By Michael Miner
“The easiest way to start a paper is to start it and stop talking about it,” said John Wilson, the Chicago Ink founder with money in his pockets. But before the city’s new journal of progressive analysis could debut, talk among progressives was inevitable–months of it.
“What real good does the fact that the Nation, Progressive, Z, In These Times publish?” one pessimist ruminated gloomily by E-mail. “Their influence individually does very little to cause change. What could happen if all those involved worked towards one goal, creating change, instead of competing?
“All those journals in the [New World Resource Center] do very little independently except take up space on a shelf,” this posting continued. “It seems that, by the discussions I have been at, that [this] paper’s prospects are not much different. We cannot get published so will start our own without creating connections with those that already exist. Rather we are going to compete for the same advertising and readership. Sad.”
But Chicago Ink, as Wilson described it, won’t be just another title on a shelf. For one thing, it’ll be distributed around town as the Reader is–to shops, restaurants, coffeehouses. For another, its focus will be local. “The idea is to do a paper that has more of a progressive edge to it, more of an investigative-reporting, muckraking kind of approach. More than what the Reader does. Certainly more than what New City does. Basically, there’s no kind of progessive voice in the city.
“Actually, there’s a bad trend nationally in terms of alternative newspapers,” Wilson went on. “Alternative newspapers are becoming so profitable and so corporate it’s hard to see them as an alternate voice. One of the things that pushed me to want to do this was, back at the Democratic convention, when the Reader had this what-stinks-about-Chicago feature–and the LA Weekly came into town with really interesting political essays. And it was sort of embarrassing to have the LA paper doing something better than anything in Chicago about the Democratic convention being held here.”
Chicago Ink begins as a 16-page free tabloid monthly that appears on March Fourth–the perfect date for launching a crusade, as I generously pointed out to Wilson even though he’d just sullied my employer. A 28-year-old graduate student at the University of Chicago, Wilson founded the Free Press, a student monthly at U. of C., a year and a half ago; he’s also published two books–The Myth of Political Correctness and Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors.
I asked Wilson what his role would be with Chicago Ink. “The organization of any left-wing group is always complicated,” he allowed. “You don’t want to have this repressive hierarchy, but you do want to get some stuff done. So at the moment my main title is advertising director. Beyond that, we’ll have some sort of editorial collective, and whoever’s around to do the paper will do the paper.”
But Wilson is first among equals. David Peterson, a media and social critic of the Noam Chomsky school who’s contributing an essay on the selling out of Cabrini-Green to the first issue, told me he’s involved in Chicago Ink because Wilson is: “If he didn’t think it would work I wouldn’t be interested. He has a tremendous track record for a young guy.” But another organizer dropped out because of Wilson. Wilson’s behavior has “convinced me that he is not very interested in doing things democratically and that he’s not very good at listening to other people, especially when their opinions clash with his own,” Ralph Suter’s valedictory E-mail explained just last Monday, “nor does he seem much interested in working toward consensus if that means rethinking and possibly modifying his own strongly held views about how to proceed.”
Wilson wasn’t around when the first conversations were held a couple of years ago about Chicago’s need for a progressive voice. (Chicago Voice, in fact, was at one point the paper’s title.) But when he joined the mix the wheels stopped spinning. Eric Smith, 26, a reporter for a chain of suburban community papers, was involved early in the creation. He very briefly copublished a paper called Urgent News that almost no one ever saw but that impressed Wilson, and it’s served as something of a prototype.
Smith is writing the introductory essay to issue one. “Why do we need another publication?” he asked me rhetorically. “Certainly good things are going on in all sorts of places. Even the Tribune and Sun-Times–for all our criticisms–will occasionally do things that we’ll say, ‘This is a pretty good article.’ But there are things the Sun-Times and Tribune simply cannot do because they’re part of a bigger structure and a larger system. We can call it the corporate culture. We can call it mainstream-media virus. It’s simply there, it’s a fact, and plenty of criticisms have been done on it. We want to do what they’re not doing. When it comes to the alternative press, they do some good things, and we don’t want to say, ‘They’re bad so read us.’ We see ourselves as very different from what the Reader does or New City or even Lumpen. Whereas New City and the Reader are more culture and listing oriented, there’s a lot less hard news there. Lumpen does some good things, but we don’t think they do good things often enough. The good aspects we see in the other press we want to put in a single publication.”
Are you capitalized? I asked Smith. “The original boost to this is coming from John and contributions from the rest of us,” he said. “John had a bit more to add, and we’re hoping to collect that back in the form of ad revenue.”
So what’s on hand? “Over a thousand dollars right now. Which would easily cover 10,000 copies”–the size of next week’s pressrun.
“I’m wondering where he got the thousand dollars,” Wilson told me. “The capitalization is basically nonexistent. I loaned $1,500 to the Free Press when it was starting up, and it’s going to pay for the printing of the first couple of issues. Then Chicago Ink will owe me $1,500.”
He’s ruthlessly going after advertisers. “Why pay thousands to have your ad buried among hundreds of ads in the Chicago Reader or its imitators?” asks his rate sheet. “Why advertise in newspapers most people pick up for listings? If they don’t read the paper, they won’t see your ad.”
Smith said that after Wilson got involved, the planning process “landslided” and one step was skipped: grassroots organizing. This omission left at least one progressive, Tracy Jake Siska, skeptical enough of the project to drop out. Siska’s the pessimist at the top of this article who laments the failure of leftist journals to work together.
“They could have been networking with quadrillions of community organizations,” Siska told me. “They need to be on the inside of these communities. [Instead] they’ll be looking at them from the outside. They didn’t even have plans for distribution–some guy in a truck, copying what the Reader does.”
Siska’s involved with an enterprise called Chicago Media Watch, which hopes to launch a media review in June. Various members of Media Watch looked in on Chicago Ink–attracted largely by the founders’ intent to run frequent media criticism. But they didn’t stay with the project. Steve Rhodes, a Newsweek stringer, says, “My personal opinion about Chicago Ink is it’s just going to be a leftist publication trapped in an ideological prism, and that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m a journalist, not an ideologue. I don’t want to commit the same crimes from a different ideology that we complain about the mainstream or conservative media doing.”
I asked contributor David Peterson if he thought the grass roots had been neglected. “It’s unquestionably a fair criticism,” he said, without expressing much sympathy for it. “It’s going ahead now simply because Wilson feels we can talk it to death–it’s better to act at some point. But the opinion of a lot of other people is that we ought to establish some financial base, we should establish a network of people who will make it viable. There’s unquestionably been with some participants a Hamlet complex. They can talk about the act and are afraid to finally do it.”
Another Black Eye for Oclander
Last summer Jorge Oclander, a Sun-Times reporter and columnist, left that paper under fire after his bosses found out he’d borrowed money from Ambrosio Medrano in 1995 while Medrano was an alderman. I wrote about the matter sympathetically. The need was urgent, their friendship was real, and I saw no evidence that the debt caused Oclander to pull his punches when the Silver Shovel scandal, which would send Medrano to prison, broke.
Oclander went back to his old paper, La Raza, to be its editor. Under him the paper’s thrived, winning 14 awards in a recent competition of the National Association of Hispanic Publications. Oclander’s a good guy. It recently came out, however, that the Medrano loan wasn’t the only money he received in ’95 through channels not normally considered open to journalists.
A political opponent of Danny Solis, who was appointed to succeed Medrano in the 25th Ward pending this week’s special election, announced at a press conference that a community organization Solis once headed paid Oclander $13,800 in consulting fees. The point was to tar Solis for buying off the press, but Oclander got smacked too, for being bought. The Sun-Times covered the press conference and ran a short article that focused on Oclander’s fees from the United Neighborhood Organization. Last week La Raza’s rival, Exito, took up the story and made hay with it.
A long essay, “Cuestion de etica,” weighed Oclander’s conduct against the canons of the profession and found it wanting. A column by Ross Pineda went further. Pineda not only lectured Oclander on ethics, he produced a list of articles Oclander wrote about UNO for the Sun-Times, asserted that Oclander’s mission in writing them was “to promote Danny Solis,” and announced that Oclander “never criticized the people or organizations from which he received money.”
Obviously Exito has its own agenda, to cut the more successful paper down to size. And if in the cutting it also embarrassed the Sun-Times, Exito, which is owned by the Tribune and whose editor doubles as a member of the Tribune editorial board, couldn’t possibly mind. Oclander recognizes the gamesmanship and is infuriated by it. “All it was was a part-time job teaching people how to write a fax,” he says, meaning that he was paid to teach UNO staffers PR techniques. “It was nothing, nothing, nothing. I’m sick to my heart. I didn’t do a damn thing.”
He did though. He crossed a line. Even when nothing’s wrong with something but the way it looks, that can make it too wrong to touch. Appearances matter. In journalism they matter enormously.
This semester Duneier’s teaching the same course at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The day after the inauguration he asked the same questions. “Very depressing,” he told me. Exactly none of 160 students had read the local paper. “So I said, ‘How many of you saw today’s Los Angeles Times?’ Zero raised their hands. And then one hand sort of moved up slightly. I said, ‘You read it? You saw it?’ He said, ‘I saw the picture on the front cover.'”
About nine of Duneier’s students got their news from radio, over half from television. “I said, ‘How many of you get it from local news?’ A lot of them laughed or chuckled at that idea. Maybe 10 or 15 percent raised their hand. Somebody yelled out CNN. Apparently a lot of them get their news from CNN.”
What the students knew was headline deep. “I was surprised,” said Duneier. “Although at this point I have no reason to be.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Eric Smith, center, John Wilson, right; photo by Lloyyd DeGrane.