Freelancers Chip Away at the Stone

Those freelance contracts the Tribune wants everyone to sign cost travel editor Randy Curwen just one writer. But she was his favorite. And her reasons for leaving could have been fixed in a second with a pencil.

“We lost her over minor things,” Curwen told me. “A couple of cases of sloppy wording have come back to haunt us.”

Such as? The contract she refused to sign stipulated that if an “affiliate” of the Chicago Tribune Company or its subsidiary Chicago Interactive Inc. picked up her story she would be paid a separate fee. But the old contract guaranteed a separate “agreed upon” fee. “Now it sounds like the Tribune reserves the right to use a story any way it wants without checking with the writer,” Curwen said. “I’ve been assured by the front office we won’t. But the contract itself says it can’t be modified orally or in writing.”

The lost writer also was troubled by a reference to “syndicated sections.” (These are KidNews and WomaNews.) Travel writers don’t want anyone syndicating their stories to other markets–they want to be able to resell their stories there themselves. But even though the Tribune doesn’t syndicate travel pieces, the irrelevant language stood. “She’d like to see it stricken, but I can’t change anything,” Curwen said.

“I’ve been in this business four and a half years as travel editor, and four and a half years ago you didn’t even have contracts,” Curwen told me. (The first contract cost him two writers.) “In the old days the Tribune was microfilmed, and that was accepted procedure. Now, when you put it on the Internet, in databases, I can understand why some sort of agreement is needed. But I think every travel editor I know of feels that these standardized forms are usually drawn up by somebody who doesn’t understand what’s going on in the marketplace.”

Not quite true. Thanks to the marketplace, the contracts Curwen sent his writers are invitations to the dance when set against the paper’s my-way-or-the-highway offer to most of its freelancers. Most of them cover local stories for suburban bureaus, and to guarantee control of its content in this nascent electronic age the Tribune decided to confiscate their product. Said the new contract, “CTC and CII shall have an exclusive worldwide license and right to publish, copy, modify, display, distribute, perform and broadcast the submitted material, in whole or in part, in any print, electronic or digital media or software of any kind now existing or developed in the future.” Not that those McHenry County school board notes would ever have much resale value, but the Tribune was demanding the freedom to disseminate them in exotic new forums without offering the reporter even a penny more.

The deadlines freelancers were given for returning signed contracts ranged from December 15 to January 1. If they held out they couldn’t write for the Tribune.

To dozens of freelancers this contract turned a partnership into peonage. What further perplexed them was a new indemnification clause that read like a Tribune threat to sue writers over factual mistakes. A “Tribune Independent Writers’ Association” was organized, a counterproposal was drafted, the National Writers Union was notified, and late last year an inky variant of the “blue flu” struck suburban bureaus.

Pro bono attorney Michael McCready, whom the freelancers contacted through the National Writers Union, began negotiating with Tribune attorney Dale Cohen. This week he had one and a half accomplishments to point to. The Tribune sent freelancers who hadn’t already signed the first contract an alternative in which 30 days after a story was accepted the Tribune would share rights to it with its author. (“The ones who bitched got a better contract,” says McCready.) And Paul Weingarten, associate managing editor for metropolitan news, reassured freelancers by letter that the indemnification clause merely put old policy in writing. “The Tribune has never sued any of its freelancers for indemnification,” the letter told them. “On the contrary, the Tribune’s policy has always been, and continues to be, that it will work closely with its employees and freelancers to defend lawsuits based upon accurate and professional news reporting.”

McCready had hoped for more. He suggested to Cohen that the Tribune pay a token extra for the electronic rights it was commandeering, so that when the day dawned that those rights became a source of serious profit the writers would be in a position to share it.

McCready says Cohen replied that the idea sounded reasonable, but that he would have to talk to his people over the holidays. But over the holidays most of the freelancers decided to take what the Tribune was already offering, and this Monday Cohen told McCready that his people had said no. “He raised food for thought,” says Cohen gallantly. Says McCready, “What appears to have happened was the Tribune was waiting for January 1 to go by to see who was on board. He said in no uncertain terms that most people have signed it, and I guess they’re willing to forget about the people who didn’t.”

The “special contributors” agreement the Tribune offers travel writers is a concession to reality. Most travel articles aren’t written on assignment, and the writers have to sell them more than once to cover costs. “If we had to pay the cost of a reporter going off to Europe it would be astronomical,” Curwen said. “One thing I think all editors fear is that if you make too many restrictions you’ll lose the cream of the crop. If they gave the same agreement to travel writers they give to the others we’d lose those exceptional writers.”

Curwen said there’s some “general frustration” among Tribune editors over the contracts they’ve been told to send their writers, and he did something about it. When he mailed out his contracts last month he added a cover letter that said this: “There has been concern among writers about the additional use online of their stories without an additional payment. To try to rectify this situation, Travel will begin paying an additional $50 for stories starting in 1997 (this is something we have done on an informal basis in 1996 when the budget allowed.)”

“It’s something I did in fairness, because I thought we could afford to do it,” Curwen told me. “Maybe this will make people feel better, but I can’t write it into the contract. All I can do is pay them a little more.”

One freelancer I talked to received both contracts. He signed the travel contract without hesitation and told me, “This shows the Tribune can demonstrate some level of fairness with writers when they want to.” The other contract was a stick in the eye. Even so, he admitted he was “secretly planning” to sign it Monday morning before he lost his suburban beats.

Meigs: Let’s Not Make a Deal

The Sun-Times delivered the goods before Christ-mas with a Fran Spielman exclusive as rich as a fruitcake: “Meigs fight takes nasty turn…broke deal…Edgar double-crossed Mayor…secret City Hall negotiating session…City Hall retaliated…believes he was sandbagged…reportedly was furious…sheer deception.”

According to Spielman, unnamed Daley aides accused Governor Edgar of signing a bill allowing the state to take over Meigs Field after Edgar’s aides had promised he wouldn’t–not while a deal was in the works to give the mayor his park in return for a domed stadium near McCormick Place and Daley’s help in passing state bond issues. But unnamed Edgar aides denied making such a promise.

The next day the Tribune entered the fray, reporting that Daley “rushed…to deny” feeling double-crossed and that it was now “the Republican governor who felt betrayed.” An unnamed “top Daley aide” told the Tribune, “We’re stuck denying the truth of something that never happened….This thing is all screwed up.”

Meanwhile, a Tribune editorial on this “latest flareup” turned on City Hall negotiators who “whined surreptitiously to the press,” leading to “bogus headlines about the governor’s ‘breaking a deal.'”

Some days reading only one paper simply will not do. This was one of them. While the Tribune took its turn reporting stormy weather, the Sun-Times spotted the rainbow: “Conciliatory statements from the mayor and governor on Wednesday appeared to set the stage for a possible legislative compromise when lame-duck lawmakers reconvene in Springfield in early January.”

But on day three both leaders held press conferences that turned into hailstorms. “Mayor Daley exhorted Gov. Edgar on Thursday to quit looking for excuses to walk away from a proposed Meigs Field compromise,” the Sun-Times account began. The Tribune reported: “Prospects for a deal…looked bleak Thursday as each man blew up at the other and delivered some of the harshest rhetoric of their long-running political feud.”

Edgar (in the Sun-Times): “There was no deal. There was no agreement on signing the bill. The nature of [Spielman’s] story, I felt, was almost what I would term as vicious.”

Daley (in the Tribune): “You don’t take it personal. If you take it personal, then you lose it, as a professional or a political leader or a public official.”

The Sun-Times reported that Daley, no longer conciliatory, “took a different tack, confirming he is upset about the bill signing, and defending the mayoral aides who made the comments and the media’s right to report it.” The Tribune, with no interest in championing Spielman’s original exclusive, construed the mayor’s position somewhat differently. Daley merely “suggested that Edgar ignore news accounts and instead concentrate on negotiations.”

Showing more graceful disdain for an opponent than either politician, the Tribune hinted that overblown journalism had threatened statesmanship. As the paper’s day-two story had put it: “The fact that aides to Edgar and Daley had been talking privately was no secret.” But a careful reader spotted this sentence toward the bottom of the story and scratched his head. Then he called me.

“I would say that while it may not have been a secret to the Tribune, it was certainly a secret to the rest of us,” the reader commented. “And the Tribune, for whatever reason, apparently declined to report the story. The question is, did they do it because they didn’t think it was newsworthy, or did they do it because the Tribune wants that deal to go through and they basically held the story for fear of losing that deal? It makes you wonder whether they’re in the news business or the community-development business–or what business they’re in.”

Interesting point. First I reviewed the Tribune’s Meigs coverage over the days just preceding the December tempest. I found no mention of staff-level talks, secret or otherwise. Last week I called the paper. Rob Karwath, a political editor responsible for Meigs Field coverage, did his own research, then gave me the dates of four earlier stories on possible Edgar-Daley compromises. It’s barely possible to infer from these stories that there was communication between the two offices. The closest the paper came to saying so straight out was on November 21, when it reported, “GOP sources said they were aware of some very preliminary discussions about such a trade….But Edgar said an unnamed Democrat proposed just such a deal and that he already had responded with a resounding ‘no.'”

“I think we’ve written about it,” said Karwath, meaning the talks that were no secret. “But rather than belabor the reader with the fact they’re meeting again, talking again, we’ll let you know whether there’s something big. And there hasn’t been anything so far.”

This Monday there was. “The two men never personally talked,” the Tribune reported, “preferring to leave the negotiations to their top aides and lawyers.” And look at what those aides finally produced. No park. No takeover. Just five years of status quo ante.

News Bites

On December 24 the Tribune ran a one-column story in MetroChicago that began, “A rash of unrelated shootings claimed at least seven more lives in Chicago on Monday after a weekend of violence in which 10 people were fatally shot, stabbed or bludgeoned citywide.”

None of the 17 victims was identified by name.

Immediately below this story was another that began, “Police have charged three Glenview men with multiple counts of residential burglary after they allegedly operated a burglary ring…in the north suburb.” The Tribune not only named the suspects but published their home addresses.

On Christmas Eve at least, a second-story man in the suburbs deserved closer attention than a murder victim in the city.

An editorial that likens its target to the Nazis had better be written from the head as well as the heart. “Medical experiments follow Nazis’ lead,” a recent Sun-Times editorial, condemned “a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation [under which] doctors in emergency rooms can test therapies for untreatable life-threatening emergencies if a panel of hospital experts agree there is no feasible way to get consent from the patient or a relative.”

The editorial went on, “These are drugs proven effective in tests on animals, but which couldn’t be given to dying patients unless they or their families first understood the risks and consented….Doctors who want to test these drugs argue that the trauma patient usually is unconscious and the family can’t be reached in time to get permission for this potentially life-saving treatment.”

If these doctors don’t remind you of Joseph Mengele, be assured that even the Sun-Times called them “well-intentioned.” Nevertheless, said the editorial at the outset, what they favor “is so obviously wrong that it evokes memories of Nazi atrocities.” The editorial also invoked the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which black men with syphilis were intentionally neglected so the disease’s long-term effects could be observed.

At neither Tuskegee nor Auschwitz were the patients already dying. In neither case did the doctors involved have any interest in helping those patients. By pointing to old wrongs the Sun-Times didn’t prove a new one. Its editorial simply pronounced the FDA’s decision “both unbelievable and indefensible.” Of course it was neither. It might have been an ethical mistake, but rhetoric alone can’t explain why.

One curious aspect of the death of Chicago’s 85-year-old Sentinel is that the press release announcing it was sent out by the rival Chicago Jewish News. Joel Schatz, the News’s managing editor, told me that if the weekly Sentinel hadn’t blazed a trail as an independent Jewish newspaper, the News wouldn’t exist today. And if the Sentinel had changed with the times, the News wouldn’t exist today. But an aging publisher didn’t adapt an aging paper, and News founder Joseph Aaron saw an opening.

The press release said Aaron, who worked for the Sentinel years ago, “expressed his regret” at the Sentinel’s closing. He was quoted as saying, “In its heyday the Sentinel took courageous stands and demonstrated the vital role an independent newspaper serves in the Jewish community.”

Schatz prepared the press release without Aaron’s help, because his boss was out of town. He was actually quoting from a column Aaron wrote when publisher Jack Fishbein died last summer.

A new book arrived in the mail the other day, What Makes the Great Great: Strategies for Extraordinary Achievement, by Dennis P. Kimbro, PhD. There’s a squib on the back cover from Lou Holtz: “I read Dennis Kimbro’s book just before the 1996 football season began. It certainly put me in a positive frame of mind to feel that we could do the impossible mission.” Notre Dame didn’t, and Holtz resigned as coach before the season was over.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Randy Curwen photo by Kathy Richard.