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The Passive Consumer; Found Guilty by the Tribune; News Bites

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The Passive Consumer

Editor & Publisher's Mark Fitzgerald made a reasonable suggestion a while back: RedEye should stop pretending it's for sale. "I think a switch to free is inevitable--and that it will come sooner rather than later," Fitzgerald wrote in December, observing that "of course, for most RedEye readers, the tabloid has been free from the day it was launched two years ago."

By "most," he meant the vast majority--all but 15,000 of some 80,000 daily readers, according to the numbers he got from the Tribune. Today RedEye is freer than ever. It's being given away aggressively at certain CTA stations (the Tribune won't say how many) every weekday morning at rush hour. The Tribune calls this "sampling." At my Irving Park Brown Line station a hawker stands at the door handing out copies to the commuters pouring in. He told me he's making an extra $40 a day moonlighting from 6 to 9 AM. RedEye can charge more for ads if circulation is up, he explained.

The marketing insight at play here is that if you put something light, easy to read, and disposable in the hands of people facing a 15-minute train ride, many will take it. And having taken it, they'll feel less of a need to buy some other paper--even if that paper was their actual preference. For the last nine years, Rose (who doesn't want her last name used) has managed the newsstand inside the Irving Park station. "I was selling 70 to 75 Sun-Timeses a day, 30 to 35 Tribunes, and 20 to 25 RedEyes," she told me. "Now it's 12 or 13 Tribs and about 30 Sun-Timeses." Overall, she said, her business is off 70 percent.

I told the hawker that Rose was taking a beating. "They're closing [the station] in September anyway," he said.

Rose says she complained to the Tribune about their sampling program, asking how long they'd keep it up, "and they said 'It's going on a while.'" She also complained to the CTA. "They said, 'They are out of the premises. We can do nothing. If they were on the premises, we could stop them.' But they're right at the door!"

The drivers who bring Rose's papers to her each morning have told her other stations are also being hurt. "We're way down," says Jay Gandhi, who owns the kiosk at the Fullerton el. He used to get 250 copies of the Sun-Times and 350 copies of the Tribune each morning and sell nearly all of them. Now a RedEye hawker and free RedEye boxes stand a few steps away, and he says his draw had to be reduced to about 45 copies of the Sun-Times and 40 copies of the Tribune.

The sidewalk outside the Belmont el station is lined with red boxes stuffed with gratis copies of RedEye. "We used to sell 500 papers a day," said the newsstand operator, who didn't want to give his name. "Now we're down to 100. Would you pay if you could get it free?

"Everyone has the same problem," he went on, rattling off the names of other stations plagued by the RedEye sampling. "They do it because they can."

Far be it from anyone at the Reader to object on principle to newspapers being given away for free. But I hoped John O'Loughlin, general manager of RedEye, would comment on the collateral damage done by his paper's campaign. My call was routed to Tribune spokesman Patty Wetli, and she didn't. "There are some locations where we've been sampling papers in the afternoons and have switched to mornings," Wetli said. "It's part of a sort of holistic look at our distribution and where it makes the most sense to have samplers in the best way to get the most copies in the hands of the most readers."

Like Fitzgerald, John Cruickshank would like to see RedEye stop pretending it costs a quarter. But while Fitzgerald thinks the tabloid has a bright future as a freebie, Cruickshank, publisher of the Sun-Times, just wants it to disappear (Red Streak, the Sun-Times's forlorn imitation, would follow no more than 30 seconds behind). "Will they not finally just give up and go away?" he wondered. "The only reason they're doing it is for advertising. But when you can't sell the thing and have to give it away--you can either attract a readership or you can't."

But advertisers don't care much how papers round up their readers, and RedEye's figured out one way of doing that. You have to hand it to them--which should be the paper's motto.

Cruickshank told me the Sun-Times had come up with a plan to help out Sun-Times vendors "who we've identified as taking a particular hit." Sure enough, this Tuesday morning new posters appeared alongside Rose's newsstand. Buy a Sun-Times and turn in your RedEye, they announced, and you'll get a coupon for a free cup of White Hen coffee.

Found Guilty by the Tribune

Thomas Knight finally confronts his nemesis, the Chicago Tribune, before a jury next week. Knight, who's acting as his own attorney, is suing the Tribune for defamation, and he expects the civil trial beginning May 2 to last at least three weeks.

Twenty years ago, Knight was Du Page County's lead prosecutor in the first murder trial of Rolando Cruz. After three trials and ten years on death row, Cruz was cleared of the 1983 murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico, and as that case dragged on the Tribune became merciless. Here's the editorial page in 1995: "One thing is clear: None of those involved in the Cruz prosecution deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust. They have demonstrated that they have no honor and they merit no trust." And columnist Eric Zorn in 2000: "County prosecutors and police blew this case big time, then cheated brazenly in an effort to cover their tracks and keep innocent men behind bars for more than 10 years."

Knight and six other Du Page County prosecutors and sheriff's deputies were indicted for perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. As the 1999 trial was about to begin, investigative reporters Maurice Possley and Ken Armstrong wrote: "Thousands of pages of testimony from the DuPage 7 grand jury and court documents paint a picture of a prosecution that was constructed with lies and half-truths, buttressed with distorted evidence and, according to the indictment, stitched together with criminal misconduct."

A jury acquitted all seven defendants, but Knight felt little satisfaction. He sued the Tribune for defamation in January 2000, focusing on an error the Tribune concedes. It showed up in the 1999 story "Prosecution on Trial in DuPage," which was part of Possley and Armstrong's five-part series "Trial & Error--How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win." The story, written by Possley, said that before Cruz's first trial shoe print examiner John Gorajczyk from the sheriff's crime lab had compared a print to boots worn by one of Cruz's codefendants and concluded they didn't match. Gorajczyk "did not write any report about his findings," Possley wrote. "Gorajczyk told the DuPage grand jury that Knight told him to keep his mouth shut about his conclusion and not to tell anyone that there was no written report."

Knight says he didn't tell Gorajczyk that and neither Gorajczyk nor anybody else ever told the grand jury that he did. In fact Gorajczyk didn't even appear before the grand jury. Knight will present this, which Possley described when Knight deposed him as a "mistake in editing," to the jury as evidence of--to quote from one of his briefs--"a pattern of falsity that uniformly paints a sinister and corrupt picture of the prosecutorial conduct of the Plaintiff."

Infuriated by "Trial & Error," prosecutors across the country lobbied the Pulitzer board to keep the Tribune from winning a prize for the series--which it didn't. It would gall the Tribune to now lose to Knight in court, and to keep that from happening the Tribune has gone all the way to Texas for a First Amendment specialist. Chip Babcock, the lawyer who rescued Oprah Winfrey from angry Texas cattlemen seven years ago, calls Knight "thorough and tenacious. I feel like I've almost crawled inside his brain." He's prepared in part by going over the coverage of the Cruz case by other media. "Some of the publicity about him has been downright harsh," says Babcock, who wants Knight to have to prove that the falsehood Knight is suing over did him harm that all the other coverage did not. "He has not revealed that one yet, and I've asked him every which way how he's been damaged."

But Knight thinks it's a question he shouldn't have to answer. "The defendants are not entitled to try to prove that there was other negative publicity in other publications which they claimed had already injured my reputation," he e-mailed me. "To conclude otherwise would mean that as long as someone is defamed by multiple news media outlets, unless he can prove, in a single case, that all of them falsely defamed him, he would have no remedy at law. The law is not so irrational as [to] allow such an absurd result."

News Bites

A consensus has yet to form . . .

"'Noch-ee-oni!' the throng bellowed so loudly that it rang from the 300-level boxes down to the tunnels. 'Noch-ee-oni!'" --Rick Telander, Sun-Times, April 25.

"'No-ci-oni! No-ci-oni!' The amazing thing was, they actually pronounced it accurately. Though his nickname is 'Noach'--as in coach, in that Scott Skiles gave it to him--the 'c' in Nocioni is soft." --Jay Mariotti, same paper, same day.

"After he drew a charge on Arenas, they chanted, 'NO-SEE-O-NEE!... NO-SEE-O-NEE!'" --John Jackson, same paper, same day.

"'Noc-I-oni! Noc-I-oni!'" --K.C. Johnson, Tribune

"His teammates call him Noche, even though Andres Nocioni's name is pronounced no-cee-O-nee." --Rick Morrissey, Tribune

"The crowd started chanting 'Noh-chee-oh-nee,' and they repeated the refrain when he pulled down a final rebound, his 18th of the game, to seal the 103-94 victory.... 'Noach was the best player on the floor tonight,' Gordon said afterward." --Ted Cox, Reader

The Tribune said on April 24 that it was keeping an open mind but it hadn't seen proof yet that John Bolton is unfit for the post of UN ambassador. "What's certain," said the Tribune editorial, "is that John Bolton would energize a timid and scandalized UN."

What's certain about that? The editorial spoke of Bolton's "blunt demeanor" and "disdain for the go-along-to-get-along culture of the UN." On what evidence does the Tribune assert someone like that would be a source of energy instead of rancor, division, and even deeper institutional paralysis? Sometimes no amount of proof is enough. At other times none is needed.

From the annals of copyediting: A couple of misplaced commas in an April 20 New York Times editorial transform a solemn tone into a haughty one: "There is no reason to expect any change, of course, for the church when it comes to matters like birth control, priestly celibacy or homosexuality."

Once in a while our unsigned friend the editorial so clearly shines from a particular sensibility that its anonymity is criminal. So for the record, "The soundtrack of life" in the April 25 Tribune was written by Paul Weingarten.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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