of the Dick Tracy comic strip, he and Max Collins--and the Tribune--have been sued for libel by Flip Side Records over a 1987 story line that saw Tracy crack a payola caper, but not before fat DJ Garry Doll was bumped off by the Stereo brothers on instructions from the evil Flipside.
"I guess that's the lot of the cartoonist," Locher told us. "After the lawsuit, we'll probably stick to people who are deceased. We've got Einstein in now."
The note of rue jogged our memory: wasn't Locher one of the originators of that madcap political satire, Clout Street?
We hadn't seen the comic strip around lately. Locher confirmed our worst fears.
"Clout Street is history," he said.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.