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More Less at the Sun-Times/Latino Journalism Review?

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More Less at the Sun-Times

Mark Nadler may have been dodging the question, but he dodged it thoughtfully. Nadler, executive editor of the Sun-Times, walked out last Friday, a day after his resignation was posted. At a paper whose rank and file has been chewed away for months, Nadler's departure suggested that the bosses have started eating their own as well. The various enmities among top American Publishing and Sun-Times figures are unkept secrets. But, no, Nadler said, "This isn't about American Publishing Company or any particular issue or controversy. It was just time for me to leave, that's all."

Were you frustrated by what's been happening to your staff?

"I think everybody's sort of frustrated," Nadler said. "But I think it's been a difficult time all over the newspaper industry. The real question--and I don't know the answer to this, it's the question people have been asking for close to ten years now--is how much has this to do with normal business cycles and how much is a true repositioning of newspapers?"

For repositioning, think diminishment. Not just the Sun-Times, but newspapers throughout America are cutting back. Readers simply don't buy them the way they used to. Papers will have to be reinvented, Nadler was saying, to appeal to a balkanized public. That raises a "really scary question," Nadler went on, which is whether anything at all will glue a metropolitan area together when even its daily papers are aimed at niches. Just one thing, maybe. Observe how editorial departments flail around for identities, while sports sections keep getting bigger.

And so Nadler exits, weighed down by big questions and observing that "it seemed like time to step back, take a deep breath, and think about whether I want to stay in daily journalism." His send-off was a newsroom pizza party that editor Dennis Britton missed to visit the dentist.

Nadler's relationships with some key figures from parent American Publishing were overtly contentious. CEO Larry Perrotto imposed a policy of attrition that Nadler, industry trends notwithstanding, opposed on grounds that the loss of talent would make the paper's quality unsustainable. And Nadler was so openly hostile toward Nigel Wade, the London troubleshooter, that he made sure he was on vacation the last time Wade visited the paper.

It might have been "disruptive" to give the newsroom much forewarning that he was leaving, Nadler said, but his superiors knew well in advance. "It's something he's been considering for some time," Perrotto told me, "as I understand it, for the last couple of years."

Nadler said that for the time being he'll be collaborating with a management consultant on a book about corporate change. "He needs somebody who can put this in readable English and has a basic understanding of the topic. I think I qualify for that now."

Perrotto has heavier losses than Nadler to worry about. There's Valassis. You've probably never heard of it, but it's a Detroit-based company that provides newspapers with FSIs--that's free-standing inserts, those slick pages of coupons from national advertisers that clutter Sunday papers so intolerably. Unless you save them, in which case you bless their existence.

Valassis places its coupon packages in both the Tribune and Sun-Times. But now the Tribune's come up with a better idea. You're buying too much duplication, the Tribune told Valassis earlier this year; put your inserts in our paper only, and our Precision Home Delivery subsidiary will deliver them everywhere else you want them to go.

The Sun-Times countered by offering to drop its insertion rate by 80 percent and work up a corporate plan that would put Valassis inserts in every APC paper in America. But the negotiations broke down, and Valassis disappears from the Sun-Times this fall. That means a loss of $800,000 in annual revenues and one more blow to the sagging Sunday circulation.

"It's a very difficult situation," Perrotto told me.

But he's not without ideas. To cut costs and increase circulation, Perrotto's decided to try incentives, and this month he unveiled the "Employment $uggestion Program."

"If your idea has merit, you'll be rewarded," he promised in a memo to all employees. "There's a minimum of a $50 award for an accepted idea, but you could receive hundreds or even thousands of dollars . . . "

I don't know how this idea will play in the rest of the building, but in the crusty newsroom it's something of a hoot.

Latino Journalism Review?

In 1968 Chicago journalists infuriated by the craven coverage of the Democratic National Convention gathered to do something about it. That something turned out to be the Chicago Journalism Review, a brief, proud chapter in the Sisyphean saga of local reform.

A similar current of angry humiliation is now flowing among Latinos. As Hot Type reported, on May 19 the news director of WGBO, Channel 66, presumed to air a one-minute Associated Press TV feed of ceremonies in Cuba observing the hundredth anniversary of the battlefield death of Jose Marti. A Cuban vice president was heard putting a revolutionary, ergo anti-Yankee spin on the great patriot's legacy.

To the Cuban-born general manager of Channel 66, this glimpse of the island wasn't news but propaganda, and Jacqueline Gallardo, the news director who'd permitted it to air, was sent packing. Grassroots Latino leaders and politicians who admired Gallardo's newscasts talked among themselves of organizing a formal protest. But nothing happened.

Gallardo was followed out the door by two subordinates. One of them, assignment editor Sandra Aponte, refused to sign a contract offering her more than $2,000 if she'd go quietly. Instead, she sounded off to this column, and then she took stock. Chicago's Spanish-speaking community is served by 20 newspapers, four radio stations, and two TV channels--a vast but "amateurish" collection in her opinion. Her opinion is widely shared. So Aponte organized a forum last week at the Argentinean restaurant El Nandu to discuss reforming the Latino media.

About 50 people showed up, many of them journalists, others from community groups, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians--which is calling for a boycott of Channel 44 as a weapon in contract negotiations there--and even Amnesty International.

In addition to a panel of journalists, plenty of lively comments came from the floor. The owner of El Nandu, a businesswoman who's not looking for enemies, said whoever was passing out Boycott 44 cards without asking her permission showed her no respect. A Cuban exile said he respected everyone's opinion but on the other hand he'd spent time in Fidel's jails and if you look here--he rolled up a sleeve--these were scars from Fidel's bullets. A member of the Puerto Rican socialist party ended an interminable harangue by calling for a boycott of WGBO.

Aponte preferred to let others do the talking, but now she spoke up. Although a screening of the news clip from Cuba had opened the forum, she was determined to move far beyond that incident. A boycott will focus all the anger here on WGBO, she said; it will gutter out after a couple of weeks, and nothing will have changed.

Aponte told me later, "Even though a lot of the owners and a lot of the key positions in the media are held by Cubans, I personally don't believe it's a Cubans versus the rest of the world kind of thing, but a thing of ideology. What I call the old dinosaurs of the media brought here a lot of old, ultraconservative values, mixed and confused with nostalgia and wanting to go back." Whether they come from Cuba or some other country, "their enemy is still communism and their agenda is still to wipe communism from the face of the earth."

Aponte possibly thought she was describing a failing of journalism specific to this time and to her culture. She wasn't. In 1968 the young Anglo reporters who founded the Chicago Journalism Review railed at the same species of old dinosaurs--publishers and editors with heads full of woolly cold war orthodoxies.

At a glance, what came out of the meeting doesn't amount to much. Aponte got 30 signatures on a paper declaring that an organization should be created that will "monitor the content, quality, and accuracy of programming relevant to the Latino community," report on the Latino media every three months, serve as mediator between the public and the media, and offer annual awards.

Over the weekend she met with Pepe Vargas, head of the Latino Film Festival. "He's concerned about communications in a sense even broader than the news," Aponte observes. Vargas's ongoing crusade is to get channels 44 and 66 to start showing decent Latino movies, instead of chestnuts so old they're in the public domain. He and Aponte decided to draw up a set of standards and goals and present it for comment at the end of the month to the Latino Committee on the Media. This committee was founded in 1978 to monitor Latino participation in the mainstream media. Ethnic journalism will be something new on its radar.

Why did the community protest fall apart after WGBO cracked down on Gallardo? I asked Aponte.

"When I passed out the invitations [to the forum], a lot of Latino organizations told me outright, "I'm not going to go because I've had really good coverage from the Latino media lately and I'm not going to risk it.' They can blacklist community-based organizations. They've already done it.

"The Latino elected officials--they're not going to go over there [to WGBO], expose themselves, and not have any coverage when their campaign comes up next September."

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