A Leaner Lerner

Terry Haggerty counts beans for the Lerner newspapers. There’s good news, he told us this week: the pile of black beans is about as high as the pile of red beans.

Black beans don’t just grow by themselves. The crop had vanished years ago from the hardscrabble fields the Pulitzer Publishing Company gladly turned over last October to Haggerty’s investment group. How’d you do it? we asked him.

“A combination of factors, actually,” said Haggerty, chief financial officer of Lerner Communications, Inc. “We have cut staff, so we’re doing more things with less people. We have combined some editions, so there’s less expensive printing costs. We’ve restructured some of the sales-commission rates.”

To put the new owners’ strategy in agricultural terms, they’ve slashed, they’ve burned. The number of full-time editorial employees dropped from 50 to 22 and has stayed there. Salaries were not rolled back, but the working day was lengthened, and Lerner no longer considers its employees members of the Chicago Newspaper Guild (an opinion the guild does not share).

The News-Star, Booster, Skyline, Times, and Life nameplates still exist on the north and northwest sides of Chicago and adjacent suburbs. But because the area is commercially moribund, there’s no longer a separate Lincoln-Belmont Booster (even though Lerner’s offices are in the neighborhood); and the three News-Star papers, which covered Chicago’s north side from Montrose to Evanston and from Pulaski to the lake, became one. For a time a single Lerner reporter, Jack Bess, had to cover this enormous area. Now there’s a second reporter, augmented by part-timers and free-lancers–the city teems with young, desperate journalism-school graduates–paid $6 an hour to cover meetings.

The editorial pages disappeared completely. And an entire north-side community, Uptown, vanished from the Lerner map. There just wasn’t enough advertising from Uptown to cover costs. “I send press releases to Lerner, and they don’t get in,” says Suellen Long, a PR agent who’s chairman of the board of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce. “My clients don’t get in.”

Neglect is a strategy born of desperation, and nobody on the editorial side of Lerner pretends to be happy with it. “I don’t really sense I’m doing a comprehensive job,” Jack Bess told us. “I guess I write four or five stories a week. And it shakes out being maybe two from Rogers Park, one from Edgewater, one from Ravenswood. I don’t know how satisfying that is to people.”

Bess knows it isn’t. “Somebody in Rogers Park would love to pick up the paper and read nothing but Rogers Park stories. Something happening in Albany Park might as well be happening on the moon. People like things to be very specific. They want to know what’s happening at the store on the corner. A year ago we were asked to do focus groups with readers. [At the time Pulitzer still thought it might be able to turn around its Lerner operation.] They wanted us to go in and print the whole police blotter. They wanted to know all the buildings in housing court.”

“We’re going to institute in all our papers what we call neighborhood columnists for lack of a better term,” executive editor Bill Santamour told us. “I think one of the problems with Lerner as it is now is that there isn’t a lot of personal identity in the papers. Some of them will be staff people, some will just be columnists we hire from the outside. They’re not going to be deep thinkers. They’ll basically be name-dropping columns. And we’re still struggling with covering politics on a ward level better than we’re doing it now. That may just involve more people on the staff than we have now.”

Out in the nabes Bess frequently hears from community activists lamenting the missing editorial page. There are issues out there–an unruly bar, graffiti, a dubious new development–of consuming interest to everyone within a half-mile radius and absolutely none to anyone else in Chicago. Assessing them gives a neighborhood paper a reason for being. “I heard from somebody today who was giving me a little grief about something I wrote,” Bess told us. “He mentioned that in the past we’ve printed editorials that supported his position, and what I wrote today didn’t gibe with that. It was completely important to him that in the past Lerner had taken a stand on that issue.”

“Right now,” says Santamour, “we’re working far too much to have thoughtful editorials. To have an editorial board and bring people in to meet us–it just isn’t possible.” What he wants to try instead is an “opinion page”–already introduced on a small scale in Skyline–that will be filled by readers and a rotating group of column-writing politicians.

Santamour also wants to open a new edition of the News-Star and go back into Uptown. “There’s a lot going on there, but if it can’t support a newspaper . . . ” he said. “That’s one of the reasons Lerner didn’t do so well before. We were in a lot of areas that just didn’t support the paper.”

“We are actually going back into Uptown,” Terry Haggerty assures us. “There is some ad revenue in there we’re probably missing. There are some community groups who have expressed an interest in better coverage. We’ll do it on a really planned, managed, incremental basis. We’re looking at where the ad base is and where the subscription base is.”

“There is a highly educated population in Uptown,” argues Josh Hoyt, executive director of the Organization of the NorthEast. “It’s much better educated than the citywide average. It happens that many of those well-educated people are immigrants, but it has an extraordinarily active political and cultural life. Any paper that chooses to write Uptown out of its coverage is shooting itself in the foot.”

Suellen Long told us about a commercial revitalization project the Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring and Lerner is ignoring. “We desperately need community input, and we have no vehicle to inform folks,” she said. “We’re making it work through other ways of communication, but it costs us. It cost us $700 to do a mailing, and we’re still not encompassing everyone.”

Channel Two Gets Ethical

We’ve traduced Channel Two. A couple of weeks ago we told you about an anchorman who consumed airtime touting “a Channel Two exclusive”–an inside look at the nightly lottery drawings on Channel Two. He closed the newscast by urging viewers to go out and buy tickets.

This tale may have created the impression that Two is a channel without shame or standards. What can we say but we’re sorry? It has been brought to our attention that only this year the station drew an ethical line and refused to cross it. For proof, open the new Bigsby & Kruthers “suit book,” a handsome collection of Marc Hauser portraits of local celebrities in Bigsby finery.

There, on facing pages, are sports personalities Tim Weigel and Jon Kelley of channels Seven and Five. Where, you might ask, is Channel Two? Where it belongs–on the sidelines, its back turned to temptation.

Actually, Channel Two wasn’t invited. But when sportscaster Corey McPherrin showed up with a crew to shoot Hauser shooting Jim Harbaugh and Tom Waddle, Bigsby president Gene Silverberg told McPherrin he ought to pose too. OK, said McPherrin. And he did.

“As I was leaving,” McPherrin told us, “the PR girl said, ‘You can get a sport coat or a suit.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can take it, but it’s nice of you to offer.'”

McPherrin was going to clear the shoot with his bosses back at the station, but he forgot to. The first anyone there heard of it was when someone from Bigsby called checking on McPherrin’s bio. General manager William Applegate, former news director Mark Hoffman, and community-affairs director Monroe Anderson put their heads together and decided McPherrin would be trading on his professional credibility if he showed up in the suit book. So they made a historic call. They said he couldn’t.

For a collaborator’s view we turned to Tim Weigel. “Frankly, it’s flattering to be included with Michael Jordan and Jim Harbaugh–I’m not sure about Bernie Brennan,” Weigel told us. “I had no problem with it, and as far as I know, nobody at the station did.

“It’s great publicity. Heaven knows, tacitly it’s an endorsement of the store, and I do shop there. It’s kind of a perplexing area because you have Pat Summerall doing commercials for True Value and John Madden pumping for Ace. Sports guys have always been in never-never land.”

A prickly Jon Kelley made sure we understood that his participation had been cleared by Channel Five’s general manager. We asked him if he shopped at Bigsby. Yes, he answered enigmatically, “I shop at different stores. I also get gas at Amoco.”

An appearance in the suit book is a crowning moment in any career. A previous edition featured Walter Jacobson (answering to a less fastidious Channel Two management). The present book also offers Lesley Visser of CBS network sports and Ahmad Rashad of NBC network sports. According to Gene Silverberg, McPherrin is the first media person ever to turn Bigsby down. “Everybody likes to be recognized as being a winner,” said Silverberg. “And there’s no one paid for it.”

Except with the clothes they model, we reminded him.

Not necessarily, Silverberg said. “Athletes expect it. Businessmen would never accept it. Journalists would never think of it.”

That’s nice, but Channel Two deserves a special tribute. Incorruptible when approached by haberdasheries. And they’re free to quote us in their promotionals. No one came close to Two’s exercise of self-denial but Phil Jackson. The Bulls coach refused to allow his suit-book portrait to go up on a warehouse along the Kennedy Expressway that’s now covered on three sides with huge enlargements of Bigsby’s winners.

“He struggled with it,” Silverberg marveled. “He knew how much it meant to me. But he said to be larger than life might be blasphemous. He’s a cool guy, I’m telling you.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.