Back to the Previous Tempo

The youngest son of Ernest Hemingway was found dead of natural causes last October 1 in a cell of the women’s detention center in Dade County, Florida. He was 69, and late in his life he’d had a sex-change operation. On October 5, Gregory Hemingway’s peculiar fate was mentioned in American newspapers.

James Warren read the New York Times account that morning and recognized a perfect Vanity Fair story. But Warren, the Tribune’s new features editor, wanted to tell it in Tempo. “I was looking,” he recalls, “for something early on to make a statement about going in a different direction.” He looked around for a reporter. On hand was a one-year intern named Nara Schoenberg, who was on loan to Tempo from the metro copy desk. Warren had heard good things about her.

“Jim said, ‘Let’s send her down there,'” says Tim Bannon, the current editor of Tempo. “That was an early signal we could start doing this stuff. Before we would have thought, ‘Well, does it belong in Tempo?’ ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Can we afford to do it?’ ‘I don’t think so.'”

Two weeks later Tempo carried Schoenberg’s gripping yarn under the headline “The Son Also Falls: From elephant hunter to bejeweled exhibitionist, the tortured life of Gregory Hemingway.” It was a classic Tempo feature from another era–the brief period a decade ago when Warren edited Tempo.

The hard news at the front of a newspaper insists on what it is, but the soft news in back is whatever editors want it to be. For the 17 months beginning in mid-1992 that Warren ran Tempo, soft news was anything the curiosity of his veteran reporters led them to. Warren revitalized Tempo. “He came in with this attitude, ‘It’s us, the editors and writers, versus them, the big paper’s staff, all the other editors,'” one of his mourning writers told me when he left. “We were like this little guerrilla band.” As 1993 ended, editor Howard Tyner, hailing Tempo as the strongest part of the paper, sent Warren to his reward, to be chief of the Washington bureau.

But after Warren left, Tyner took a second look at Tempo and thought he saw a potential problem: a handful of graying writers with sinecures who turned in stories when the occasion moved them. “It needed new blood,” Tyner recalls. So in 1994 the Tribune reassigned 7 of Tempo’s 12 staff writers (Tyner wanted to replace them all). The new plan was to rotate fresh writers through Tempo every four months to keep the section vital.

By 1997 the rotation system was history. And by then Tempo had been redefined as a pop-culture section. One redefinition followed another, as did editors, and when Bannon took over in ’98 “we did stories on everything under the sun.” But last year, when the entire newspaper was redesigned, Tempo was too. “We were narrowly defined as entertainment and popular culture.”

When Warren came back to Chicago later last year as associate managing editor for features, Tempo once again became his business, and he set out to overhaul it. “There was no specific mandate,” he says. “I did make clear my notion”–in talks with Tyner’s successor, Ann Marie Lipinski, and managing editor James O’Shea–“that Tempo, I thought, had to become more intentionally and responsibly provocative. I simply felt that the previous mandate of, uh, a distinctly arts- entertainment-culture section, though carried out pretty well, did come at a cost of a certain immediacy and a certain need people might have felt about having to read it each day.”

In other words, it was a daily section of a daily paper whose readers saw no daily reason to read it. You can’t be much more damning than that. Warren had no hard research to point to, but conversations and his own “gut feeling” told him Tempo needed to change. He could see that “people weren’t having fun” producing it. “Life’s too short,” he says.

So did Warren set out to re-create the old Tempo? “In a way, I’d say yes–with a bunch of qualifiers,” he says. “I knew in my heart of hearts that as nice as the words said about the [old] section were, once past the front page it was a mishmash.”

The key to fixing the mishmash was “Ann Landers.” He asked Eppie Lederer if she’d mind seeing her advice column move from page three to page two. OK, she said–how enthusiastically Warren isn’t sure. That freed him to design page two around two columns–“Ann Landers” and the rotating “At Random”–and to turn page three into something Tempo’s now billing as “essentially, a second front page, devoted to arts and entertainment.” When a worried delegation from the League of Chicago Theatres came in to protest Tempo’s rumored shift away from culture, he gave them the good news about page three, and about a page opening up in the Metro section for overnight reviews.

As for Tempo’s page one, again it could be devoted to anything and everything. This Monday a murderer located by reporter Lou Carlozo mourned the closing of his home, the old Joliet prison. Last Friday brought a long profile of John “Saint Jack” Danforth, the former senator retained by Arthur Andersen, which hopes to exploit his reputation to salvage its own. As a sort of sidebar, that day’s “At Random” offered the text of the dressing-down Senator Peter Fitzgerald gave Kenneth Lay when Enron’s former CEO took the Fifth before the Senate Commerce Committee.

Fitzgerald’s remarks were labeled Readings, one of ten columns that will rotate through the “At Random” space. Warren, who doesn’t like to plan things to death, says he’s looking for “a laboratory for new sorts of creativity.” He wanted some sort of column on the Internet, and he recruited a guy in the library to write it. He says he wondered, “Why do we have to wait until we open the New York Times to read about a good local pissing match and people being hired away from the University of Chicago?” So he told culture critic Julia Keller to cover academic politics.

Keller used to write lovely essays on American culture for page one, and you knew she was a columnist because her picture ran with her stories. She’ll still write on culture, but the picture’s gone. Steve Johnson’s still on page one writing about TV, but his picture’s gone too. Those head shots matter to a newspaper person–they prove you’re a columnist instead of a feature writer. “Every bit of brand ID helps,” says Johnson, who E-mailed me his thoughts. “I’m not going to pretend I didn’t love writing the column or that I won’t miss it, but I suspect that there will be other such opportunities. And there’s absolutely no comedown to having wide latitude in TV criticism, which I consider to be, hands down, the best critic’s job at the paper.”

“I’m just not big on photos,” says Warren. “I was against having a photo on my Washington column. I talked to Jim O’Shea about it, but I was told you’ve got to do it.”

Aside from “Ann Landers,” only one classic column survives in Tempo, and that’s Bob Greene’s, his picture still in its familiar place in the top left corner of the front page. Fresh air can blow itself out trying to dislodge some institutions.

Free Press’s Expensive Bailout

Now under new ownership, the Chicago Free Press will keep publishing. Its president and CEO is David Costanzo, a former mergers-and-acquisitions specialist with Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette. “He has a keen sense of business,” says managing editor Lisa Neff, “and he’s really going to shape us up.”

Rainbow Media, which Costanzo created for the occasion, has purchased the weekly’s assets, getting the Free Press out from under crushing debts that threatened to shut it down. Those debts remain the obligation of Novus Publishing and Costanzo’s predecessor as president and CEO, Jerry Matustik, who’d been urged by Free Press staffers to step aside.

Costanzo is a friend of Free Press cofounders Bill Feld and Jeff McBride. In 1999 Feld, McBride, Neff, and several other employees of what was then Jeff McCourt’s Windy City Times deserted McCourt to launch a competitor they could run themselves. Costanzo says he stayed out of the picture back then because he expected McCourt to sue and he didn’t want to become entangled in the litigation. The settlement of McCourt’s suit “was the genesis of some of the paper’s financial problems,” says Costanzo, but it wasn’t the only reason for them. Stories of financial mismanagement have dogged the Free Press for years.

“The paper itself was a great product,” says Costanzo. “But there was an issue with short-term cash flow, and it was a real possibility that the paper would have stopped publishing.”

Before turning to Costanzo, the staff of the Free Press asked to be rescued first by the Reader and then by Window Media, which owns gay papers in five cities. Those talks failed. “You’re going to see a difference in the way this paper is pushed forward,” says Costanzo. “If I’m successful, the Reader will wish they’d bought it.”

News Bites

One June night in 1977, singer Anita Bryant performed in Chicago’s Medinah Temple while more than 3,000 demonstrators marched around it. Bryant, you might remember, had been leading a crusade to repeal a gay-rights law in Dade County, Florida, and a few days before she came to Chicago to perform at a Shriners’ benefit, the law was overturned. “Pray for Anita,” chanted the demonstrators, summoned to the Medinah Temple by Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Coalition and the Committee for Gay Rights.

After three hours of singing and chanting, many of the demonstrators marched a few blocks to the Tribune Tower and rallied there. “At one point during a series of speeches,” the Sun-Times reported the next morning, “the demonstrators booed and shouted taunts at the Tribune Tower after a speaker condemned the newspaper’s series on child pornography because, he said, it equated child abuse with homosexuality.”

It wasn’t just that series. A gay activist of the era recalls that the Tribune’s “generally dismal track record” had hardened gays and lesbians against it. But that was then. Last Tuesday night the annual benefit cocktail party of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association was held in a 20th-floor reception room of the Tribune Tower. Tribune Publishing was a principal sponsor of the event.

Sports agent Steve Zucker and the Tribune are playing a brutal game of courtroom squash. Last November, Zucker sued the Tribune Company for defamation over a June 22, 2001, “Inc.” column that reported “our stunned disbelief” at the sight of Zucker trying to crash a service for Tim Weigel. Zucker had had a famous falling-out with his former client. Yet there he was, “trying to get past three different checkpoints.” Zucker contended that the item subjected him “to ridicule, derision and embarrassment.”

The Tribune Company responded last month that “Inc.” had done Zucker no harm. “There is nothing defamatory in stating that, despite years of dueling, upon Weigel’s death Zucker wanted to be part of the sportscaster’s ‘tearful, joyful memorial service,'” reasoned the company as it moved to have the suit dismissed.

Nice try, says Zucker. “In hindsight, Defendants are attempting to tease an innocuous story out of the article,” his attorney argued last week, responding to the company’s motion. “But this was no ‘celebrity sighting’ blurb, it was an attack piece of vendetta ilk.”

The next shot belongs to the Tribune.

Ninety million dollars isn’t chump change, and that’s how much the Tribune says help-wanted ad revenues dropped from 2000 to 2001. Covering a war in Afghanistan hasn’t been cheap either. Executive salaries were frozen to control costs, and now the rank and file are getting hit. In late January the Tribune laid off 22 people, and this month it offered early retirement to a few dozen editorial employees (the number I heard was 47). The Tribune is emphasizing that employees can say no, but merely by being asked they got a message about how they figure in the paper’s plans.

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