Can the Free Press Be Saved?

A good little newspaper just went under. The Free Press, a Logan Square biweekly that covered six wards, appeared as usual October 1. Owner/editor Jane Harrison then called it quits.

“I’ve been losing money this year,” Harrison told us. “I had a disastrous third quarter, a real killer. It wasn’t fair to take a chance on another losing issue and not be able to pay my bills.”

The Free Press was a rare thing in neighborhood journalism–a writers’ paper. Its writers (almost all of whom also write for the Reader), “get their licks in,” as 32nd Ward alderman Luis Gutierrez acknowledged. The result being, as Gutierrez also acknowledged, “It sure is fun to read.”

Even after it failed to come out October 15, Gutierrez had trouble talking about the Free Press in the past tense. “I get beat up now and then,” he said. “Especially this Pete Johnson–he gets his licks in . . .”

Gutierrez reflected, “We’re going to lose a lot. There won’t be a paper out here that burns anybody and keeps anybody straight. That paper keeps people straight.”

The Free Press rang with a joie de vivre that made us think of broadsides spun out on campus Xerox machines. For the “taco money” Harrison managed to pay them, her small stable of pundits pounded out hot revelations under their own names and such aliases as Pete Johnson, Gus Jackson, and Xerxes Oliver. “I have one restriction,” Harrison told them. “Be able to back it up.”

“There are five regular columns that are so well read in City Hall, you’d be amazed,” columnist Achy Obejas bragged to us. Pete Johnson was probably rudest. “The moment Robert Shaw opened his mouth to blast the city’s seal as fascist, I knew Mayor Washington was up to no good,” a typical Johnson “Ward Watch” column began. “Alderman Shaw doesn’t go to the bathroom without his mayor’s permission.”

Obejas also had in mind herself and Jorge Casuso, who alternated writing “Ojos & Oidos,” a savvy dissection of Latino politics. And Dave Fremon, whose “Politics” was knowing and snide. Even genial Lucyna Migala, working the Polish American culture beat, could outrage at least somebody.

As when she explained why ethnics don’t like the image of the melting pot. “Think of what happens if you mix all the colors in a paint box together,” Migala wrote. “You get nothing but an ugly dull, muddy gray.” In the eyes of reader “Mark Time (Fine Arts Painter),” this made her “either imbecilic, blind or just comfortable with being a racist.”

But the always lively letters section sprang to Migala’s defense. “Do your homework!” demanded David Urman. “It is clear that this is a warning against abandoning our diverse and colorful ethnic heritages in the name of a drab and monolithic Americanism.”

Reader “Lively Sparks” was more pointed: “As for being racist, M.T. outshines Migala hands down.”

The Free Press, which indeed was free, circulated its 21,000 copies in the northwest side’s 26th, 30th, 31st, 32nd, 33rd, and 35th wards–“the most interesting wards in the city as far as politics are concerned,” Harrison told us. She pointed to the ward maps on a wall of her storefront office on California Avenue. Here’s where the Hispanics live, and here the blacks; and here the Poles and here the yuppies . . .

Selling ads was a headache. A big part of it was “just the nature of the paper,” Gutierrez said. “The fact it beats up on people. A lot of businessmen in the neighborhood have close associations with politicians.”

Ironically, Harrison had joined the Free Press as an ad salesman. This was back when the Free Press was still not-for-profit, but after its founders, Diane Scott and Sally Levin, had kissed off the idea of financing it through grants.

When Scott went back to college, Levin and Harrison ran the Free Press. “We decided if it was ever going to do anything it would have to go for profit,” Levin remembered. “And it still didn’t do anything. We thought we could find investors. But it never happened.”

Levin dropped out 16 months ago because her children were in school and she “needed a real paycheck.” As owner/editor, Harrison never could find anyone as good as herself to sell ads. In addition, her Compugraphic typesetting machine was falling apart.

And competition mounted. Some came from the Chicago Post, the giveaway that Alderman Richard Mell started up three years ago. “It looks like a real paper. It feels like a real paper,” said Luis Gutierrez. “It isn’t a real paper. It’s the 33rd Ward paper.” Then there’s Community News, backed by the Milwaukee-Diversey Chamber of Commerce, and the bilingual Logan Square/Lakeview Extra.

“What has happened,” Levin said, “is that each of the little papers has said, ‘We’re special and you ought to advertise with us.’ And the advertisers cut down their ads and advertised with everybody. We never complained because they thought they were being nice.”

What do you need to go on? we asked Harrison. “I’m talking about $30,000,” she said.

There’s hope. Obejas, Casuso, Fremon, dining-out columnist Jim Brooks, and contributors Ben Joravsky and Michael Glab surrounded Harrison last Monday night and told her what to do. Start charging for classifieds, for God’s sake, they said; move the paper back into your apartment; and buy a desktop computer-typesetter. OK, said Harrison.

And we’ll raise money, they said. We’ll hold a roast. We’ll roast some notable local politico who’s used to getting shivved by the Free Press and laughing at it.

They wouldn’t tell us who they have in mind. But Luis Gutierrez might have a clue.

Another Strike Against Labor

The NBC strike is virtually over after 17 weeks, and the 2,800 network employees who hit the bricks accomplished about as much as the players of the National Football League.

NBC had wanted no more than a two-year contract, but the striking National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) asked for four and got three, retroactive to April 1. The workers who still have jobs will get modest raises. The benefits package inherited from RCA–which is considerably more generous than what RCA’s purchaser, General Electric, grants its other workers–remains intact. There’s still a cap on “daily hires”–a cheaper alternative to salaried workers–though it’s now higher.

And that’s it. NABET’s freedom to seek arbitration has been curtailed; its jurisdiction over the work force has been slashed; and job security in the technologically evolving world of TV news is more precarious than ever. NBC is free to hire nonunion crews to cover sports events and spot-news stories; and the network can buy material from any source. New equipment that one person ran successfully during the strike will continue to be run by one person. Many jobs have been wiped out.

“The thing I most object to,” said Mike Cunningham, an audio engineer in Chicago, “is there’s no successor clause. We’re frightened that GE is in this for the short term. They could sell us tomorrow and we’d have no contract.”

NABET negotiators had urged a no vote, but the rank and file didn’t have the same enthusiasm for pressing on. The basic national engineering contract carried 1,222 to 650, with Chicago supporting it 112 to 56. Separate votes in all but two of the smaller NABET jurisdictions also backed the settlement.

These came as no surprise. Chicago couriers, whose jobs would be wiped out by the new contract, opposed it 17 to 1. And Los Angeles’s air-conditioning-plant maintenance unit, which has long considered its trade critical and its wages penurious, voted 11 to 8 against. Nobody at NABET is supposed to go back until everybody accepts the deal, so the two recalcitrant units could keep everyone out. But NABET spokesmen we talked to figured something would be worked out soon.

So that Art Cerf, wire copy editor at WMAQ TV, could stop delivering Domino’s pizzas in Park Ridge. “It’s not the kind of job that commands great respect in the community,” Cerf told us. “You’re not a human being. You’re someone invisible.”

And Debbie O’Malley, who produces the ten o’clock news, could stop waitressing at the New Evergreen Lounge, 91st and Western. “I have yet to serve a cup of coffee without a puddle of coffee at the bottom of the dish,” she said. And she added, “There are good days and bad days. There are days I can’t stand to watch Channel Five, I’m so angry and frustrated with the company. And sometimes I want to see how it’s doing against Two and Seven.” And . . . ? “I think they do very poorly,” O’Malley said.

NABET negotiators ordered the union out last June in response to a contract offer the members hadn’t read. The strike was not a cause that many of Chicago’s 280 NABET members invested with much passion. “I don’t think there’s any great enthusiasm for a strike,” one of them told us last weekend, just before voting to return. “On the other hand, there’s no love for General Electric. Those people have been heartless sons of bitches.

“But people have got to get back to work.”

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