All Good News

We just picked up a newspaper that is a model of what a newspaper ought to be. It comes out only when there is news, and the news is always good.

With perfect timing, the latest edition of Jackpot, the free newspaper of the Illinois Lottery, hit the stands as the Lotto take was soaring toward the $50 million mark, bathing the state in dreamy greed. The lottery is a marvelous institution because it makes everybody happy. Players get to pretend for a few days that they’ve made an investment that could put them on easy street. We nonplayers are delighted to see the awesome power of wishful thinking harnessed to keep our taxes down.

Last year, the lottery pumped $586.1 million into Illinois’ Common School Fund. And exactly $1 came from our pockets (every time the pot passes $50 million we wade in). It’s enough to make a common man feel as smug as a Reagan millionaire.

Jackpot has been around for a year, but we didn’t notice it until we saw a stack of the winter 1990 issue at the State and Chicago subway stop. Executive editor Mary Johnston-Clark wasn’t surprised. She said Jackpot used to be inserted into the local papers, but “it kind of got swallowed up” by the Sun-Times and Tribune. From now on, Jackpot will be distributed in the Chicago area by delivering bundles to the ticket agents.

It’s a nifty paper–snappily designed with lots of color, and chock-full of the elements that mark today’s successful journalism. There’s an advice column (“Dear Lotta: I won $1,000 on an instant ticket, but my agent won’t give me cash for it. What gives?”), celebrity profiles (“Merri Dee’s achievements extend far beyond pulling the numbers Monday through Friday at 6:59 p.m.”), human interest (“Sam LaPorta of Berwyn said, ‘I burned my overalls,’ when he was asked what was the first thing he did upon hearing of his $14.4 million Lotto win”), household tips (“Barbara wasn’t going to take any chances. ‘I put the ticket in a little plastic bag so it wouldn’t get dirty, and I hid the bag in my sewing box–you know, in one of those compartments that folds down out of sight'”), and even crime news (“Illegal lotteries cost the state more than $200 million in 1989 and untold amounts of money to those who played them”).

Finally, there’s the hard news, which is always good news. It’s good news because it’s always an announcement of new games. The Illinois Lottery is constantly coming up with new games, lest interest flag and threaten the revenue stream that sustains our schools. The two games unveiled in the winter 1990 Jackpot are Millionaire and Hoopla.

“We time [each issue] to come out with the introduction of our next Grand Prize-containing instant game,” Johnston-Clark explained. “We usually have at least two instant games on sale at a time, one with a grand prize and one with a lot more smaller prizes. We try to accommodate everybody’s tastes. Some go for the big bucks–some just get a thrill out of winning 5, 10, 15 at a time.”

When Johnston-Clark went to work for the Illinois Lottery two years ago, there was no Jackpot. One of her duties was to organize and fetch the media to the Grand Prize drawing, which every three months transforms some trite existence to the tune of a cool $2 million.

“In addition to that,” she told us, “I coordinate the road event. It’s like a medicine show, sort of. We have a juggler and a magician and we go out–mostly to downstate county fairs–and answer people’s questions, and we have an agent to actually sell tickets.”

But the future of public learning in Illinois is too crucial to be left to 19th-century methods of hustling rustics. “With any mature lottery,” said Johnston-Clark, explaining the situation facing Illinois, “it tends to get a little more difficult to impress the public and media. It used to be, a $5 million jackpot really got people excited. Now, if it’s not above $30 million, you don’t get any coverage.”

Many a new publisher was inspired to join the journalism game by the insight that the only guarantee of favorable coverage is to provide your own. Acting on this principle, several mature lotteries around the country have started their own papers, one of the sprightliest being the state of Washington’s the Winning Beat. “Their paper pretty much apes USA Today style,” said Johnston-Clark.

Sharon Sharp, director of the Illinois Lottery, spotted the Winning Beat at a lottery convention. “She brought it home and said ‘Do this, it’s neat,'” Johnston-Clark told us. “We saw what they did with theirs and took it a couple of steps further.”

A former promotions manager at Outside magazine, Johnston-Clark brought in free-lancer Ken Ovryn, a former art director at Outside and Playboy, to design Jackpot. The two of them have triumphed brilliantly, casting a warm, hip, familial glow over the process of flinging your money away.

All that Jackpot lacks as a complete newspaper is an editorial crusade. But we think we have one–lottery reform. Sad to say, a lot of people have turned their backs on the children of Illinois by refusing to play the lottery, some because they can’t figure out the rules (a form of ignorance that Jackpot is dedicated to wiping out), others because–well, because they’re like us.

So we said to Johnston-Clark–why not finagle the lottery to tie it in directly with our tax returns, so that no one who files their taxes can avoid it?

“I’ve heard that kicked around,” she surprised us by saying. “It’s not a completely unique idea. But there are people who are very much against gambling, and that would be like making them gamble. I know there are people who are very religious who are antigambling even when it’s sanctioned gambling and the money goes to a good cause.”

What about a box on the tax return?

Like a presidential checkoff? she said.

Exactly. It’ll work just like a sweepstakes. From your refund due, buy all the chances you want at a dollar per–could anything be more painless? Come June or so, there’ll be a drawing, and if you’re the lucky winner you’re on easy street.

And if you’re not the lucky winner, which you won’t be, well, schoolchildren everywhere will thank you for trying. And so will we. So will we.

Measuring the Dailies

There’s no sillier way of comparing two newspapers than with a ruler, which is what we just did. We set the Friday, February 16, editions of the Sun-Times and Tribune next to each other to see if the impression each made on us could be quantified. And sure enough.

There were two big local stories that day–Thursday’s political fallout from Wednesday night’s snowstorm, and Mayor Daley’s plans for a new airport on the southeast side. And inch by inch, as well as in other ways, the Sun-Times blew away the Tribune with both of them.

The two stories dominated the front page of the Sun-Times. And inside, the paper totally devoted two facing pages to each story: pages four and five to the airport, pages six and seven to the snow. Page seven was full of photographs.

The Tribune jumped the airport story from page 1 back to page 14, and overall gave the topic less than half the space the Sun-Times did. The Tribune’s snow story jumped from page 1 to 2 while a couple of sidebars ran in the Chicagoland section. There was 20 percent less coverage in column inches.

So the Sun-Times won big on visual presentation. What about focus? Compare these leads:

Tribune: “Blame for Wednesday’s dismal rush hour was being spread around as abundantly as salt on the streets Thursday.”

Sun-Times: “The weather outside was frightful, and so was the city’s snow removal, Mayor Daley acknowledged Thursday.”

Close, but we give the nod to the tabloid. Now compare these headlines:

Tribune: “Daley tells airport fund plan”

Sun-Times: “Massive upheaval for Southeast Side”

And these leads:

Tribune: “Mayor Richard Daley Thursday unveiled a detailed plan for a $5 billion international airport on the Southeast Side and said he will use an innovative form of financing proposed by President Bush to help pay for it.”

Sun-Times: “Mayor Daley’s plan to build a Southeast Side airport bigger than O’Hare would displace 6,700 housing units and 47 businesses that employ 9,000 people, officials said Thursday.”

Inside, the Sun-Times ran a list of every single business (including the number of people working at them) standing in the way of the mayor’s vision of the future of air travel in Chicago.

Newspapers that consistently keep it in mind that most of their readers are just people are pretty good bets to stay in business.

On the German Unity Thing

“One thing is clear,” West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the other day in Washington. “A united Germany cannot belong to two different [military] pact systems.”

Why not? Since the intentions of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact are strictly defensive, where’s the conflict in Germany signing on with both of them? Either alliance would have to invade Germany to get at the other, so the German army, merely by staying put and arming itself to the teeth against anybody who sets foot on German soil, would pretty much guarantee the status quo.

One other treaty would complete the diplomatic triangle that ushers in a millennium of stability. That would be the one signed by everybody else in Europe against the Germans.

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