An Offer She Couldn’t Refuse

A job is filled. . .

One of the more attractive positions to open recently in Chicago journalism was editor of Chicago Reporter. “We got 50 applications,” says publisher Roy Larson, “an awfully lot of them very top grade talent working in good jobs now.”

That was encouraging. “And then,” Larson went on, “we brainstormed a list of people we really wanted to see. Not who we could get, but who we would really like to have.”

Seven names made that list. And all seven of them, it turned out, were willing to come in and talk whether they’d applied or not. That was even more encouraging. The other day, the position was given to someone who hadn’t asked for it. “I’m leaving a great job I love that I had no intention of leaving,” said Laura Washington, “because I’m getting a job offer I couldn’t refuse.”

So goes a career when it’s hot. The Reporter monitors issues of race and poverty, and running it will groom Washington for her ultimate ambition. “I guess one of the main reasons the Reporter is so interesting to me is that I have some long-range goals of running my own publication,” Washington told us. “Eventually I’d like to run a daily newspaper, ideally in Chicago, that would cover minority communities, especially the black community in ways it’s not being covered now.”

Like editor of the Sun-Times? we asked her. “The Sun-Times would never be able to cover the black community the way a paper in that community could cover it,” Washington said. “I’m not so interested in general news.”

Not to criticize the existing black press, but Washington doesn’t think they’re up to the job either; their staffs and news holes are just too small. “You need a daily newspaper with a lot of resources, and a staff with the right contacts and experience to do those stories,” Washington said.

We aren’t sure where any such newspaper would find “a lot of resources,” and neither is she. “Is there money out there anymore for journalism, especially print journalism?” she mused. “Daily newspapers continue to die. I think this would be a unique kind of publication,” she went on hopefully. “There’d be a need, and I think there’d be an advertising base. I don’t know if there’s money for it, but you could make an argument.

“When that money becomes available, I want to be the person to take charge of it.”

For a staff, what she’d want is a newsroom full of Laura Washingtons. At the age of 34, Washington has already been a reporter and then managing editor of the Reporter, deputy press secretary to Harold Washington, and for the last two years a member of Pam Zekman’s investigative team at Channel Two, where she’ll stay until July in order to wrap up a couple of projects. Larson told us that Laura Washington represented everything he wanted most in an editor: she’s experienced, knows how Chicago works, and knows how to dig.

“Another strong attraction for me was that Laura, as a young, bright black woman, could easily, at any stage in her career, have gone into a high-profile public-relations job and made a lot of money,” Larson told us. “Her kind of talent is very much in demand. She has consistently chosen journalism as her priority.”

When John McDermott founded the Reporter for the Community Renewal Society in 1972 he wore two hats, and Larson acquired them both in 1985 when he followed McDermott as editor-publisher. But Larson decided last year he was spread too thin: besides publishing the Reporter, he was establishing Catalyst to cover school reform, issuing a series of pamphlets known as “Occasional Papers,” and even bringing out books. And to fund this burgeoning empire, he was hustling foundations. So the search for a new editor began.

We asked Washington if the Reporter has changed since she left it in ’85. “I still think they’re doing provocative subjects,” she said, “but they aren’t doing things with a hard investigative edge, which is what I want to do. They want to do more of that stuff–that’s why they hired me.”

We asked Larson about that. “I want it to become what it has always been,” he said dexterously, “but even more so. Tough investigative reporting that no one else is doing.”

Washington told us she took that job in City Hall in order to find out how government operates. “I learned far more than I ever dreamed,” she said, echoing the legion of journalists who have moved inside and discovered their old selves to have been a little simpleminded. “I think there are a lot of things that happen in government for reasons other than what the media would like to think. Government operates in a way no other animal on the face of the earth operates. Policy is made for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with good government or what’s fair.”

Which are?

“Governments are headed by a politician. Many of the people who work with him are politicians. They have to get reelected,” Washington said.

“Journalists tend to be very paranoid, and for good reasons–they’ve been misled and lied to,” she went on. “But they have the attitude they’re always being misled or lied to. It becomes a war between government and journalists. The journalists try to find the most negative stories they can, and politicians try to keep the reporters from finding out anything at all.”

She had a word of wisdom for the pressroom. “A lot of reporters feel if they act as obnoxious and aggressive as they can be, it’ll help,” said Washington. “It does help to be aggressive. It never, ever helps to be obnoxious.”

New Paper in Town

Twenty years ago, when Chicago was still America’s greatest newspaper town, the city’s four brawling dailies could be had from boxes that beckoned on every corner. Today’s a different era. Just how different we realized the other night as we passed by the northeast corner of Lake and Wabash and noticed that the boxes there now offer nothing but the Sun-Times and Tribune.

And also the National. The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times. USA Today and the Learning Annex and Today’s Chicago Woman.

While in boxes on other corners could be found the Southtown Economist, the Daily Herald, Investor’s Daily, Discovery Center, the bilingual Extra, Ad Paper, Skyline, Outlines, Windy City Times, the Financial Times of London . . .

The Reader . . .

And at a dollar a pop, the International Herald-Tribune.

The Herald-Tribune has been available in central Chicago for a few weeks now, and we’re not sure quite how we feel about it. Modern technology makes it possible: pages of the next day’s paper are assembled at night in Paris and beamed by satellite to New York, where it is afternoon. In late afternoon the American presses roll. Then bundles of papers are trucked to various airports around New York and flown to cities as near as Washington and Chicago, as far away as Buenos Aires.

Only 400 or so copies come into Chicago, where the Herald-Tribune has not been promoted at all. Some go into the boxes, others are dropped at doorsteps in an area bounded by North and Roosevelt, Halsted and the lake. But none of the paying readers is as important to the IHT as those on the comp list–the executives at the big ad agencies who make the international media buys.

The Herald-Tribune has been printed domestically for the past four years. But who reads it in America? we asked Michael Conroy, president of IHTUS, Inc.

Businessmen whose scope is international, he said; Americans with a strong interest in foreign affairs; non-Americans posted here who find the local papers too parochial. And, Conroy went on, “the global traveler who reads the paper on his or her trips abroad and can’t do without it.”

He was describing us. But we told Conroy that, frankly, spotting the Herald-Tribune in a box under the el on Wabash Avenue left us disconcerted and apprehensive.

“Well, don’t read it,” he said. “Just ignore it. Just say no.”

But he let us know that other global travelers feel differently. “This woman told me that when she comes back from Europe, every day for about three weeks she gets up in the morning and buys the Herald-Tribune from her news dealer and then goes to a coffee shop and has a cappuccino,” Conroy said. “It enables her to have a soft landing back in the United States.”

For us, discovering the IHT in Chicago was too much like answering a doorbell to find standing there last summer’s Jamaican girlfriend, who doesn’t understand that it’s over. We told Conroy we’re already spoken for. Back home, we read Chicago’s dailies, and for relief from the city’s din we read the midwest New York Times.

“We don’t like to think we’re in competition with the New York Times, and I don’t think we are,” Conroy replied. “The New York Times works hard at the national edition and has a number of regional printing cities. It’s still a domestic United States product. We do something different from what they do.”

What’s different from the Times (which, of course, co-owns the Herald-Tribune with the Washington Post) is IHT’s European orientation. But that’s a difference much less significant to us than the papers’ similarities.

Both papers are slender, thoughtful, and focused. “If you come into New York as an out-of-towner and pick up the [massive local] New York Times,” Conroy was saying, “it’s not an easy thing to find your way around. If you pick up a major metropolitan daily, you’ll have the metro section, the style section, the sports section . . .

“They like how concise the paper is,” Conroy said about his own readers. “We limit advertising to about 30 percent ads, 70 percent editorial. Eighteen to 20 pages. The advertiser gets a high level of exposure.”

Those couple of dozen boxes along Wabash are a sign of the times. Everyone’s taken aim and commenced elbowing for a segment of the market. Only two papers try to be all things to all people.

And sometimes they are just too much. The Sunday Tribune, to give a familiar example, is so big and bloated you don’t know where to begin it and you don’t care. You wouldn’t dare put it down alongside a cup of cappuccino. The cappuccino would end up pushed into your lap.

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