It made no sense to the commuters. Pouring off the Metra train that had just pulled in from Du Page County, they were importuned to sell the Tribune under their arms. The puzzled passengers pointed to honor boxes stuffed with the paper.

Not those–yours, said Robert Michaels, a staff attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center. Michaels wrote me later that his request was “met with amazement and, in some cases, fear.”

Michaels had got up before daybreak on the north side and cracked open his Tribune expecting to find a major story on tollway financing. He’d intended to tear the article out and fax it to local radio stations, hoping the subject would be taken up on drive-time news and talk shows.

But the article wasn’t there–neither in section one nor in MetroChicago.

So he rode the Ravenswood el south to Quincy and dashed over to Union Station. Sure enough, the tollway article unworthy of being carried in Chicago stared out at him from page one of the MetroDuPage edition.

“What this whole episode demonstrates is not the flaws in zoning,” says Michaels, who can’t imagine the Tribune trying to market itself across Illinois’ seven northeastern counties without zoning. “It’s more the fact that if you are going to zone the paper it creates an obligation to carefully distinguish and identify the stories that are of regional importance from those genuinely of local significance–like a school-board election.”

Michaels is being generous. This episode does demonstrate a flaw of zoning: when a handful of editors located in downtown Chicago have to decide what stories are appropriate to which editions scattered over a region of seven million people they sometimes screw up.

The article Michaels thinks the Tribune was wrong not to publish throughout the region analyzed the financing of the proposed $650 million extension of the North-South Tollway. If Governor Edgar gives the go-ahead, construction of 12.5 miles of tollway from Bolingbrook south through Will County to Interstate 80 could begin this summer. And the Environmental Law & Policy Center is dead set against it.

The center contends that fiscally irresponsible road building abets unplanned, even mindless urban sprawl that exploits and eviscerates long-established communities. The North-South extension, according to Michaels, “would be a financial dog for which everyone else in the region would have to foot the bill.” And the Tribune article he wishes more people could have read backed him up.

Suburban transportation writer Janan Hanna reported that according to tollway officials, the North-South extension will saddle the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority with some $50 million in annual debt payments that will be offset by just $10 million in toll revenues. Hanna wrote, “The $40 million difference would be made up by the millions of drivers using the Northwest, Tri-State and East-West Tollways, said tollway Executive Director Ralph Wehner.”

The authority was created in 1953 to build tollways that were to be paid off and become toll free by 1984. That’s never happened. Instead the General Assembly changed the law to let the authority keep building and piling up new debt; in the eyes of the Environmental Law & Policy Center it’s now a runaway bureaucracy that builds to perpetuate itself.

Michaels sent me Hanna’s article–which wasn’t in my Tribune either. He also sent me a 1989 Tribune editorial, “Reining in the tollway authority,” that argued that each new toll-road project “should be argued on its own merits and justified only if it can be financed with its own bonds,” observing that “the financing of the North-South Tollway is an example of how unfair this can be.” And he sent me a May 5 editorial, “Reckoning all the costs of ‘sprawl,'” that viewed exurban development more sanguinely than Michaels’s group does, but described the tollway authority as potentially “a perpetual road-building machine.”

So the Tribune had demonstrated its awareness of the issue. Hanna’s article exploring it appeared on page one in Will and Du Page counties, in the Metro section in Lake County, and not at all in papers sold in other north and northwest suburbs.

“It seems the farther away from where they want to build the road the less important the story was deemed,” Michaels says. He considers this false logic. “If I ride the East-West Tollway and I’m going from Aurora to Elmhurst, the message is identical and equally important as if I rode the Tri-State Tollway from Gurnee to O’Hare. Whatever tollway I ride, I’ve been told the last 40 years this tollway would become free when we finished paying for it. And this story is telling me that isn’t happening. The same promise was made to all of those people, no matter how far away they are from this new road. The story is much less about this road in Will County than its effect on the people in the rest of the tollway system. They’re the audience. If they build this toll road in Will County they’ll be paying for it for 20 years. Another 20 years of waiting in line and plunking down 40 cents every day. And if they refinance the bonds, as they have in the past, it will be longer than 20 years.”

“The zone calls are made usually by the metro editors,” public editor George Langford told me. “We can zone in about eight ways, and there are a lot of close calls. Sometimes we make mistakes. We get a lot of complaints–not a lot, but people say, I hear a story was in another zone, and I’m really interested in it. That’s one of the downsides of doing a lot of zoning.”

I described the story that made Michaels mad.

“That’s probably not as egregious as some of the others,” Langford said.

This Is Not Your Father’s Tribune

If you don’t deign to read about tollways in the old bump-in-the-night Tribune that’s flung on your doorstep, lock on to the Tribune’s new home page–

It’s a sweet-and-sour mix of depth and superficiality. The tollway package posted there May 7 contains not just a history of the system, an analysis of where the money goes, and a critique echoing the arguments of Robert Michaels, but the text of the 1967 state law under which the tollway authority now operates. Yet each story is brief, each paragraph is separated from the next by a broad causeway of white, and the quota of sentences per paragraph appears to be two. Wonderful junior high school term papers will be written by students who look here.

“There’s a different kind of storytelling going on here, because the medium has pluses and minuses,” on-line editor John Lux explained. “An interested reader can dig much deeper in the Web than in a newspaper. But each story has to be represented in bits and pieces, really, because it’s very hard to read on a TV screen. That’s one of the big limitations of on-line representation. It’s really a pain to scroll. You want to keep things short but make them deep. You do that through the links.”

Concern for the user’s comfort level lapses at times into silliness. Click to “Meet our Web team”–there’s a “give-these-kids-a-hug” fatuity that recalls the playbill of a brand-new off-Loop theater company whose enthusiasm far outruns its talent. “Other great jobs so far, before this one….She started as one of those grunt kids who comes in on weekends and write up prep sports….A Bob Dylan fan….She abhors people with a resumé fetish (you know who you are)….He’s working on being a really cool geek….He is proud to say he is not going bald….Recently, Larry got a life, for which he is quite thankful….He feels his home state’s abolition of the single-class high school basketball tournament is yet another sign that civilization is nearing its end….It’s OK. He’s harmless. Just…talk…very…very…slowly….Bill has tried all his life to evade nerdishness….Not above eating the residue tang from the bottom of the glass with a fork.”

These are the “digerati.” Users are encouraged to E-mail them messages. They don’t sound much like journalists.

“Yeah,” said Lux. “You know, it’s not your father’s Tribune.”

Digeratum Ginger Orr wrote most of the tollway pieces. Her bio was admirably restrained, though she let slip that she once worked with two soap-opera writing teams. I didn’t send her a message. Instead I called.

Another World and As the World Turns, she said–as a college intern spending a semester in New York. She’s 23, interned with the Tribune’s Washington bureau, and to my relief wants to get back into print journalism. She’d spent two weeks–a serious chunk of time–researching her tollway stories.

“The reporting is the same,” Orr said, comparing print to on-line. “But you try to think in Web terms. You look for ways to be interactive, ways to involve the viewers you wouldn’t in the print version. Most of our stories are shorter. We try to break them into different levels. We have feedback. There are also audio and visual clips. Sometimes we’ll interview reporters from the print edition and get a sound bite. Sometimes we get sound bites from people we interview.”

She went on, “Why do I want to get back into print journalism? That’s why I started out. That’s where I thought I would be. This just sort of happened.” She misses her byline on newsprint she can hold in her hands or read over the shoulder of another passenger on the bus. “You can print out the pages, but it’s not the same thing.”

“Only 10 or 12 percent of Americans are now on-line,” Lux said. “This is not a mass medium the way a newspaper is.”

News Bites

The overnight arts reviews the Sun-Times is so proud of appear haphazardly. Endgame, for example, opened at the Mercury Theater Thursday night, May 16, to climax the Buckets o’ Beckett Festival. Friday morning Hedy Weiss’s glowing notice appeared in the Late Sports Final.

But that’s the only edition it ran in until the following Tuesday, when I spotted it in the Sports Final under the very tiny advisory “Reprinted from an earlier edition.” By then Endgame had been closed for two days. Because my carrier quixotically delivers the Late Sports Final some days and the Sports Final others, I read the same review twice. Someone else might not have seen it at all.

It’s never smart to question the sexual vigor of so manly a man as your party’s presidential candidate–no matter how hypothetical you’re being. Appearing as a last-minute guest May 12 on Bruce DuMont’s Beyond the Beltway radio show, Dan Miller, chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, found himself snarled in a conversation on the politics of same-sex marriages. According to newspaper reports–I didn’t hear the show or see a transcript of it–Miller doubted that Robert Dole would make common cause with groups whose grounds for denouncing such marriages are that “no children can issue from that union.” After all, Miller observed, Dole and his present wife are childless. “Either one or the other is impotent, or they are practicing birth control,” observed Miller, who apparently didn’t consider that the Doles might simply be too old to have kids. If impotence were the cause, he went on, then by the no-children-can-issue standard they shouldn’t be married.

“Inappropriate and unfortunate,” said Governor Edgar, who’d like to run for vice president on Dole’s ticket. “We won’t confirm him,” said senate president James “Pate” Philip. Miller’s term ends January 1, and Edgar had already nominated him for another.

But Miller was on to something thoughtful. For a fuller, subtler expression of the views that got Miller into so much trouble I refer you to Andrew Sullivan’s column in the March 18 New Republic. Sullivan wasn’t writing about Dole; he was writing about Dole’s rival, Pat Buchanan. He wasn’t predicting that Dole wouldn’t stoop to hypocrisy; he was explaining why the Catholic, childless Buchanan already had.

DuMont tells me that Miller didn’t mention Sullivan’s piece. He’d obviously digested it.

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