By Michael Miner
When the Bulls run to glory, so do the daily papers. Can the circulation uptick be measured in the tens of thousands? I asked Mark Hornung.
“At least the tens of thousands,” said Hornung, who’s vice president of circulation at the Chicago Sun-Times. “Bill Adee is the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
Adee’s a master of the literary form that makes haiku look like tedious garrulity. I mean the sports headline, the kind that in a word or two turns a newspaper into a keepsake. I asked Adee, executive sports editor of the Sun-Times, to walk me through “A 6th sense,” the classic banner on the front-page wrap the morning after the Bulls edged the Jazz 86-82 to take a commanding three-games-to-one lead in the NBA finals.
“Normally I come in the day of the game and say, ‘What are the themes? What are the key words?’ Stuff like that,” said Adee. “That one I probably thought of closest to deadline of any of them. It was like an epiphany. It was like 11 o’clock and our deadline was 15 minutes away. I said, ‘What about “A sixth sense”?’ and everybody said it was perfect. It had a nice subtle thing to it. That in a way was the most satisfying one. It popped in my head, and that made it better than the ones I thought of 24 hours ahead of time.”
Heavily dependent on newsstand sales, the Sun-Times rises and falls on its front page. Last year the Tribune competed with a spadia–a strip of newsprint that covered the left side of the front page top to bottom and wrapped around the back page that announced the past night’s Bulls results. But this year managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski ordered a more formidable presentation: a front-page story under the standing head “The Last Dance” in addition to a banner story on the first sports page.
For example, after Karl Malone ran wild to lead Utah past the Bulls in game five and send the series back to Salt Lake City, page one shouted, “The Last Dance / Ouch!” while the sports section announced, “Home Malone.”
“Home Malone,” penned by copy editor Tom Carkeek, was the Tribune’s moment of brilliance in the finals. Though it doesn’t work on two levels the way “A 6th sense” does–and indeed this allusion to a Macaulay Culkin movie can be swiftly deconstructed to gibberish–its aesthetic flaws yield to its ingenuity. Making matters even better for the Tribune, that same morning the Sun-Times was victimized by its own standards and countered with the anemic “Back to Utah.”
“We have our own rules for headlines,” Adee explained to me. In 1996, when the Seattle SuperSonics lost three straight to the Bulls but then hung on by their fingernails, the Sun-Times announced a Sonics win with “Reign delay.” The paper was hamstrung by its sports-headline statute of limitations and couldn’t recycle “Reign delay” until 1999.
Under no such restraint, the Tribune trotted out “Reign delay” to banner its June 14 sports section, the Sunday morning of the sixth game. That night the Bulls put away the Jazz, and the Sun-Times made the questionable decision to go with “Reign dance,” under a masthead slyly rewritten to read Chicago Six-Times.
“That was Bill’s,” said Adee’s deputy, Ron Rapoport. “A lot of people didn’t get it. I haven’t taken a poll, but I bet as many didn’t as did.”
Over at the Tribune the sports-page banner was a vapid “VICTORY,” while the front page asserted, “The Last Dance / The Joy of Six,” which would have been clever if it had been fresh. “That’s been out there a while,” Rapoport agreed. “We thought it was kind of derivative. We wanted some sense of a dance in there. That’s where ‘reign dance’ comes from.”
The Sun-Times should have thought a little harder. The Tribune had worked the dance theme into the ground earlier in the series, following “The Last Dance / May we cut in?” with “The Last Dance / Utah sits one out” and then the incoherence of “The Last Dance / The fat lady warms up.” That’s when they bagged the conceit, and high time too. “Reign” anything became wretched excess back on June 8, when the Tribune ran a page-one news headline over a story about trouble in the Saudi royal family. “Reign clouds in the desert,” it warned.
The only way to salvage “reign” after that groaner would have been with brilliance. When Michael Jordan single-handedly put the Bulls on top, “Reign maker” might have met the test. But neither paper thought of it.
Championship headlines are like championship chess. Missed opportunities are always easy to see after the match is over. During the heat of battle the pressure is incredible. “We spend an awful lot more time on them than we do normally,” said Rapoport. And Tribune sports editor Dan McGrath told me, “There’s sort of an understanding that everybody’s watched the game, so it has to be something that reflects what happens in a minimum of words. Because it has to be big, it has to be really punchy.”
“The one day I was glad I was working for a tabloid,” said Adee, “was when our headline was ‘Whew!'” This was the morning after the Bulls eased by Indiana in the seventh game of the semifinals. The Tribune front page said, “Whew! The agony of victory.”
“They had to fill out the line,” said Adee smugly, “where I could just use a big 100-point with an exclamation point at the end.”
Hurting the One She Loves
“Made to confess an’ tossed to th’ bog iv infamy,” said Mr. Dooley glumly. “‘Tis a shame.”
“She screwed up big time,” groused Slats Grobnik.
At the far end of the bar A.E. Eyre silently mourned. He remembered Patricia Smith one night at the Green Mill. The other poets had stood at the mike and yammered. She’d sashayed through the club, pouring it out like Vesuvius. He couldn’t tell how good her poem was. But Christ, she put it over!
“F’r th’ luv iv God, what made her do it?” said Mr. Dooley. “Whin th’ world was her eyester! She says here she apologizes to her poor dead da’, he what ust to raid her th’ papers whin tuckin’ her in as a moppet an’ put th’ luv iv ink in her veins. Gawd, don’ that bring a tair to yere eye!”
“When you can’t believe a columnist any longer,” said Slats Grobnik darkly, “who the hell is left?”
Eyre had already read the farewell column Mr. Dooley was now scanning, the one Patricia Smith wrote for the Boston Globe. “From time to time in my metro column, to create the desired impact or slam home a salient point, I attributed quotes to people who didn’t exist,” Smith admitted. “I could give them names, even occupations, but I couldn’t give them what they needed most–a heartbeat.”
“‘Twas th’ column that naided th’ hairthbeat,” Mr. Dooley was saying. “‘Twas th’ hairthbeat the lass was concoctin’.”
“The wisdom of the hoi polloi is the mother’s milk of punditry,” said Slats Grobnik, drawing on years of experience. “Trouble is, the wisdom of the hoi polloi is often a senseless screech.”
“A profane screech at that,” said Mr. Dooley. “‘Tis wisdom much in need iv a helpin’ hand. Yit th’ rules are claer. A newspaper is th’ lips iv Gawd to th’ ear iv man.”
Which, Eyre considered, is just what Smith went on to say in her valedictory. “As anyone who’s ever touched a newspaper knows, that’s one of the cardinal sins of journalism: Thou shall not fabricate. No exceptions. No excuses.”
“‘Tis black-an’-white,” said Mr. Dooley. “If we let iven one scrivner faibricate a word, we’ve uncorkt Pandora’s box f’r sairten.”
“I was fueled by a heady mixture of naivete, ambition, and an almost insane love for the powers of language,” Smith had written in her good-bye to Boston. “To make up for the fact that I didn’t get that ‘correct’ start in journalism, I set out to be 10 times as good by doing 10 times as much. Write columns. Author books. Write and perform poetry. Make films. Pen and star in plays.”
Mr. Dooley sighed. “Ain’t no sight more pathetic,” he said, “than a writer in th’ throes iv explination. Write an’ be damned, sez I.”
Grobnik drank to that. It was the code he knew.
“Insane love.” Eyre sadly closed his eyes. He’d known her a little, back when she traveled the local poetry-slam circuit while toiling for the Sun-Times, where she’d started out as a typist and made herself a phenomenon. Got in trouble there too, as he remembered it. Also got in some trouble earlier at the Globe. Always the same kind of trouble. Too much imagination. Too few facts. Yes, insane love was a fair description. For her sake, he thanked God she hadn’t won the Pulitzer before the scandal broke. He’d read that she’d been a finalist this spring.
Eyre cleared his throat. He longed to say something deep and true about truth. Truth was an important subject. If he turned the right phrase cleverly enough these immortals might buy him a drink.
Have a Cigar
“Smoking is an obnoxious and dangerous practice,” a Sun-Times editorial pronounced last Thursday. “That said, we know of no scientific research indicating that someone who smokes a cigar once a year as part of a celebration is endangering his health.”
I guess the Sun-Times also knows of no scientific research indicating that smoking endangers the health of high school students. On June 12 the paper carried a remarkable advertisement. Announcing “an exclusive offer from Chicago Sun-Times and La Havanita Cigar Factory,” the half-page ad promised anyone who signed up for 26 weeks of home delivery four hand-rolled cigars in a cedar box, plus a carrying tube, lighter, and cigar cutter.
“It’s not just a guy thing,” said the headline. And in a culture where it’s always worse somehow to make a misbegotten appeal to a minority than to a white, to a woman than to a man, and to a teenager than to an adult, the model for the ad was a black woman who looked like she’d lit up to celebrate turning 18.
Or perhaps she looked 18 because the ad ran in prep sports.
Reaction to the ad was exactly what you’d expect. “I have to question the Sun-Times’ judgement in openly encouraging its readers to smoke cigars,” said the letter to the editor from Theodora Binion Taylor, director of substance abuse programs for the Chicago Department of Public Health. “I further question the wisdom of your decision to target women….Don’t our children deserve better than pro-smoking messages from the Sun-Times?”
The American Lung Association also weighed in. In his letter John Kirkwood, executive director of the Chicago ALA, recalled that in 1996 the Sun-Times had carried an article on the health risks posed by cigar smoking, a report whose headline warned, “Cigars not as harmless as seductive ads suggest.” Kirkwood went on, “Imagine my surprise when I saw your latest promotion.”
“It was my idea. The buck stops here,” circulation boss Mark Hornung told me. “The Sun-Times has a reputation of being a very male-oriented newspaper,” he explained, so using female models struck him as a nifty idea. “We have a black woman, we have a blond, and we have a brunet.” But he didn’t know the ad would wind up facing a page that Taylor pointed out was “devoted to the state high school baseball playoffs.”
“If people are offended I will be happy to listen to their complaints,” said Hornung. “Whack away!”
Last Friday, the day after it declared smoking “an obnoxious and dangerous practice,” the Sun-Times made it clear that it wouldn’t bow to pressure from the Department of Public Health, the American Lung Association, and that crowd. Another “It’s not just a guy thing” ad ran in the sports section, this time the ad with the blond model. The Sun-Times positioned it alongside a column by prep sportswriter Taylor Bell.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bill Adee photo by Robert Drea; Illustration by Godfrey Carmona.