Back in Action

Last November, the Sun-Times stopped being such a do-gooder. The paper dropped its Action Time service, which was deemed expensive, anachronistic, and a bore–each letter seeking a long-lost Army buddy, or satisfaction from a mail-order house, sounded an awful lot like every other.

Not that public interest had dried up–at the end, Action Time was still drawing about seven or eight hundred letters a week. To deal with those requests for help that continued to come in, management composed a standard reply.

“If you continue to have such problems,” the form letter said in part, “we suggest you turn to local and state consumer assistance agencies, such as state’s attorneys and the attorney general. In some cases, small claims courts or private legal counsel might be appropriate.”

So here was a major metropolitan newspaper reduced to saying, don’t come to us with your troubles, take them somewhere else. The Sun-Times might as well have written, “We’re not here for you anymore.”

To be fair, the Sun-Times might have been the last large paper in the country to abandon the “action” format, once a staple of American papers. The Tribune spiked its equivalent, Action Line, eight years ago. But however conventional the decision, what the Sun-Times did flew in the face of the way it wants to be perceived. “Our desire is to be as reader-oriented as any paper has been on the face of the earth,” says Sam McKeel, president of the paper; yet McKeel personally eliminated Action Time while the Sun-Times was between editors.

But now, new editor Dennis Britton is looking for a way to bring it back. “The response to its death,” Britton told us, “was extraordinary.”

Assistant to the editor Tom Sheridan has kept tabs on the reaction. “We’ve probably had several hundred letters,” he reported, “and there at the beginning we were getting several hundred calls a day.”

Sheridan said this with a touch of pride. Action Time was his baby. He founded it back in 1974 and ran it until this past April. Explaining its demise, Sheridan was clearly torn between his duties to management and his affection for the feature he presided over for 15 years.

“I think we looked at our opportunity to do some restructuring, to spread our manpower around,” he said. “It’s a labor-intensive column. There were at its peak four people involved: an editor [Sheridan], a reporter, and two editorial assistants. It was also a column that for 15 years and probably one million letters tried to help its readers.

“The Sun-Times is a healthy newspaper,” Sheridan went on, “but by the same token we’ve never had the kind of staff that we can waste people. And that’s not to indicate Action Time was ever a waste.” When Sheridan moved on, he was not replaced. Even so, “one reporter and two editorial assistants is a chunk of people. It’s 1 percent of our editorial staff. . . .

“Newspapers need to reassess and reevaluate,” he said exquisitely, “and they even need to reassess and reevaluate their reassessments and reevaluations.”

In their heyday, many an able young reporter broke in on the bring-your-troubles-to-us desks. But instead of page-one bylines and opportunities to mix it up with a town’s big shakers, reporters there faced an endless parade of little people with small concerns. Action columns tended to be dismissed intramurally as a sop to readers.

Journalists like Sheridan who could appreciate a situation that offered autonomy and a sense of usefulness stayed with it for a long time. Kenan Heise took over Action Line at Chicago Today soon after it was established in 1965, ran it until Today folded in 1974, then ruled the same feature at the Tribune until 1982, the year Action Line vanished.

They’ve just about all disappeared, haven’t they? we asked Heise.

“Yeah, the reason is twofold,” he explained. “The first is that it costs money. Ultimately it takes manpower to do it [even] the laziest possible way. Second, the stepchild issue comes to bear. Editors want things in the newspaper that work and that they get credit for. To continue to maintain somebody else’s idea at a high cost, it’s really got to be something.”

Dennis Britton finds himself in the comfortable position of being innocent of Action Time’s demise and able to take credit for a successful resuscitation. “What we’re going to resurrect is the idea,” Britton told us. “So it may be to answer one question a week or one question a day. I don’t know. What we’re trying to do is modernize it, make it fit in more with what we’re doing, be more up-to-date. It had gotten old. It had become a semi-advice column. I want to go back to helping people do things they can’t do themselves.”

Whatever he comes up with will be a scaled-down version of what was. “Oh my gosh, we had three people doing it,” Britton said. “When you’re as stretched out as this paper is, that’s probably not the best use of your staff.” But anything will be better than a form letter that says good luck somewhere else.

“Whether we have the feature or not,” Britton said, “it’s our responsibility to help people with those problems, and I intend to do so.”

Annals of Crime, Postal Division

Free-lance writer Jennifer Berman violated federal law the other day. She readdressed the wrong envelope.

In a harrowing scene, Ms. Berman handed an Evanston postal clerk a stack of mail too thick to slide into the first-class chute. A self-described “bleeding liberal,” Ms. Berman leads a life largely given over to opening letters of solicitation to which she cannot afford to respond. As a result, she has collected hundreds of self-addressed return envelopes. She recycles them.

“I was using them for my correspondence,” she says. “It was a little windfall from being on all these mailing lists.”

Berman merely wanted to save money and spare trees. But the grim postal clerk perused Berman’s bundle and spotted one or two BRMs. A BRM is a piece of business return mail–“no postage necessary if mailed in the United States.”

“He saw I was using prepaid envelopes with my own stamps and he told me I couldn’t do that,” says Berman. Why? she asked. Because, said the clerk.

Berman is not alone. The following letter arrived at Hot Type.

“I’m writing you,” the plea begins, “on behalf of BRM-envelope users everywhere. We’re trying to recycle, and yet we can’t do it w/o breaking the law. See Enclosed . . .”

Enclosed was a rejected BRM envelope with Postal Regulation 917.41 attached. As every schoolboy knows, Postal Regulation 917.41 is the one that declares: “The address on BRM pieces cannot be altered to an address other than that of the permit holder. BRM items cannot be converted for any other purpose than intended by the permit holder, even when postage is affixed.” The italics are the postal service’s.

We are philosophically troubled by any prohibition that doesn’t make exceptions for decent folk who mean well. Seeking an explanation, we called the post office, and eventually engaged a Supervisor of Mailing Requirements in a crackling exchange:

“There are certain stipulations for business reply mail,” said she. “Business reply users must have a permit number and only the business reply permit holder is supposed to have that mail coming back to him.”

But what harm’s done if the envelope goes somewhere else?

“The harm is that the person who is supplying the envelope is supplying it for his purpose. And for you to use it for your purpose means you are stealing somebody else’s envelope.”

How can we be stealing it from him if he sent it to us?

“You are not using it for the purpose he sent it to you for.”

But we’re not using it for that purpose if we throw it away!

“That’s true. But then you wouldn’t be saving yourself the two or three cents for the envelope if you used it for someone else.”

In other words, behind Postal Regulation 917.41 lurks the U.S. Postal Service notion that whenever Jennifer Berman saves a penny or two on a BRM envelope, someone is being taken advantage of in some obscure way, possibly the U.S. Postal Service.

A BRM is readily identifiable by its FIMs–or facing identification marks, or bar codes to us laity. The Postal Service’s state-of-the-art sorting equipment identifies BRMs by their FIMs and separates them for special handling. Here is where most readdressed BRMs get apprehended.

You won’t catch us endorsing any modest action that saves money, spares trees, and strikes at mindless bureaucracy. Not if it violates the law of the land. But anyone not so finicky should bear in mind that if you ink out the FIMs on your BRMs they stand a fighting chance of going through.

Pogo’s Brief Hiatus

Pogo vanished from the Tribune for a week, but now it’s back. “There was a great public outcry; they wanted their Pogo,” says comics editor John Lux, who had replaced Pogo with Sylvia. “They were good numbers, like probably five times the number of people who protested the absence of Kudzu a year ago [when Kudzu gave way to Pogo]. It’s the upper demographics, it seems to me–educated people have fallen in love with Pogo. I think Pogo’s here to stay. I was sure wrong.”

If you’re still wondering which strip Pogo replaced this time around, Lux thanks you. He practices the very imperfect science of identifying and yanking the strips whose absence nobody will notice when they’re gone.

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