Underserving the Underserved
A grassroots organization called Chicago Media Action released a critical hundred-page report July 19 about WTTW's flagship program, Chicago Tonight. The judgment was harsh, and where WTTW's interests intersected with the Chicago Tribune's, it was even harsher.
After analyzing 20 straight evenings of the hour-long show last September and 10 more in late January and early February, Chicago Media Action concluded that public television "falls far short" of the goals Congress set for the Public Broadcasting System when it was launched in 1967. Is Chicago Tonight "a forum for controversy and debate"? Does it express "diversity and excellence" and address "the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities"?
Not really. "The show consistently caters to the interests of advertisers, underwriters, and the white affluent Chicagoans whom they seek to reach," the Chicago Media Action report says, "while ignoring news and perspectives of interest to other constituencies."
This isn't an original criticism of public television, but the study's intense focus on a single local program is uncommon. Chicago Tonight: Elites, Affluence, and Advertising reports that over half the stories carried during the 30 evenings the show was under inspection concerned entertainment, lifestyles, or sports and therefore "are not news at all." Four guests out of five were white; when business or economic topics were under discussion, every guest was white; and three guests in four represented "elite social segments," while just 3.1 percent were "public interest representatives" or "citizen activists" or from "organized labor."
And what of the Tribune? "The most glaring example of advertiser influence over content involves The Tribune Company," says Chicago Media Action. "The Tribune Company is an advertiser on Chicago Tonight and also has received extremely favorable treatment from Chicago Tonight. The Chicago Cubs, a Tribune holding, were the focus of at least four stories during the survey period. More importantly was how Chicago Tonight covered an issue of tremendous value to The Tribune Company, namely changes to Federal Communications Commission rules on media ownership."
These proposed changes were approved last year by the FCC and assailed by groups such as Chicago Media Action on grounds that they would enable a handful of media giants to dominate the flow of information in America. In this view, the giants' new freedom to pile up radio and TV stations hither and yon and combine them with newspapers in the same markets would create local media monopolies run by absentee owners. Awakened by the groundswell of opposition, the U.S. Senate has dug in its heels. Last Saturday the Tribune editorial page lamented, "The future of these media ownership rules is clear as mud. That's frustrating to media companies such as Viacom, Gannett, News Corp. and the parent of this newspaper, Tribune Co., which don't know whether or when they'll be allowed to expand into more markets."
What the editorial didn't acknowledge was that the Tribune Company had already expanded, gambling that the FCC would get its way. Now the company's out on a long, creaking limb, in technical violation of the old FCC rules in New York, Connecticut, Florida, and California.
The rule changes, Chicago Media Action says, "have generated between 2 and 3 million letters and emails of opposition from the public. Far from a highly active minority, polls indicate that 77% of the public is opposed to rule changes that would allow big media to get bigger. Chicago Tonight, however, chose only one source for reporting and analysis on the FCC--The Chicago Tribune.
"Deferring analysis to a single entity whose interests are directly involved in the topic of coverage would seem to be an obvious violation of journalistic standards of balance and fairness. But that is exactly what Chicago Tonight did."
The guest was Tribune business reporter David Greising, who was asked last February 5 by "Week in Review" host Joel Weisman, "So, would you say...the Tribune Company is like an oligopoly? Because they control a TV station, a radio station, a cable station, and a newspaper?"
Greising laughed. "Your words, sir, not mine. They're a good public-service, er, institution."
Chicago Media Action says, "Presenting a conflict of interest as a laughing matter cannot be described as serious journalism--nor can we describe relying on a single source with a large financial stake as in-depth journalism." The report goes on to say, "While Chicago Tonight could not find the space to examine the actual details of the FCC rule changes...they did find space for an entire segment on the ethics of sportscasters wearing team logos during broadcasts. Fortunately, it was during this segment that Daily Herald journalist Ted Cox pointed out the obvious. Regarding the 'journalistic ethics' of sportscaster jerseys, Cox concluded that 'a much bigger problem' was 'the Tribune using their editorial page to argue for FCC reforms that clearly benefit the Tribune Company.' Fitting the pattern we are now familiar with, rather than examine this issue, [host] Bob Sirott made a joke."
It's full disclosure time--this is the same Ted Cox who contributes a biweekly sports column to the Reader. And in my view, a laugh from a sharp, self-aware observer like Greising can concede as much ground about conflict of interest as a crusader's ten-minute harangue will reveal.
That said, I take Chicago Media Action's larger point: that it isn't the public WTTW feels an obligation to serve but an affluent stratum of it, which both the station and its corporate funders think of first and foremost as a market.
Randy King, executive vice president of WTTW, tells me his station expanded Chicago Tonight from a half-hour news show to an hour-long "magazine show" to attract a larger, more diverse audience, and he thinks they've done that. He says he's spent a lot of time talking to delegations from Chicago Media Action, and that "they've asked for two hours a week to do with what they wanted. But to turn over the airwaves--that's something that's not necessarily done in public television. That's more like public access or cable access. Like what CAN TV would do."
As for the FCC, there were other shows with other guests, King says, but they aired when Chicago Media Action wasn't keeping score. To be more precise, back on May 29, 2003, Phil Ponce moderated a discussion of the new FCC regulations with the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Lawrence Lichty, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism.
The Vision Thing
The huge conglomerates--Time Warner, News Corporation, the Tribune Company--dominate the media jungle. But at the elephants' feet the mice are busy--presumptuous beginners with more nerve and vision than money. Consider Venus, a zine dedicated to women, music, and culture that was launched in a Michigan State dorm room ten years ago and now has an office in the Kinzie industrial corridor.
Leah Pietrusiak won't be paid a penny for the article she's written for the next issue of Venus. People write for Venus for nothing, she tells me enviously, because they share a vision. Pietrusiak knows about this. She just got done running a newspaper of her own where there wasn't enough money to pay the writers and, she's sorry to say, not enough of a vision either.
Citylink was a neighborhood weekly that tried to serve too many neighborhoods for its own good--Logan Square, Bucktown, Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, East Village, and West Town. Three years ago Mila Tellez and Nile Wendorf, owners of the Spanish-English weekly Extra, surmised that a shopper covering those urban-pioneer areas might make some money. It won't, warned Pietrusiak, then a 22-year-old Extra copy editor: if you don't give people some actual news, no one will pick it up. Tellez and Wendorf decided she was right. They put her in charge of creating, then running, a paper that would get read.
Pietrusiak launched Citylink in November 2001--"We couldn't have picked a worse time," says Wendorf--and gave it the next two and a half years of her life. "I could do a cover story about Logan Square neighbors tearing up the concrete on their property to create more green space," she writes in an e-mail. "I could write an article about an up-and-coming band and give them their first--or an additional--piece of press that could help them get signed, as was the case with local metal band Bible of the Devil. I covered prostitution roundtables. . . . I'd like to think that these articles made a difference somehow."
It was a heady life. Last January Citylink seemed solid enough for Editor & Publisher to run a gushing profile of Pietrusiak under the headline "'Grrl power' in Chicago." She told the trade magazine, "Being in my 20s, I can definitely relate to the younger majority of the target audience. In one night I can hit a fashion show or cover a metal band, and just be part of the scene. I've got enough life and energy that I can have six different things going on at the same time."
But by then a lack of advertising was slowly killing Citylink. One of four full-time staffers when the paper was new, Pietrusiak had become the one and only, and at age 24 she was being ground down by a classic journalistic challenge--putting out almost singlehandedly a paper you can't separate yourself from.
"There were a lot of things I went to that were social and also for work," she says. "I went to parties that were pretty cool and I got in free. But there were times I didn't want to talk to anybody and wanted to stay in my house for a week, but I couldn't."
Last winter she had a chance to spend a few days in Iowa observing the caucuses. "I thought, 'Why would I go and not write something?' I realized I could turn it into a Citylink story. How many people actually know the dynamic of being in a caucus room?"
Hardly any, she decided. "I was going to come home and, you know, drink a bunch of coffee and start transcribing my notes," she says. But her old boyfriend dropped by. "He tried to be nice, and he gave me a back rub. But I got relaxed and went to sleep--and I didn't have time to go to sleep." Because she dozed off she got behind, and typos and little factual errors sneaked in that now make her cringe. "This is a really, really good story," she says, reading it again. "I had a lot of calls from that story. People loved it. Too bad it sucked."
Tellez and Wendorf were "relentlessly optimistic," Pietrusiak says, until a week before they pulled the plug. The final issue came out in mid-April, and a couple of weeks later, when we talked about the paper's death, the body was still warm: the black Citylink boxes still had papers in them, and because there'd been no announcement, a lot of casual readers didn't realize those papers were dated and Citylink was history. Pietrusiak couldn't say for sure who those readers had actually been--there'd been no money for market research.
"We weren't sure if we were an arts paper or a community paper," she says. "Whenever I wrote an article I had two pictures in my head. One of a younger Wicker Park artist-musician sort, and one of a longtime Logan Square activist in a fight for more green space and traffic controls. And I'd try to write somewhere in between."
Wendorf and Tellez would like to bring Citylink back. The unsolved riddle is what to put in the paper that will attract readers who'll attract advertisers seeking the market the two of them still believe is there. "The challenge is, what should be its content?" Wendorf says. "On one end you have traditional community newspapers, which tend to have a lot of local news--content-driven things. On the other end you have papers like the Reader and New City--they tend to be analytical, arts driven, that kind of stuff. The area needs a blend of both. It's how to do it. It's not a traditional neighborhood. It's a series of neighborhoods. That was one of the dilemmas. How do you bring people from Lakeview, for instance, to purchase services in West Town, Bucktown, or Wicker Park?"
"We were on the western side of Lakeview," Wendorf says. "We had retail drops."
In June, I talked to Mark Valentino, editor, publisher, and owner of the Gazette, a paper that successfully spans several neighborhoods. It's a thick monthly with a divided soul--stuffed with real estate ads while given to reporting on community groups fighting gentrification. Founded in 1983, the Gazette was known as the Near West/South Gazette until the May issue, when it announced that it was shortening its name and expanding into Bridgeport, Chinatown, West Town, and East Village.
For the last four years the competition in the Gazette's old neighborhoods has been the weekly Chicago Journal. Who are you up against in West Town and East Village? I asked Valentino. "Citylink's the paper there," he said. It folded two months ago, I told him. "They did? I didn't realize that," he said. "Gosh, what an ironic twist!"
Pietrusiak was paid $25,000 a year to put out Citylink. In a good week she got an editorial budget of $100. "With no freelance money," she told me, "I found myself working with a lot of English majors who were just venturing into journalism who were willing to work for free. I found myself at times being a mentor as well as an editor--at a time when I needed a mentor too.
"The majority of the time I had no money to pay contributors. And it was hard, because in the beginning I told people they could get paid. I stopped asking to get comped for gas, for lunch, for going to Kinko's late at night because our computers were screwy. I stopped asking for compensation because I was under the impression there was no money, and I was almost OK with that because I wanted it to work, and if I put the time into it and money into it there'd be something later on. And there wasn't."
Even at a fat paper like the Gazette everyone works part-time. That includes Valentino, whose day job is assistant dean for development at the University of Illinois at Chicago dental school. Venus was Pietrusiak's business model--a dedicated core working all hours for nothing. She couldn't duplicate it. "Maybe I just wasn't cool enough," she says.
She adds, "A lot of these pubs that depend on their freelancers working for little or no money are not publishing every week, and they're not necessarily out to make a profit, at least not in the beginning. They're born from one passion or another. So here I was, taking someone else's seed of an idea, adding on what I could, learning what it was, deciding what it was going to be, and developing my own dedication and fire. But it's not like I had a lot of time in between issues to recoup, take a step back, mull over what was going on."
A half dozen of the black Citylink boxes still sit on the streets, some chained to light poles. They're scarred by graffiti, festooned with decals, stuffed with debris. Pietrusiak says some have been appropriated by other papers--"squatters," she calls them. "I really like looking at them," she says of the abandoned boxes. "They're such works of street art. They're being absorbed by the street."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.