Lerner’s Last Chance

Last month we brought you news of radical change at the Lerner newspapers. Booster and Skyline papers heretofore given away would be delivered by mail for a modest yearly rate. The Pulitzer Publishing Company, which bought the 66-year-old chain in 1985, hoped this measure would pluck the Chicago holding from the mire of unprofitability.

The conversion was probably a good idea, and we hear it’s been a success of sorts: loyal Lerner readers have signed on as subscribers in pleasing numbers. Nevertheless, last week Pulitzer revealed an even better plan for stanching the red ink. It’s going to shut the papers down.

The Booster and Skyline papers, as well as Lerner’s north-side News-Star and suburban Life titles, will disappear in early October unless new owners emerge. This may not be out of the question. Pulitzer tried as recently as early this year to peddle its neighborhood weeklies with no success, but nothing focuses attention on bargain merchandise like a going-out-of-business notice. Pulitzer immediately received about a dozen inquiries, most of them asking about pieces of the chain. Two of the interested parties are Lerner executives: marketing director Carol Kahn and regional advertising director George Rimel. Neither is talkative, but Rimel told us he wants to explore an employee buy-out. “A lot of us have put in our life’s blood here,” he said. “These products serve a need with their communities, and I don’t know if it’s fulfilled by any other publication.”

Eventually, Rimel might join forces with columnist Pat Butler, who’s worked for Lerner since 1967 and began thinking out loud about an employee takeover several months ago. Butler knew what was coming. “Management hasn’t always been as sharp as it should have been,” he told us. “This place is a little bit like the French army. The grunts are great, and the generals are rotten.”

He went on, “I can’t do it alone, obviously. I’m not going to lead a charge if no one’s with me. And at the same time, let’s face it, I have personally zero assets. This will require a great deal of, shall we say, creative financing.”

Which is to say, a great deal of something Butler knows nothing about. “If there’s a fighting chance to do something, maybe it ought to be done. But I have no magic formula at this time. As I emphasize–and probably shouldn’t emphasize–my knowledge of financing besides how to balance a checkbook is zilch.”

Perhaps wisdom will come with numbers. The 34-member Lerner unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild called a meeting to talk over the practicality of employee ownership and to figure out how many guild employees genuinely want to go after it.

Death, as it always does, caught a lot of people off guard, especially local management. The subscription drive was going strong. A reorganization was in the works for September. Headquarters was about to shift from Morton Grove back to the remodeled old building on Ashland Avenue. Then Nicholas Penniman, Pulitzer’s senior vice president of newspaper operations, came north from Saint Louis and dropped the bomb. Why are you doing this now? we asked him.

There’s an interesting division of the classified-ads market in Chicago, said Penniman by way of explanation. “The Sun-Times is very strong in automotive. The Reader does very good rental business. The Tribune is very good in real estate sales. To get that business away from the Reader, the Sun-Times, or the Tribune would be a monumental job for a paper of Lerner’s size and sophistication. It just wasn’t going to happen.”

Lerner’s strength had always been the help wanteds. And no one’s hiring. Linage dropped 15 percent last year, and it isn’t coming back. This surprised Pulitzer. The company had expected the White House to jump-start the economy for the election. “Obviously business didn’t turn around,” Penniman said. “It became clear to us after the first six months of this year that we wouldn’t get the balance we’d thought.”

Peering into Chicago’s economic future, the company decided the job market here would never turn around. “There are really no plans to hire back to the levels companies were at in the 70s and 80s,” Penniman told us. “Downsizing is almost permanent. Companies are relying on automation and increased productivity.”

Penniman offered one other, remarkable reason why he believes Lerner can’t recover its lost linage. “The Americans With Disabilities Act will be a tremendous suppressant to help-wanted ads.” He said the new law lays out such a mine field of questions a job applicant can no longer be asked that employers will cut back dramatically on job interviews to avoid litigation. Instead of “blanket-type advertising” in papers like the Booster, he predicted, businesses will rely on consultants and employment agencies to feed them a few choice, prescreened candidates.

“That’s baloney!” says Larry Gorski, the mayor’s special assistant for the disabled. “I think that’s a weak excuse.” It could be. But Penniman wasn’t saying that’s how employers should react to the new law. He said that’s how they will.

The Racoon Controversy

The Sun-Times ticked off black folks but its heart is pure. Alf Siewers’s overview last week of the notorious raccoon story of the week before allowed the appropriate parties to express their conditional regrets. Staff writer Tom McNamee called his piece “an innocent essay that, from a black perspective, legitimately could be misconstrued.” To blacks who misconstrued it, “I truly apologize.” Editor Dennis Britton said, “Clearly the article was not meant to offend. But if it did, we apologize for it.”

Britton told Siewers, “What the contretemps illustrates is the great cultural chasm that exists among races in the United States.”

Hold on! That handy scapegoat, the cultural chasm, isn’t that wide. White folks don’t need a professor of black studies to tell them a raccoon is a coon and a coon is a racial slur. McNamee should have saved his anthropomorphic frenzy for the opossum.

His piece was high-concept feature writing and serious folly. Suburban raccoons are introduced as “the gangbangers of the animal world.” Suburbanites wake up to raccoon destruction “in the same way city people find fresh graffiti.” Their hands tied, “the police can’t do much about raccoons, except to chase them off street corners and make them walk through metal detectors at school.” Raccoons walk the “gangbanger walk”–a suburbanite observes that “they sort of amble, kind of shuffle.” One attic was infested with raccoons “smoking crack or something.” What accounts for the menace? Might be hard times, lack of opportunity, “the disadvantages of growing up in a single-parent family.”

But McNamee goes on, “Others blame it on misguided liberals, those soft-headed people who feed raccoons each day, just as they gave money to street gangs in the 1960s.”

We called McNamee, who told us he’d been advised not to say anything. Too bad. We wanted to ask about the pressures bearing on those paid to commit vivid writing on a daily basis. We have our own impressions. Perceiving themselves originally as breaths of fresh air on whom management dotes, these practitioners soon awaken to the futility of their exertions. Nothing they write makes any difference. By comparison, an ice sculptor is creating for the ages. Each empty assignment dashes their seed on stone, each flamboyant misjudgment is a plea for attention and rescue.

But that’s just a theory of ours. We wondered if it would make any sense to McNamee.

A writer, at any rate, cannot take refuge in a cultural chasm. Unlike the lowly reporter or rewrite man, a writer cannot assert that his words were misunderstood. He must answer for every level of meaning. He can never plead innocent.

Cop Stoppers’ Textbook

Citizens Alert, the police watchdog organization, has mobilized to block legislation that virtually no one had heard of until it turned up in a northwest-side community newspaper.

A July article in the Leader on the doings of local state senator Walter Dudycz noted that a bill of his was sitting on the governor’s desk. The bill would impose a three-year statute of limitations on police boards considering disciplinary action against officers accused of using unreasonable force. Dudycz indicated that he had in mind the recent hearings on allegations that commander Jon Burge had tortured a suspected cop killer back in 1982.

The Leader item came to the attention of Citizens Alert’s Mary Powers. She was appalled. In 1990 an investigator for the Office of Professional Standards reported strong evidence of “systematic . . . esoteric” abuse at Area 2, Burge’s old command. How could Burge be disciplined for it if Dudycz’s bill became law? Furthermore, under this law it appeared that an officer convicted of, say, a murder five years past could not even be thrown off the force!

Powers learned that the bill had passed the senate 55 to 0 in May and the house 98 to 7 in June. It was now on Governor Edgar’s desk. Police Superintendent Matt Rodriguez and Police Board president Albert Maule told her they’d never heard of it.

“Nobody seemed to know anything about it,” says Maule, who has since made inquiries. Now the battle is joined. Citizens Alert has launched a letter-writing campaign, asked to meet with Edgar, and notified him that “your signing this bill would give a clear signal to violence-prone officers that delaying tactics by their attorneys will spare them from discipline or separation.” And Powers says the Fraternal Order of Police has posted signs in the cop houses urging officers to tell the governor they support the bill.

All because of one Leader article actually written by the staff of Walter Dudycz. “You’re going to die when I tell you,” said editor Jackie Pledger. “It was a press release.”

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