In Tough Times

This is either the first year of the rest of the life or the last year ever of In These Times, the intelligent biweekly journal of leftist perspective. After 16 years of worthy journalism and mounting losses, In These Times has launched a campaign to raise $375,000. If it can’t, founder-publisher-editor James Weinstein intends to stop publishing in December.

“In These Times is at a crossroads” begins the journal’s “refinance proposal,” which ITT began distributing in late June. “We have gained recognition, in the Utne Reader’s words, as ‘an indispensable alternative to Time and Newsweek.’ But because of longstanding debts, which we are now paying off at nearly $10,000 a month, we barely scrape by. To survive, we’ve cut back our publishing schedule, made drastic reductions in staff, and those of us who remain have taken pay cuts. This, in turn, has shackled our efforts to improve the quality of the magazine and to promote circulation growth. Under these conditions, continued publishing of In These Times is impossible.”

ITT owes about $285,000, some $100,000 of it to writers. “Many writers have stopped writing for us,” the battle plan concedes, “and we frequently cannot assign articles that we deem important and timely. Further, handling writers’ complaints and grievances to the National Writers Union have consumed an inordinate amount of editorial time in administrative activities.”

There’s an irony here. Being prolabor, ITT is one of the handful of publications to recognize the NWU as the bargaining agent for its free-lance writers. Yet because checks to free-lancers are the easiest ones in the world not to write, ITT has stiffed them anyway. “They’ve sort of backed off,” Weinstein told us recently. “They finally got it through their heads we weren’t screwing around with them. We just had no money.”

The union didn’t back away as far as Weinstein thought it had. The NWU has assigned individual grievance officers to only two magazines in the country, and In These Times is one of them. He’s Steve Askin of New York, and when we talked with him last week he said he’d collected a packet of a half dozen grievances he was about to mail.

“We got a written commitment from them several months ago that to the extent they weren’t able to pay people they’d warn every writer who agrees to write for them that there’s a high probability they won’t get paid,” Askin said. “Then it’s the writer’s option. Every grievance on my desk right now is that they’ve failed to live up to that commitment. They continue to assign stories, and the writers say the editors say, ‘Don’t expect to get paid anytime soon.'” To Askin, that’s not strong enough.

This semantic wrangling suggests how much trouble ITT is in. To get out of it the docile board of the Institute for Public Affairs, the tax-exempt formal owner of ITT, is being reconstituted and given a serious role to play in finding donors. According to the financial battle plan, ITT needs to conduct three large direct-mail campaigns a year to increase its subscriber list from the present 22,000, and Weinstein said he hasn’t been able to afford three since 1988. “Direct mail is comprised of a myriad of variables, and we have acquired a certain mastery of these mysteries,” declares the battle plan. “For example, a blue envelope works better than a green one; an offer at $14.95 pulls fewer responses than one at $9.95, yet brings in more money; in light of the new administration, a more optimistic letter fares better than a harder-edged one.”

If you appreciate In These Times, as we do, for its political coverage and commentary, you might wish such insights were beneath it. But they’re not. No one’s unhappier that he has to sweat these details than Weinstein himself, and as it happens he’s trying to remove himself as publisher so he won’t have to. He’s advertised in ITT, philanthropic journals, and briefly in Editor & Publisher for a successor.

“This person should have significant financial resources or proven ability in big-money fundraising,” says the ad. He or she should also know how to run a magazine and share ITT’s notions of how the world works. A line hasn’t formed outside Weinstein’s door.

A model of whom he’s looking for is Jeff Cohen, founder and executive director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) in New York. Cohen turned Weinstein down a while back, but at least talked with him about the job. “I told Jimmy it’s the publication I most admired over the previous decade or so,” Cohen told us. “I thought they’d done a great job with limited resources. Their environmental exposes were tremendous.”

Steve Askin thinks that even if Weinstein finds a new publisher he won’t give up any real authority. But Weinstein insists he wants out from under. “I started this thing to be an editor,” he said. “I ended up being a beggar. I really never wanted to be publisher. It’s just something that fell on me because we were always so undercapitalized there was never any possibility of anyone coming in and filling the job.”

ITT has kept going largely because Weinstein comes from a wealthy family and has poured his own money into the product. This won’t change. The battle plan shows Weinstein contributing $120,000 in 1993, an annual gift that would rise to $150,000 by 1997. But the $375,000 ITT needs is on top of everything Weinstein’s pledged from his own pocket, and miracles may be necessary.

“Amazing things happen all the time for us,” said associate publisher Beth Schulman. “Last year someone who knew he was dying cleaned out his bank account and sent $40,000 each to us, the Progressive, and Mother Jones.”

Where’s Pappas?

Pity the newsmaker who tries to make news. As both of Chicago’s newspapers ponder the area’s plague of abused and murdered children, County Commissioner Maria Pappas decided to run a study of the victims. Her most compelling finding: the mothers of 19 of the first 25 children (14 or younger) who were murdered in Cook County in 1993 became pregnant for the first time as teenagers.

The victims fell into two groups. The six children nine years of age or older died of gunshot or stab wounds. The other 13 victims ranged in age from three weeks to four years; nine were beaten, two scalded, another strangled, and one died in a fire set by arsonists.

Unless government steps in “to reduce teen pregnancies,” Pappas declared in a press release, “this appalling cycle will continue.” The press release, distributed at the news conference Pappas held on June 27, noted ominously that “in Illinois, almost 10,000 new families are started annually by single teenage females who haven’t graduated from high school.”

A pretty good angle. A good enough angle for a paper–if it were that paper’s angle–to really give it a ride. The Sun-Times ran a modest story the next morning in a modest position, page 20. The Tribune buried its brief mention of Pappas’s finding where the Titanic salvage expedition couldn’t find it–inside the Chicagoland section at the end of an account of a congressman’s plans to stage a July 4 picnic to promote children’s safety.

Didn’t the Tribune know what it had? Absolutely. What it had was a tool for analyzing child homicides that it intended to exploit when and where it wanted–and would gladly have exploited first. When and where turned out to be the front page 11 days later, on July 9. Pappas wasn’t mentioned.

Appearing midway through a year in which the Tribune had pledged to pay attention to every murdered child, “Portrait of a city’s tragedy” was a lengthy analysis of risk factors “that suggest which children are most in danger.” One factor, boldly displayed in a front-page graph, was “Age of victim’s mothers [sic] when first pregnant.”

The Tribune’s analysis was conducted a little later than Pappas’s and in a slightly different manner. Its results were even more dramatic: “All but four of the 29 victims–86 percent–were born to mothers who apparently became pregnant with their first child as a teenager.”

Reporter Colin McMahon told us the Tribune was already well aware that teenage motherhood correlates with wretched living conditions, and had been collecting the data it needed weeks before Pappas spoke up. All the Tribune did was treat a public official as it might treat a competing newspaper that had scooped it: when she reported something inconveniently soon she was virtually ignored.

“What’s that famous phrase? Instant replay? Do they say that about the media?” Pappas asked us. “In my next life I’m coming back on an editorial board.”

The $10 Tribune

The Chicago Tribune runs a full-service gift shop in the lobby of the Tower. Here’s what you can buy:

Stuffed dogs. Tumblers. Umbrellas. Candy bars. Shaving cream. Gym bags. Almanacs. Cookbooks. Other books. Sweatshirts. T-shirts. Tote bags. Hats.

Here’s what you can no longer buy in the lobby of the Tower: back issues of the Tribune.

Any Tribune published in the past 90 days used to be available in a room off the lobby at its original cost. The back-issue desk was not a lively profit center; it was a convenience for the trickle of people who used it. It was a gesture of the paper’s self-respect as a repository of information.

But hold on, we’ve misled you. We said you can’t buy a back issue in the gift shop. That’s technically not true. Last Sunday’s Tribune is always available. And so, for the time being, is the Bulls championship edition. What’s more, you can even buy other back issues in the gift shop. It’s just that the price per copy has jumped from 50 cents to $10.

Ten dollars! we said to Jeff Bierig, a Tribune spokesman. “For the service,” he said. “We have to get someone to go and get the newspaper.”

At the Sun-Times the last two months of papers continue to be available at a cost of 35 cents for a daily paper and $1.50 for a Sunday paper.

If you balk at the Tribune’s new fetch-it fee, a gift-shop clerk will suggest you try the public library. And the Tribune, to its credit, favors longer library hours.

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