By Michael Miner
The public doesn't buy America's community newspapers for the wit and wisdom of their pundits--but then that's not why most of us buy big city dailies either. People like to know what's going on. Even so, a daily forum of forceful cogitators turns the passive experience of learning what happened into an argument. No serious daily can afford to shed its columnists, who stamp a paper with a character and a point of view.
The Press Publications papers in Du Page County came out only once or twice a week, but they were serious. The way they let you know that was their op-ed page.
Until last week the Press papers had a real one. There were guest columnists, and there were the regulars: Jack Zimmerman opining on Jerry Falwell and Teletubbies, Hal Dardick ripping the death penalty, Mike Sandrolini musing on Bill and Monica, Don Hammontree finding glimmers of peace in Northern Ireland. These were local guys, unknown outside Du Page but weighing in on the same hefty matters that occupy George Will, John Kass, and Robert Novak.
Last October Press Publications was purchased by Liberty Group Publishing of Northbrook. Unlike Press Publications, a 34-paper chain that had been owned since the 1920s by the Cruger family, Liberty was a company with no traditions and barely even a history; it had been launched nine months earlier by the merchant banking firm of Leonard Green & Partners of Los Angeles to tap the lucrative business sector that is community publishing.
Liberty left a good thing alone for a while. Press Publications kept its separate identity; Jack Cruger--the fourth generation of his family to run the papers--stayed on as publisher, and the editorial page went on commemorating "Melvin J. Cruger, Editor and Publisher, 1962-1983."
In December Liberty expanded again, acquiring Life Printing & Publishing Company of Oak Brook, which published 17 weeklies in Chicago's west and southwest suburbs and had been owned by the Kubik and Randa families since the 30s. Larry Randa, vice president of operations, stayed on to run the Life papers, and when Jack Cruger resigned as publisher of the Press newspapers in early March, Randa took them over as president of Liberty Group Suburban. The tribute to Melvin Cruger vanished from the editorial page. And last week Dardick, Sandrolini, and Hammontree disappeared from the op-ed page.
Ads and news briefs replaced them. The biggest ad touted Liberty Federal Bank, which some Press staffers erroneously assumed belonged to the Liberty Group family. They took a gallows delight in the ad's boast "It's Amazing How Low We Can Go."
Randa told me: "In essence we are trying to create a better local news product." With what? "Names, names, names. Pictures, pictures, pictures. People want to know what's going on in their town, what kids are doing in the local Little League and the schools. That's the bread and butter of the local newspaper industry. The fact is, if we're going to create that kind of news we've got to create some space. We felt that the columnists no longer with us were not, were not--"
Whatever they were not, words failed him. "We felt we needed to create space," Randa said again. "And something had to go for the paper to become more local. It's a tried-and-true formula."
Was your op-ed page a vanity? I asked.
"I wouldn't call it a vanity," Randa said. "I would call it a luxury. While they're excellent columnists and well-read columnists, the fact is that circulation has been declining the last five or six years by about 15 percent."
The luxury of Hal Dardick's "Inside Politics" column cost Press Publications $75 a week. "That's hardly a good living wage," Dardick told me, "but it was my baby, my chance to really explore an issue and shed some light." Dardick makes his living by writing freelance, primarily for the Chicago Tribune. As Press Publications' expert on the Rolando Cruz case, he'll go on writing analysis of the Du Page Seven (now Five) trial until it ends, but then he expects to put the Press papers behind him.
"This is an example of what's going on around the country, with community newspapers being bought out by huge corporations with a profit motive rather than a community-service motive in mind," he said. "But this one I think is particularly insidious." He fears the marketplace of ideas has been reduced. Under Jack Cruger, the Press papers endorsed Carol Moseley-Braun for the U.S. Senate last fall. Under three generations of Randas and Kubiks, the Life chain had been dependably Republican. Heir apparent Jack Kubik was a Republican legislator from La Grange Park from 1985 until this year, when Governor Ryan appointed him executive director of the Illinois Racing Board. He intended to step in and run the company with Larry Randa, but Liberty Group came along with an offer too whopping to refuse.
"I voted for Carol Moseley-Braun," said Randa. He promises editorial policy will not be set on high. "We'll let the newsrooms handle the [endorsement] interviews."
And Liberty Group won't dictate it either? I asked.
"For sure not," said Randa. "Liberty is an acquisitions company. They're not going to dictate anything to us. They're concerned with how we're doing, but I don't think the content means anything to them one way or another."
"Liberty Group does not dictate editorial policy to its newspapers," said Kenneth Serota, a CPA who's president of the company.
Fifteen years ago Press Publications gave Jack Zimmerman a column, and Randa is keeping him. Not once, Zimmerman said, has he been told what to write or not write. "That's pretty amazing," he reflected. Zimmerman supports himself by handling PR for Ravinia, and he's rarely in the newsroom. He had no idea change was in the air. "I opened the paper on Friday, and there I was [at the top of the page]. I looked down below me--and nobody was there. It was an odd feeling."
Last year the Tribune's Eric Zorn chronicled the war against middle age that he and Zimmerman were waging in training for the Chicago Marathon. A longtime reader of the Press Publications op-ed page, Zorn reported in the Tribune last week that the papers' new owners were "decimating the papers' zesty op-ed page" by replacing writers with ads.
"Eric Zorn is not correct," Randa told me. "They're not going to be replaced by ads." But in the next breath he said, "The news hole in a newspaper is generally figured on advertising. Generally newspapers try to run at about 40 percent news and 60 percent advertising. Press Publications was running probably as little as 40 percent advertising and 60 percent news."
"No longer are Life and Press Publications family-owned publications. We are in business to make money for Liberty Group Publishing. If it means running a little bit tighter newspapers, then we may have to do that."
Why did Melvin Cruger disappear? I wondered.
"Jack Kubik [the former state representative's father] disappeared from our papers as well," Randa replied. "As well as my father and grandfather. While Randa and Kubik and Cruger are great names in the past of the newspapers, it's time to move on."
The flagship of the Press chain is the biweekly Elmhurst Press. Theresa Amato, executive director of the high-profile Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, has written several guest columns for the Press papers, and when she got word that those papers were dumbing down she decided to organize. First she called Randa and complained about the new op-ed page, the recent price hike from 50 to 75 cents, and what she perceived to be a deemphasis of hard news in favor of soft. Then she fired off a "media advisory" announcing that on Tuesday the Citizen Advocacy Center and other "concerned readers" would picket Press Publications' Elmhurst headquarters. They were going to protest "Liberty Group Publishing's conversion of our award-winning local newspaper, Press Publications, into a cash cow advertising forum."
In her advisory she waved the gauntlet she said Randa had thrown down. "I explained that western Cook and parts of Du Page counties are in a news vacuum and that changing the one newspaper that provided local news coverage into an ad forum was a disservice to the readers. He said nobody would care."
On Tuesday 15 to 20 picketers cared enough to show up outside the Press offices. "This is just a start, perhaps," Amato told me after the rally. Hal Dardick couldn't make it--he was covering the Du Page trial for the Press papers and Reuters. But he issued a statement. "Advertising revenue can be increased and editorial content can be improved," his press release asserted, "without decimating the qualities that made the paper unique, informative and particularly vital to local democracy."
James Weinstein, the 71-year-old founder of In These Times, has finally taken semiretirement. He'll continue underwriting the biweekly political journal, writing occasional editorials, and sitting on the board but he has a book to finish and, at last, successors he believes in. Managing editor Joel Bleifuss has succeeded him as editor, and Beth Schulman has taken over as publisher. Schulman, a former associate publisher, left In These Times two years ago to found the Independent Press Association, but she stayed in touch and on the board and returned a few weeks ago. "He's ready to stop worrying about this--it's something he'd hoped to do for years," a former colleague of Weinstein's told me. "He has enormous confidence in Joel. And Beth is great. She's one of the few people I can think of who could pull that place together."
Nigel Wade, editor of the Sun-Times, won an ethics award from the Chicago Headline Club this month for his decision to play high school shoot-ups, notably Columbine, on inside pages. The ethics award has a brief but spotty history, and this year's choice has been derided--yes, even at his own paper--as tribute paid to the grandstanding of a bully who sucks up to advertisers. Well, maybe. But we can at least give Wade credit for switching off the automatic pilot. Wade got himself on Nightline, but he also put the bracing idea on the table that when society goes haywire it's possible for journalists to react by something other than reflex.
An intimate biography. Spotted on the Tribune obit page: "She quit her job after four years, when she consummated a South Side-North Side romance and married John F. Smith, who became her husband of almost 50 years. Jack Smith said his parents developed their relationship while riding the trains."
The best way to encourage unselfishness is to reward it, which is why LifeSource Blood Services is taking a new tack to attract donors. It's answering the question, What's in it for me? Recent LifeSource ads point out that giving blood regularly prevents a dangerous buildup of iron in the blood, lowers blood pressure, and makes strokes and heart attacks less likely. A spokesman says, "We're trying to step away from the old message, donate blood and save a life, because people aren't listening to that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.