The Sun-Times has made a stunning change in its procedures. Call the newspaper now — at least between 8:30 and 5:30 weekdays — and someone will answer. Yes, an actual operator asking “May I help you?” or “How may I direct your call?” Realizing there’s actually a live person at the other end of the line, you might be too tongue-tied to respond, but you’ll get used to it. Your ancestors did. Back in the heyday of daily newspapers — when people read them and valued them and actually felt emotional connections to them — every paper employed operators. People assumed that when they called their newspaper someone would pick up and say hello.
The new Sun-Times slogan is “Let’s get into it,” and the paper may have recognized that a shoulder-to-shoulder, us-against-the-world alliance with its readers wouldn’t mean much if those readers couldn’t raise anyone by phone. Many of them couldn’t. “We were losing a lot of calls,” says a new operator — actually an IT manager working a one-hour shift on the switchboard. The Sun-Times recently brought on a “director of new initiatives,” Jeff Chardell, and this is his idea, which isn’t so much an initiative as a return to basics. Another of the new operators tells me that pretty much all of the 20 or so employees who volunteered for these shifts are women.
Is the competition following suit? “Thank you for calling the Chicago Tribune,” says a hearty male voice-in-a-can. “Please listen closely to the following options . . . ”