Trib Pulls Strings, Grabs a Wire/ CNB's Esprit de Corps | Media | Chicago Reader

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Trib Pulls Strings, Grabs a Wire/ CNB's Esprit de Corps

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By Michael Miner

Trib Pulls Strings, Grabs a Wire

As a symbol of amity between its owners, the Sun-Times and Tribune, the City News Bureau is dead. As a hallowed, 108-year-old civic institution, it's going to live on, reincarnated as an in-house sideline of the Tribune.

CNB folds on March 1, and New City News--as it's tentatively being called--will immediately open in the Tower, providing "partners" and "associates" with a priceless daybook and hard local news. If "partners" and "associates" sounds like exclusionary lingo, it is, and what's being excluded is primarily the Sun-Times.

New City News is an arrangement the Tribune pulled out of its hat at pretty much the last minute. Execs of the four Tribune Company "partners"--that is, the Tribune, WGN radio, WGN TV, and CLTV--met on February 4, and the topic was, what do we do when the CNB wire is gone? Joe Leonard, a Tribune associate editor and president of the CNB board, says he proposed a bare-bones, low-overhead version of CNB located in the Tower. He figured the company could sell its service to enough outside clients--aka "associates"--to break even. "I asked our broadcast partners, 'Gee, if we asked some other people, would you have a problem?' They didn't. Print competitors are deadly, but they said, 'In broadcasting, ten minutes after we put it on the air everyone has it anyway.' I said, 'I'm not in your business. I didn't understand this.'"

Leonard has invited Paul Zimbra-kos--the managing editor of CNB, who's been there 41 years--to run New City News and hire a staff of 16. He's free to hire every last one of them from CNB, and Zimbrakos says he will. The 18th employee will be a daybook clerk provided by the Tribune. The daybook--the early-morning schedule of all the day's events--is the CNB service that news editors can least do without. "We'll make this a great daybook," Leonard promises. New City News won't get any help covering Chicago from the Tribune, but the paper will contribute to the daybook.

Leonard promptly signed up CBS--meaning Channel Two and news-radio stations WBBM AM and WMAQ AM. Then channels 5, 7, 9, and 32 also signed on. "I have one more radio station to go, who'll say Thursday," Leonard told me this week. "And then we're done." That's it? "I don't want to re-create City News," he said. "I just want enough associates to make this a break-even thing for everybody."

How does the Sun-Times figure in? I wondered.

Well, it doesn't. "We are not going to consult with our direct competitors, and some of our direct competitors didn't consult with us when they went and cut direct deals," Leonard said. By direct deals, he meant that the Sun-Times had already looked to its own future by picking up the student-staffed Medill News Service and by agreeing to swap city stories for suburban stories with the Daily Herald.

Now it looks as if the Sun-Times will have to make do with just Medill, which has no daybook of its own and in a few days will lose its access to CNB's. ("They're going to discover they did pretty good because they knew where to go," a CNB veteran predicts.) Medill operates three days a week and only when school's in session. It's really cheap, just $750 a quarter, but despite editor Nigel Wade's glowing endorsement, the future he faces with it isn't what he had in mind. "There is no threat to the reputation of this paper in adding the worthy Medill News Service to our array of news wires," he insisted in a mid-January memo to his staff. "That Medill copy is fit to go straight into the paper, subject to normal editing, demonstrates the quality of that service--compared with the poor standards to which some City News Bureau copy has sunk."

Wade went on, "But the Medill service is not intended to replace CNB. There are other qualified contenders bidding to do that, and not just as a tip sheet either."

This had the ring of Jerry Krause trading Scottie Pippen for Roy Rogers and assuring season-ticket holders that Rogers is a hell of a player and besides, there's a master plan. We'll see. The penny-wise Canadians who own the Sun-Times have been pretty shrewd about building a newspaper network--the Sun-Times, the Daily Southtown, Pioneer Press, and the Star papers--to compete with the Tribune. Unfortunately for that network, the qualified contenders Wade referred to aren't contending any longer.

Last Wednesday an informational memo that read "What's Next With City News?" was posted on the Newspaper Guild bulletin board at the Sun-Times. Word is, said the guild memo, that CNB staffers are being told the new Tribune service will cover the cops, the courts, and some other traditional beats, and keep producing a daybook.

The next few lines of the memo were underlined for emphasis: "The CNB staffers were told these operations were ironed out at a recent Trib board meeting, where a dominant sentiment was anger at the S-T for leading the pullout from CNB, forcing all this turmoil. As a result of that anger (and presumably for obvious competitive & business reasons), the Sun-Times is to be frozen out of the new CNB. The new service is not to be offered or sold to the S-T, the CNB people were told."

It wasn't a board meeting, but no matter.

For a few days it looked as if the Sun-Times would emerge as the flagship client of a second wire service, one going toe-to-toe with the Tribune's. Doug Faigin, who runs City News Service of Los Angeles, was so ready to expand to Chicago that he ran a want ad last week in Editor & Publisher looking for staff. "We actually have a major signed contract in hand, and we're waiting for another one," he told me in late January. "Other subscribers are waiting for the final word we're doing it. I'm 98 percent sure we're doing it. I'd be dramatically surprised if we aren't."

A few days later he said, "If I get the word from the Tribune Company, I'm on the next plane out. But if the Tribune says no, it's really doubtful. They're so big--they own four clients."

Consider this situation from the Tribune's point of view. It faced seeing a new wire open in Chicago that it neither owned nor controlled but would have to pay for, because the Sun-Times was sure to take it. And out in the suburbs the Daily Herald, which had never been allowed to subscribe to CNB, was sure to take it too. But the Tribune found a way to turn things around.

Last Wednesday the new plan surfaced in Jim Kirk's "Media Talk" column in the Tribune. The next day Faigin still sounded determined. "We've come up with a way to make it worth our while, depending on a couple of other clients," he told me. "We've got a number of people who really want us to do this--even more so now. There's a number of suburban dailies who've expressed an interest in subscribing. Here in Los Angeles we have all the suburban dailies. They find it extraordinarily useful."

Faigin won't comment, and neither will Larry Green or Joycelyn Winnecke, Sun-Times editors on the CNB board that Joe Leonard presides over. But it was probably a Sun-Times contract that Faigin had in hand. A classic competition was brewing--New City News servicing the Tribune and the electronic media of greater Chicago, while Faigin sold his wire to the Sun-Times, the Southtown, the Daily Herald, and any other newspaper that wanted it. The Associated Press and Medill were other likely clients--to keep the daybook away from the Sun-Times, New City News wasn't going to be available to either.

The trouble was that losses at CNB had climbed to a million dollars a year, with its clients refusing to accept the kind of rate hikes that would make up the difference. If two wires split roughly the same market, how could the wire new to town and operated for profit hope to make one?

On Monday I talked again to Faigin. He said the Tribune had chased him off. "It didn't work out," he said gloomily. "It just doesn't seem like an appropriate economic thing to do at this time. That's business, and what occurs occurs."

The other "qualified contender" in the field was media consultant Phil Whitfield, who proposed creating an Internet-based news service. But when Leonard left the February 4 meeting and told Whitfield they had nothing to talk about, Whitfield packed it in. "We needed revenues of a million dollars or so to support a good cadre of journalists, and I'm not prepared to do it on a shoestring," he said. "One side of me says I'm disappointed, because I think we had an innovative solution. The other side says, 'Thank God there are jobs for the journalists.'"

So there are. "This means 18 people not out of work," says Zimbrakos. "I think it's a great gesture. I think it's marvelous. I've been here 41 years. City News has really performed a great service in the past, and I think we can perform the same service over there. It'll be trimmed, but we'll do what we can with the staff we have. We'll do as much as we can."

And you'll hire entirely from your present staff? I asked.

"Yes, initially," said Zimbrakos. "Who knows more about Chicago and what the needs of our clients are than the people who worked at City News all these years? Who knows the city better than we do? I don't know anyone."

CNB's Esprit de Corps

CNB used to carry around 40 journalists. By this week attrition had cut the staff to 26.

"I'm kind of amazed how professionally our reporters continue to approach their work," said assistant city editor Kim Kishbaugh. "In the face of potential unemployment. In the face of the knowledge that this is a dying wire service. When they have other things on their minds, such as finding new jobs."

By the night of December's Pullman fire the bureau was already short staffed. Furthermore, an editor was on vacation--take it now or lose it, the staff had been told. "The chief copy editor was covering the desk. She had one rewrite, and that was it. And she had one reporter at central [police headquarters] and one roving street reporter, who was covering some meeting at the Historical Society." Kishbaugh was there too, about to go home.

The bureau was doing the usual, monitoring the police scanner. When the fire in Pullman went to an extra alarm, the rewrite man broke open the crisscross directory and began calling people in the neighborhood. That's how the bureau found out it wasn't just a fire in Pullman--it was the landmark factory and clock tower burning down. CNB sent out a bulletin that said so.

"At this point our only street reporter, in Lincoln Park, has to get all the way down to Pullman. We page him. We have one reporter who lives down near the neighborhood. We call this guy at home, and as we're getting him on the phone we realize this is a reporter who left his shift early that day because he had a dental emergency. His mouth is still partly numb. She says, 'I'm sorry to bother you at home--I forgot--but this is why I'm calling.' And he says, 'Wow, that sounds big! I'll go.' He had to have been the first reporter on the scene.

"Also, at the same time the City Hall reporter is working late, and he lives down in Beverly. He very quickly finished up what he had to do at the Hall, and he went down there too. I think he stopped off to get his wife at home and said, 'Honey, we're going to a fire.' So we wound up with three reporters on the scene of the fire on a night when we had only five people on the clock. And technically, half an hour after the fire started, four people on the clock, because I should have gone home."

The reporter who worked overtime at City Hall and then headed for Pullman was James Janega, 25. The reporter with an aching mouth was Scott Ballard, 30. "Some of them are just astonishing in their work ethic and dedication," says Kishbaugh, a veteran with 13 years at CNB. "There they are, and there's this huge news story happening--and all they can think of is, 'I want to cover it.'"

Kishbaugh told me other stories like this. Her own future was a mystery. Paul Zimbrakos had offered her a job with New City News that she wasn't sure she'd take. But despite Doug Faigin's want ad, posted on the wall at CNB, she said that even if she didn't follow Zimbrakos to the Tower there was no way she'd work for anyone against him.

News Bites

This weekend Basil Talbott, the former political editor and Washington correspondent cut loose by the Sun-Times last year, begins writing a Sunday column from Washington for the Daily Herald. Editor John Lampinen says Talbott also will be available for "special assignments." How many "depends more on his time than our interest. There are all sorts of stories out there we could be having him do."

The Sun-Times billed its final-markets edition on Friday afternoon, February 12, as an "extra" and led with the banner headline "Clinton Acquitted." The Sun-Times padded its coverage by buttonholing the man on the street for comment, including this: "'I'm just tired of hearing about it,' sighed Justin Time, 30, of Streamwood, as he stood in front of a suburban convenience store."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Paul Zimbrakos photo by Jim Newberry.

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