Attitude, the sine qua non of the greatest sportswriters, galloped into Chicago as the ribbon on the lance of Jay Mariotti. Today, according to the recent ad campaign trumpeting Sun-Times sports, it is flaunted by the entire staff.
Attitude is an in-your-face swagger that exceeds always on the side of derring-do. “You know that ad campaigns don’t emanate from the people who do the work,” Steve Rosenbloom reminded us the other day. Even so, it’s hard to imagine a sports desk that sets any store by attitude hiring the kind of new sports columnist that Rosenbloom had been looking for.
The paper just spent six months searching for a successor to the retired, avuncular Ray Sons. Rosenbloom, the sports desk’s assignment editor, helped out by reading the candidates’ clips, meeting them when they came in, and suggesting a few writers he thought could do the job. The Sun-Times had already fielded a brash knight-errant in Mariotti. Rosenbloom expected the second columnist to be more of a minstrel.
“I had assumed they were looking for a storyteller type,” he told us. “A guy who would sit down and you’d spend time with him. A guy more given to telling stories, without using an ax or a jackhammer. A guy who’ll massage you through the thing but keep your interest nonetheless. They looked at certain people like that.”
But they didn’t hire any of them. Frankly, Rosenbloom wouldn’t have minded the job himself. But he didn’t fit his own idea of who should fill it. And as he told us, “I didn’t think I had the portfolio. I thought ultimately I could do the job, but you need a certain amount of empirical evidence to prove it.”
Rosenbloom, who’s 36, used to cover hockey for the now defunct National. But earlier he’d been executive editor of Sport magazine, and a year ago the Sun-Times hired him for its desk. “I came to the Sun-Times expecting to work my way up on the inside,” he said.
But an odd thing happened. The Blackhawks found themselves in the Stanley Cup finals. Eager to expand his hockey coverage but stretched thin by the Bulls, sports editor Rick Jaffe asked Rosenbloom to contribute a column. “Life doesn’t get any better than that,” says Rosenbloom, who hit the saddle at the gallop. The finals lasted four games. Rosenbloom turned in a last piece that argued Mike Keenan should stay on as coach, and he figured his fun was over. But Jaffe called him. “He said, what do you think about being our second columnist? I said, that’s a great idea.”
Says Jaffe, “Finally we decided, let’s get the best person available, and Steve–during that week and a half, two weeks–he showed that he has a good understanding of what I think a column should be. It should be opinionated. Steve has always been a very good writer, but a regular story and a column are two different things. I was really surprised by how well he did.”
Because Rosenbloom had never written a column before, or established his expertise in any sport but hockey, Jaffe hasn’t told him it belongs to him now and forever. But he’ll keep the job unless he shows he can’t do it.
Rosenbloom isn’t sure how his column’s supposed to balance Mariotti’s. “I guess I write like I talk, and maybe they like the way that I talk, that way of communicating with people–maybe that provides the balance they were looking for. I honestly don’t know. Maybe they perceive me as someone who writes as though he’s talking to someone over a beer in a bar, which is certainly different from Jay’s style. Maybe that’s what it came down to. But there are times when you don’t ask why–you say yes and thank you.”
That is what it came down to, Jaffe told us; he liked Rosenbloom’s “talk to the reader” tone. Rosenbloom writes like a guy who makes his points by thumping your chest with his finger. Both brim with attitude, but Rosenbloom’s “folksy,” says Jaffe, while Mariotti’s “polished.” Mariotti’s a subtle enough writer that the search for his complement may have been held back by intramural disagreement as to just what he brings to the paper.
“I would assume some people would say he’s the columnist who would be described as the hammer,” says Rosenbloom, a hammer himself. “And then others perceive him as more cerebral, more dealing with the psychological aspect of it.
“Which,” Rosenbloom reflected, “would seem to be mutually exclusive.”
We know now they aren’t. Mariotti is nonpareil at cracking open an athlete’s skull and holding high in a bloodied gauntlet the throbbing ego.
“Maybe we’ve stepped up the form,” Rosenbloom further reflected. “maybe you can be a jackhammer on the psychological side.”
A salesman for the Booster just called–and what a deal! For only $9.95 a year–that’s 60 percent off the newsstand price!–we now can get the Booster by mail every week, plus a book of restaurant coupons good for $270 in savings.
It was the second time he’d called in four days, and we’re buckling.
Heck, the “Blotter” alone is worth $9.95. The “Blotter” tells you how close the neighborhood crime wave came to your house last week. If you don’t think you have a neighborhood crime wave, read the “Blotter” and it will inform you that you do.
But what was that about the newsstand price? We used to get the Booster for free. “They were sampling the area,” the salesman told us.
No, we said, we’re talking about the whole last ten years. For long stretches it never came at all. For other stretches it did come, no telling why. There were even periods when we’d find two at a time tossed up on our porch. We also saw the Booster for sale at Osco, but why would we pay for something we sometimes got for nothing and didn’t miss profoundly when we didn’t?
The salesman reminded us that those spells of free delivery were followed–or should have been–by delivery boys knocking on our door trying to collect and trusting in our conscience. That would happen, we now remembered, and we felt a little manipulated when it did.
At any rate, the salesman said those days are over. “We’re going to go through the mails straight.”
Seven years ago the Pulitzer Publishing Company bought the 16 Lerner newspapers in and around Chicago for $9 million. A year later Pulitzer bought the Southtown Economist for $38 million. The Economist has made money, but the Lerner papers have lost it. If a decent offer came along, Pulitzer would sell those papers tomorrow.
In the meantime, the weeklies have to do a better job earning their keep. The shift to paid circulation is intended to raise revenues, cut the cost of printing copies no one reads, and give advertisers more specific numbers to chew on. (Lerner’s now claiming a total readership “in the neighborhood of 685,000.”) The four suburban Life papers and two north-side News-Star papers have been circulated on a paid basis for years, and the five editions of the Times, covering the northwest side and nearby suburbs, were converted to paid over the last six months. But the shift is just now being made at the two north-side Booster papers and at the three Skyline papers, which cover downtown and the lakefront and have been bulk-dropped in stores and high-rise lobbies.
The publisher of the Southtown Economist, Thomas Jackson, is Pulitzer’s man on the scene supervising these changes, and he wishes the old ownership had made them back in the 70s, when the papers were healthier. Actually, if that had happened, Pulitzer might never have bought the chain.
Pulitzer could have done what it’s doing now at any time since 1985. But first the company had to disabuse itself of the notion that the free-neighborhood-newspaper business was, or ought to be, a gold mine. Pulitzer’s flagship, the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, has been battered by a chain of ad-rich neighborhood giveaways that ring Saint Louis, and Pulitzer entered Chicago to do as it had been done to.
“We were very much of a mindset when we went to Chicago,” Ron Ridgway, Pulitzer’s senior vice president of finance, told us. ‘This was the free-newspaper-distribution business, and we were going to stay in it.'”
But the move hasn’t worked out. The market is much more competitive here than in Saint Louis, and the Lerner papers command–geographically as well as commercially–a much narrower slice of it.
Meanwhile, inside the Lerner shop during these historic days there’s the usual dissension. The 34 members of the Chicago Newspaper Guild have been working without a contract since last December. That’s nothing new–the last contract talks went on for three years. Desultory negotiations haven’t even gotten to salaries–they’ve been mired in wrangling over health insurance, maternity leave, and scheduling. Guild spokesman Kevin Sweeney (the Booster film critic) tells us the company wants major rollbacks in all three areas, including the freedom to lay off employees for up to 30 days a year with no reasons given.
Lerner management doesn’t want to discuss the negotiations publicly. The Guild is happy to; it wants its adversaries to taste public embarrassment. Guild members passed out leaflets when the city’s journalists gathered at the Lisagor Awards dinner at the Palmer House, and they picketed Lerner’s citizen-of-the-year luncheon.
“We only want the same respect that has been rightfully afforded to our many commendable neighborhood volunteers,” said the broadside given away outside the luncheon. “Unfortunately, Lerner management does not see the need to be a good citizen to its employees when conflict, deception and stall tactics are the norm.”
But neither side has done anything to compromise the integrity of the “Blotter.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.