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Inside the Clip Joint

The Inky Underside of the PR Business

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Six mornings a week in a big bright room high above Buckingham Fountain, a few score citizens take up their X-Acto knives and settle down behind particle-board tables for a quiet day of newspaper reading. They work for a national clipping service. Hired by PR firms, individuals, associations, in fact anybody who expects publicity to come along, systematically or otherwise, a clipping service goes through more newspapers in a day than all the fish-and-chip shops and puppy pounds in the universe, and uses up more workers than Karl Marx would have cared to unite.

It's a hushed and unprofitable (for the readers anyway), weird and grimy little world. At the end of the work week, with hundreds of papers and many, many references to SDI, the death of Lorne Greene, and other mayhem behind them, these readers-by-trade unsheathe their magnifying glasses in order to make out the microscopic numbers on their paychecks. For an annual salary in the high four figures they monitor the print media, keeping an eye out so others don't have to.

It's their job to commit to imperfect human memory an oddball list of clients and topics some 500 pages long, and to cull references to all these things from the news du jour. After weeks of training, every reader is responsible for the whole 500-page list (which can be consulted) and is assigned a regular diet of a couple dozen publications a day, anything from the New Orleans Times-Picayune to the American Rifleman.

The kinds of things the readers are on the lookout for include names of people, found by chance (from Tinker, Grant to Evers, Charles); consumer products and trademarks (garden rakes and Marshmallow Fluff); things that only the Department of Defense buys (napalm, songs about the glamorous life of people who jump out of airplanes); descriptions of incredibly specific phenomena (photosynthesis in Ohio, accidents involving cheese); and tons of other things--names of shoe stores, hazardous chemicals, businesses that compete with shoe stores and makers of hazardous chemicals. And there are events to watch for: balloon races, takeover bids, beauty contests, scheduled executions.

For those who read at a clipping service, the newspaper unfolds as a grid of press releases and disasters, with only the names and circumstances reshuffled on a daily basis. There's nothing new under the sun. Every day brings one more paper (actually, a pile of them) and with it wire-service reports of another nine-year-old attempting to fly solo over the Pole, or a corporate bad citizen grinding an ax before the public, or some other nonevent or short-lived gimmick. And these days, in case you haven't noticed, two-thirds of any American daily newspaper is excerpts from the next issue of People.

What's going on here? Publicity is the eighth sacrament and has been for about a thousand years. But lately it's gotten even holier. Name recognition makes one part of the Elect, if not electable in some places. The spotlight of fame is repositioned every quarter hour, so not only does that kid want to fly over the Pole, he wants his blessed clippings. He and his parents have sacrificed the second half of his second grade for this, so they need to know if the stunt played in Peoria, and on what page.

Going through the nation's newspapers for documentation of corporate words and record-breaking individual deeds is the filthy end of the PR chalice. Somebody's got to get his hands and the front of his shirt dirty; the vestments of choice for the wise reader are dark and dingy, so as not to show the printer's ink. ("It would be easier to clean a subway tunnel than my newspaper elbows," complained one reader at the end of the workday.)

What kind of person would take a job like this? For starters, not a Kennedy grandchild. The salary is intimately entwined with the minimum wage. ("I can't buy a bath-size bar of soap on this salary," grumbled another dirty reader.) The working conditions, well, Charles Dickens wrote the book on them. On a rest break from rolling his rock up the hill, Sisyphus might have plotted a revenge scheme using the notion of a newspaper that comes out seven days a week, with the biggest edition published on a traditional day of rest.

It's enough to give a body a pallor. Your coworkers? Misanthropes aplenty. Not quite serial killers, but certainly journal keepers. ("I used to be in the Mod Squad," a beady-eyed reader once remarked out of the blue.) Some days they seem like everybody you never wanted to sit down next to you on a cross-country bus trip, and the feeling is mutual. One reader sits apart from all the others because, he says, "Readers have knives." X-Actly.

The readers sit with their backs to the Lake Michigan view at row after row of tables amid their stacks of newspapers. Four dusty weeks' worth of last month's papers from the Pacific Northwest form a newsprint castle around one particular reader from whom dry sneezes issue smartly at atomically timed intervals. It's two hours of reading, break, two hours, lunch, two more hours, break, two hours and home. Sneeze, sneeze, sneeze, sneeze, sneeze, sneeze, sneeze. Finding ten good clippings an hour from among the decapitations and stock-car races is the production minimum.

Rhythmic newspaper-rattling, the scratch of a knife against paper and desk, a sudden announcement of a new client over the PA system. That's all you hear. Talking is all but forbidden.

"Other than you can't talk and can't go to the bathroom, I wouldn't say we're without human rights," a reader named Cindy, who's working on a master's degree, observed one day, half seriously. Actually, you can go to the bathroom, any time you want; it's just that to do so makes at least 50 of your coworkers look up glaring from Heloise or the Sport Shorts or the Stock Ticker. You want to talk sometimes, or read aloud, Dad-in-the-armchair style, from your Memphis Commercial Appeal. But that would stop progress.

After a while, reading the news takes a toll. "Sometimes I can hardly face going outside after work," says Cindy the grad student. Sometimes the one-car accidents, embezzlements, covered-up deaths from AIDS, and small-town bankruptcies can get to you. So does the sameness of human interest on parade. Fortunately there is solace between the lines. Stories unfold. Because you're reading old newspapers, you know how the story ends. You know about the hitting streak that died, the rescue from the well, the indictment going down. The piles of papers repeat themselves. You are lulled. The Bork nomination dies before you 25 times; so does Cary Grant.

Quickly you become efficient at your task, zeroing in on the names in bold--"Don Knotts," "Fergie." Reason for names in bold revealed! This job doesn't take a genius. You skip over reports of civil war and famine because the participants in these do not hire public relations firms.

It should be a fun job. You learn things. You read the features. You find out, for example, after Harold Washington died that some editorial writers downstate and beyond didn't hate him. You learn that the wire-service filler used in the "Style" section of the Tribune is almost invariably weeks or months old, stuff that the readers of the Topeka Capital-Journal have already forgotten about. You collect new recipes from food sections (or, as in the case of "Cora Murray's Cherry Coke Salad," attempt to suppress them). You find out about the new diseases, and then the next morning you call in sick with them. And stay home in bed, reading the newspaper.

Prestige does not come with this Loop job. You have no business card. You're not allowed to make or take phone calls. The 40 minutes allotted for lunch isn't time for deal-making. You don't get invited to a lot of parties. Your prospects are bleak, your future spouse unmet. Is it any wonder that one reader sports a ski mask from September to May in case she runs into people on Michigan Avenue she went to college with?

Monday dawns and you're to work early. You have weekended as thoroughly as a reader might: you put in an eight-hour day on Saturday, too, to help pay for your el pass. A new stack of papers arrives at your desk. You're up to your belly button in Sunday editions, and that's a lot of commentary and celebrity profiles to get through.

One recent Monday, Cindy, who is one of the most accomplished newspaper readers in Chicago, was called to the big office for getting too many phone messages at the main switchboard. She was receiving as many as one or two personal calls a week. It was a problem. She explained to the supervisor that she lived alone and could not afford a phone in her home.

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

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