Focusing the Sun-Times

We’ve found one reason after another, most of them sound, to hammer at the Sun-Times in recent months. This week we want to admire it. One hundred days ago Dantrell Davis was shot to death as he walked to his grade school in the Cabrini-Green housing complex. In response, the Sun-Times has functioned like a newspaper that knows exactly what it is and what it’s doing.

Two days after Dantrell died, the front page carried a letter to Chicago from editor Dennis Britton. “Dantrell Davis was our child, Chicago. We let him down. Please don’t let this be someone else’s problem. It’s yours. It’s mine. Let’s together retake our city.”

Above Britton’s letter was a photograph of Cabrini-Green and a stark headline. “The Killing Ground.” No doubt some hardened reporters gagged or giggled at what they considered their editor’s shameless attempt to exploit a lurid tragedy. But exploitative journalism is lazy and pandering. The Sun-Times has been neither. It’s been obsessive.

Dantrell Davis and the throes of the CHA dominated the front page of the Sun-Times for ten straight days. Even when the lead story was about something else, the paper worked Dantrell in. A page one dedicated to the huge Democratic rally in the Loop carried a box that said “‘We owe it to Dantrell Davis. We have an obligation to the children who cry themselves to sleep at night out of fear because our streets are so dangerous.’ –Bill Clinton.” And a front-page political story began: “With the city pondering how to curb wanton violence in the wake of the shooting of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis at Cabrini-Green, the U.S. Senate nominees clashed over crime in their final debate Thursday.”

The paper held the mayor’s feet to the fire. “For nearly three years, Mayor Daley has dodged responsibility for Chicago’s soaring homicide rate by blaming the federal government for failing to stem the flow of drugs into the United States,” said City Hall reporters Fran Spielman and Ray Long in a piece headlined “Daley’s Finger Points Nowhere: Issues Can’t Be Dodged Any Longer.” And giving its readers an alternative to the corner bar, the Sun-Times invited them to call in and say what they would do as mayor “to stop the killing of our children.”

The paper carried a page of responses, along with a statement of gratitude and admiration for the public’s fine ideas extracted from the mayor’s office.

If at this point the Sun-Times had rested, it would have earned the credit and derision due any newspaper that wrings a big, ephemeral local story for every last drop of ink. But the paper’s wind was up. The Sun-Times carried another week of CHA stories before deferring to the impending elections. And on November 22 “Violence: Searching For Some Answers” returned the saga of Dantrell Davis to page one. Indeed, the Sun-Times now introduced a logo that would continue to appear into 1993–“Dantrell’s Legacy: What Will Stop the Killing?”

In December projects planned two months earlier took over the paper. The “Dantrell’s Legacy” logo tied together examinations of street gangs, the illicit-drugs industry (business writer Janet Kidd Stewart, who usually covers the futures exchanges, did this piece), and the traffic in firearms. These reports typically began as splashy front pages that directed readers inside to packages of stories covering as many as four pages. Some sidebars broke new ground. Newspaper tradition and law-enforcement authorities have held that black hoods, unlike those folklorical hoods of Sicilian extraction, are two-bit thugs whose names don’t warrant print. Yet in addition to a chart describing the elaborate organization of Chicago’s gangs and a glossary of their argot, the Sun-Times identified the command structure of the Vice Lords, Black Gangster Disciple Nation, and Latin Kings. Another illustrated chart discussed the lethal advantages and shortcomings of the rods you’d be most apt to find pointed at your nose one unlucky day.

We last saw “Dantrell’s Legacy” on January 4, fixed to a front-page story on the 1992 murder rate of kids 16 and younger in the city. There’d been 96, with New Year’s Eve still to be sorted out. Six days later the Sun-Times shifted to adjacent ground and unveiled “The Great Divide,” a five-part study of racial attitudes in Chicago. The first installment was six pages long.

We’re impressed. The Sun-Times today seems more sharply defined than ever before. The late 60s and 70s under Jim Hoge are remembered as a muckraking heyday, but Hoge’s cosmopolitanism (after all, he now runs Foreign Affairs) made the Sun-Times’s contents unpredictable and eccentric. We were on the staff then and wrote long reports from Greenland, Mexico, and Ethiopia unimaginable in today’s paper. The Sun-Times presents itself these days as a daily local magazine whose front page, dominated by a large color photograph, has become its cover. Only a transcendent national or international story such as the presidential elections or the invasion of Somalia can nose onto that cover. From November 5–the day after the election issue–through last Sunday, just 9 of 74 Sun-Times front pages focused on matters distant from Chicago.

As the attentive city paper, the Sun-Times spotted a godsend last October in the opportunity to hold its newsstand price at 35 cents–at least one paper in town understands these are hard times. In more ways than one the Sun-Times has blurred the line between itself and its readership. The interactive “MorningLine” invites the public to call in and vote on some daily issue, and the results run the next day; occasionally there’s a topic hot enough to warrant publishing the choicest fulminations. In October 61 percent of the callers wanted Mike Ditka to quit, and in January 85 percent damned Michael McCaskey for firing him. The Sun-Times dutifully reminds us that its methodology isn’t scientific, but maybe it is; it’s a thermometer jabbed into the civic viscera.

Quality in journalism is largely a matter of reflexes. The Sun-Times took advantage of the week McCaskey let Ditka dangle and had a ten-page “special report” ready to go on January 6, the day after Ditka lost his job. The Tribune came out with its eight-page Ditka section nine days later. Dennis Britton wrote his letter to Chicago on October 15. On January 3 the Tribune published a similar front-page statement–a pledge that this year it would “not let the murder of a single child in our metropolitan area go unnoticed.”

In this interesting competition to do well by doing good, alacrity is not the only attribute that distinguishes the Sun-Times. Another is the paper’s sense of place. The Sun-Times has been writing about violence in Chicago; the Tribune keeps watch wherever its circulation is, which is across a six-county area. The January 3 Tribune carried a list of all 57 kids (the Tribune’s cutoff was age 14) murdered in the “metropolitan area” in ’92. As it happens, 50 of them died in Chicago, but that’s a place the Tribune has never felt comfortable identifying itself with too closely.

Who’s Responsible?

Families-beat writer Leslie Baldacci was one of the Sun-Times reporters who worked on the “Dantrell’s Legacy” project–she did the piece on guns–and she’s proud of it. “It really is an old-fashioned newspaper crusade,” she told us. “It’s something we haven’t seen here in a long time.”

Anyone think it was hokey? we asked her.

“I guess there will always be people who think it is hokey and naive to be outraged by the violent death of a child, considering the numbers show a child dies violently in this city every three days,” she said. (Every four days would be more like it.) “I don’t. I guess there are also people who would wonder, why Dantrell? Why not the little girl beaten to death at Altgeld Gardens? Why not a kid killed by gangs? You could pick any one of these. I’m glad Dantrell gave us a focus. He was going to school–he was literally in his mother’s hand when he was taken out of this world. You can’t get much more high drama. There are people who feel it exploited him–‘Enough about Dantrell already.’ It’s not that he had a previously untroubled life. But that doesn’t change the facts of his death. I’ve heard grousing from without and within, but I don’t think it’s so bad the paper can be outraged by something other than Mike Ditka.”

As the Sun-Times special-projects editor, Larry Green has clearly been earning his salary. Above Green and even more responsible for the Dantrell Davis coverage is a new managing editor, Julia Wallace. Last September Wallace was hired away from USA Today, where she’d worked ten years and most recently controlled special projects. Say what you will about USA Today, Wallace left there an expert in packaging, which isn’t a bad thing to be as long as you’re conscientious about putting something in the package.

Is her hand in “Dantrell’s Legacy”? we asked Baldacci. “Absolutely,” Baldacci said. “In making the call to make it a priority, how to organize it, and just the treatment–how our front pages look lately. She’s a very strong presence. You go in and are throwing ideas around the table, and the final product will be something very, very focused so there’s no doubt in the reader’s mind what this is about and why we’re doing it. She’s very hands-on.”

The preoccupation with what the public has to say is also Wallace’s doing. “I believe newspapers should pay attention to their readers,” she told us.

“Dennis’s letter the first day summed up our approach,” Wallace said modestly when we asked her about “Dantrell’s Legacy.” “It’s easy to do one day and then the next, and then forget about it. We’ve tried to break the story up into manageable pieces–and make it a continuing thread of what we’ve done.”