West Side Mission
"New York is an attractive place," Brett McNeil was saying, "because of its cool papers." For the past year McNeil has been trying to establish a pretty cool paper of his own. The Chicago Journal, which he edits, is a neighborhood weekly, he emphasizes, not an "alternative" anything. But if it's any sort of reflection of the neighborhoods it serves, these areas are populated by the literate, the cultured, and the engaged.
What these areas actually are or will become remains to be seen. The Journal circulates in the South Loop, Near West, and West Loop, which takes it roughly from Lake Street south to Cermak, and from Western to the lake, with Pilsen excluded and the Loop given a once-over. "It's a very compact area, but there are 100,000-plus people there," says publisher Dan Haley, roughly 50 percent more than there were five years ago.
"Our thinking," says Haley, "was that this was the largest series of three neighborhoods we knew of that did not have a weekly newspaper"--though a monthly, the Near West Gazette, already covered them. "Our thinking was that these were really compelling places to have a newspaper from an editorial point of view. There were a lot of interesting issues to write about."
Parks, schools, city services--these are the eternal concerns of affluent and mushrooming populations. "The fundamental issue is, how do you identify yourself as a member of a community that didn't exist five years ago?" Haley continues. "How do you define yourself and involve yourself?"
A newspaper doesn't simply seek such a definition. It helps create it. If the South Loop, Near West, and West Loop begin to think of themselves as parts of one large, urbane community running south and west of downtown, it'll be in large part because the Chicago Journal showed up to tell them that's what they are.
Lydialyle Gibson, the Journal's only staff writer, says the West Loop and South Loop have more in common than they probably realize. "I think about this more than they do. They're both dealing with a lot of residential development happening very quickly, a changeover from industrial and commercial neighborhoods to ones full of residents--some would say overrun by residents."
Near West is different, she says, because it's a much older, better-established residential area. "People think of the histories of the South and West Loop, but it's like they're researching histories they weren't there for. But in Little Italy you can drop by the coffee shops and talk to 80-year-old men who'll tell you all about it."
In all three areas, Gibson says, the new people moving in are mostly white and affluent.
They don't all read the Journal. The paper's free, but circulation is just about 15,000, and advertising's still scarce. In its just-completed first year of existence it lost money "in the low six figures," according to Haley. But it has the look and flavor of an institution. Haley brought in Phillip Ritzenberg, a "crusty old guy from New York," to design the Journal. "We said, 'We're going into these old city neighborhoods that are brand-new. We want to do a broadsheet to stand out from everyone else, and we want a retro look but with kind of a contemporary feel. These are oddly historical neighborhoods, but they're all different and all new.'
"I think he really nailed it," says Haley.
Was the yellow paper his idea? I ask.
No, says Haley. "The peach paper, or the salmon paper, was kind of a little tribute to the New York Observer, the one we were reading over the years. Ritzenberg thought we were nuts."
But Haley explains that peach-colored paper isn't that much more expensive than white. It's the Journal's most immediate way of asserting--the layout's a close second--that even when the task at hand is a report on "whose streets are dug up for sewer work," as Haley puts it, the task will be done with style.
Most of the writing is by McNeil and Gibson. "We have sort of a strange cycle," says Gibson, who's 25 and has a master's in poetry from Johns Hopkins. "Thursday and Friday we don't work that hard. Mondays and Tuesdays Brett and I, for sure, work almost 24 hours straight. We sort of get all the stories reported and write most everything Monday and Tuesday night. We wouldn't be having any fun if we weren't trying to write well. We probably wouldn't be here until three in the morning Tuesday night either."
Gibson got a tip in August that South Asian college students living around the University of Illinois at Chicago felt abused by local merchants and landlords. This was a story she took her time on. Her follow-up reporting delayed the story's publication past September 11, and when it finally ran on October 4, there was a headline over it that said, in part, "Even before the World Trade Center attacks, a group of foreign students at UIC say they felt unwelcome on the Near West Side."
The lead story a week later was McNeil's report of a gallery installation--the arts are big news in the Journal--of a work inspired by the 1995 sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway. This headline said, "On Sept. 7, Monique Meloche welcomed visitors to the opening of an art show inspired by an act of terrorism; a month later, she says Underground has held up, and deepened in meaning."
And in the Journal these allusions seemed attentive and cosmopolitan rather than opportunistic.
Haley entered publishing in 1980 when he launched the Wednesday Journal in Oak Park. His Wednesday Journal, Inc. now also publishes papers for Forest Park, Riverside and Brookfield, and Austin, as well as Chicago Parent magazine. McNeil, 28, was editing Haley's four established weeklies when the candidate Haley had in mind for the Chicago Journal backed out, so McNeil dropped the other papers and took over. "He has an opportunity here with a brand-new paper to do something kind of special," says Haley. "It's a really generic, boring time in our industry. There are not too many chances to do something interesting."
Community leaders I talked to praised the Journal. "They do a lot of parks council stuff in the South Loop, which I could care less about," says Allen Hayes, executive director of the Tri-Taylor Community Foundation. "But they've done a lot for us. Brett's a good guy, and Lydia is very good and very knowledgeable. They've started to do more hard-hitting stuff, more digging. They're not doing as many galleries, not doing as much parks council stuff."
"I think their coverage of the near west side is very strong," says Brian Bernardini, executive director of the University Village Association. "I like the fact it's got a weekly turnaround [in contrast to the monthly Gazette, which Bernardini admires for the depth of its reporting], so we can keep up on what's going on. It's a little more erudite than some might expect out of a weekly. There's a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in there. Some may like it, some may not. I'm OK with it."
McNeil says it drives him nuts to have to spike good stories every week because the Journal isn't thick enough yet to make space for them. "But God, I'd rather have an embarrassment of overreported riches than be covering Schaumburg. The Daily Herald can have it. Or Grayslake. I used to work with a really good guy, a sportswriter, who took a job at a daily. He went to the Kane County Chronicle. He didn't last six months. I'd rather be reporting for a city weekly than a suburban daily."
So would plenty of other journalists McNeil can't afford to hire. "I field lots of calls--'Hey, are you looking for a staff writer?' I guess they don't look at the bylines, which are all the same two people."
A Tale of Two Terrors
We can die in dozens of ways, but at any given time there's usually one disease that really spooks us, and at the moment it's anthrax. A letter in the Sun-Times this week damns the media for deciding "to exploit news to create sensationalism and fear" and offers as a "fantastic example" of this exploitation "the anthrax panic created by the media."
As an indictment, the letter's not persuasive. As evidence of panic, it's pretty convincing.
I was watching Ted Koppel one recent night, wondering how bad this was going to get and nursing the bleak idea that life as we've known it in America has changed forever. That's when it occurred to me that the nation was actually traveling a well-blazed trail. The rest of us were getting a taste--and a pretty weak taste at that--of what it must have been like to be a gay man in the early 1980s.
Not that the comparison is a close one. HIV is communicable; anthrax is not. AIDS kills; caught early enough, anthrax can be easily treated. The scariest thing about anthrax is that it's presumably being inflicted by invisible enemies who despise us and believe it's God's will that we die. The fellow Americans who despised gay men and preached it was God's will that they die were mere spectators to the AIDS plague.
I E-mailed some gay men I know and asked them what they thought.
"That's an interesting notion," replied a friend with AIDS who's been kept alive for years by a drug cocktail, "but I think you can only push it so far. There are some parallels, beginning with the general sense of incomprehension and terror early in the crisis." But while nothing was known about the HIV virus when it struck, anthrax is pretty much an open book. "With anthrax, we know from the get-go what the agent is and more or less where it's coming from, and we already have at least three effective drugs that actually cure infected people."
"The difference, obviously, is that AIDS isn't communicated through the mail. Nor is it a form of biological warfare," another gay friend responded. "But the public reaction to anthrax vs. the strength shown by gays in the early years of the AIDS epidemic does raise some good points. Because AIDS started out as a 'gay disease' it didn't initially receive much media attention. We complained about that at the time...but in fact it may have been to the good....AIDS didn't really hit the mainstream consciousness until Rock Hudson's death, and then it got all sensationalized, but by that time [gays] had sort of a handle on it."
And a third gay man wrote back, "This is nothing compared to the terror I felt during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Back then something indiscriminate, infectious and untreatable was spreading like wildfire. That was terrifying enough, but the real panic set in when we all realized that the history we gay men were living through was being erased as it unfolded; the rest of America couldn't be bothered to acknowledge what was happening or that it might matter.
"To suggest that America has never lived through anything as terrifying as these anthrax attacks negates so much of American history; I can only imagine that living as a black person in the south in the 1920s or 1930s was a whole lot more terrifying than living as a media mogul in 21st century New York."
As a people, Americans have suffered and survived much more and much worse than we individually often choose to understand. The friend quoted first above closed with this observation: "The only people who are really having the same kind of experience that gay people had are the friends and relatives and colleagues of the WTC victims, who have lost so many loved ones in the prime of their lives and are becoming experts in the art of arranging and attending memorial services."
"Beat down" is black idiom that means "ready to kick ass," and you wouldn't expect to find it in Kup's column except that his black assistant, Stella Foster, does a lot of the writing. The Sunday, October 14, column began: "Americans are really getting tough, especially passengers on planes. They are seriously in the 'beat down' mode. They are not taking any chances and not waiting to be told what to do if someone even looks like they might have plans to hijack the plane."
This copy passed through the hands of a confused white news editor who, without consulting Kup or Foster, changed it to read, "They are seriously in the 'beaten down' mode." And that's what the Sun-Times published, though in context it made no sense at all. Black reporters told each other that a few more black faces in the newsroom might be a good thing to have.
New York Times headline, October 19: "Anti-Western Islam Pervades Saudi Schools, and Seeps Into Wider Culture." So we've got to contain it in the schools.
Good news we missed in the rush of events: Canada's Globe and Mail reports that four weeks after he renounced the Canadian citizenship that was standing in his way, Sun-Times owner Conrad Black received the peerage he coveted from Britain's House of Lords.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.