By Michael Miner
Man Out of Time
The last time the Reader looked in on Paul Obis, the publisher of In These Times had rooted out an embezzler in the ranks who’d helped himself to about $125,000. Obis resigned the other day, and it might surprise you to hear the judgment of his boss: “He didn’t do his job, that’s the basic thing.”
Founder and editor James Weinstein hired Obis 18 months ago, expecting him to raise enough money to put the magazine on its feet. Obis cut costs, not to mention graft, but he didn’t cut it as a hat passer. “He did some very good things,” says Weinstein, “but he was unable to do the development work, and that’s a large part of operating a not-for-profit. When I gave up the publisher’s job I said it was because it’s hard to be a beggar instead of an editor. I’m back to being a beggar again.”
“This place is far more stable today that it had been when I got here,” responds Obis, who’s staying on through the end of the year. “When I got here, employees were three weeks behind in getting paid. All those back wages have been repaid, and every employee has gotten a 33 percent salary increase. We’re current with our vendors, and there’s no crisis. Weinstein can criticize all he wants about not raising enough money. The facts are, I’m running this place a lot better, and you can ask anybody.”
Up to a point, Weinstein doesn’t disagree. “The business department is in much better shape than it was. And–not really because of Paul but still under his reign–we have the best editorial department we’ve ever had. So things are in pretty good shape. Which wasn’t true when he arrived.”
But, Weinstein continues, “We have to build up circulation.” It’s now stagnant at 20,000, and the only way Weinstein knows to increase it is with a massive direct-mail campaign, for which Obis was supposed to raise the money. Well, yes, says Obis, but the magazine relies way too heavily on charity as is: “The percentage of revenues that In These Times takes in in donations is about 33 percent.” Not counting Weinstein’s own subsidies, donated funds provide 23 percent of the magazine’s income–“which is still triple what most other magazines get.”
Obis decided the way to go was to cut costs. “We changed the grade of paper–that saved us about $25,000 a year. We publish 32 pages instead of 40–that saved us about $30,000 a year.” Those two reforms alone cut expenditures by about 10 percent, says Obis. “It’s easier to try and run a place more responsibly within your means than it is to go out screaming all the time for money.”
Well, yes, says Weinstein, but “the point is that we have to build up a circulation. There are only two ways to increase your income, and that’s by increasing either circulation or contributions, because advertising is never going to amount to much at a not-for-profit. He was there a year and a half, and he never did a direct mail. The reason he didn’t do it presumably was that he didn’t have the money to do it, but he didn’t do any fund-raising.”
Obis points out that while giving other employees raises he took only half his own salary. Well, yes, says Weinstein, “but we didn’t have any money in the budget for a publisher before Paul–because I was publisher. So when we told him he wouldn’t start until we raised enough money to guarantee him a couple of years’ salary, he said, ‘I’ll come in and help you raise money.’ So he came in and didn’t help us raise the money. You can draw your own conclusion.”
When Obis took the job he told me he’d told Weinstein, “Why don’t you make it the new person’s problem to figure out how to pay for the position? And since that person’s me, that’ll be my problem.” Well, yes, says Obis, when I read his own words back to him, “but I certainly more than covered what I should have been paid, through saving money as a business and from contributions I did bring in.” In an E-mailed note he adds, “Donations in 1998 were about the same as in 1997. Importantly, because of other changes I brought in, we didn’t need as much money.”
Obis made his reputation as founder of Vegetarian Times, and he made a fortune when he sold it in 1991. Casting around for something to get him out of his house in Oak Park, he hooked up with Weinstein, who’d decided that his left-wing biweekly, after 21 years of hand-to-mouth existence, needed some new, young blood. “He’s not better than I hoped for,” Weinstein told me when Obis signed on, “but he’s better than I expected to find.” Obis almost immediately discovered that business manager Robert Larson, who would eventually plead guilty to a theft charge, was cooking the books. Weinstein told the Reader’s Tori Marlan last summer that when he found out, “I thought, ‘Hey, we must be doing better than we thought we were.'”
Obis didn’t see the silver lining. “To come into a place mismanaged for 23 years and try to turn it around that quickly, and with no money, is pretty challenging,” he says. “Sometimes it felt like I was trying to set up camp on a sandbar in the middle of a river during a storm. I was tending to the details of running a business while cranking out a magazine every two weeks.”
At one point Obis suggested cutting back the publication schedule, but his staff wouldn’t hear of it. It’s a small, tight staff, about a dozen people. Most of them found Obis remote, and they weren’t sure exactly what he did. But they knew that new money wasn’t rolling in. “I think,” he says, “that as people perceived that things were getting better and more stable, that people tended to see me as management. And given the nature of the organization, they inherently don’t think too much of managers.”
To run the magazine when Obis leaves, Weinstein has created a four-person committee that consists of himself, managing editor Joel Bleifuss, associate publisher Sonya Huber, and features editor Craig Aaron. A good move, says Obis: “A more collective enterprise is more appropriate here.” The staff is glad he’s leaving, and so is he. “At 47, I am in what should be the prime of my career,” Obis writes in his E-mail, “and I no longer wanted to spend my time calling people and asking them for $5,000 so I could meet payroll.”
Prisoners of Hate
In 1987 lurking reporters spotted the wrong woman entering the town house of Gary Hart. Their story destroyed Hart politically. Within a week he’d dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, a race he was winning handily. “I’m not a beaten man–I’m an angry man, a defiant man,” he asserted as he quit. You betcha, said the press. “It isn’t that Gary Hart is unintelligent,” William Raspberry wrote. “Indeed, he is one of the most intelligent men in the race. The problem is a deadly lack of ordinary wisdom, common sense.”
“Didn’t he ask himself the few simple questions any philandering husband would ask?” wondered Mike Royko. “Will anyone see us? Will I be recognized? Can I trust her to keep her mouth shut?” And the late Joan Beck wrote, “Hart said, in withdrawing, that the present system of campaigning for the presidency is a mockery that must be changed. He should know. He has treated it, the press and the public with egotistical contempt.”
That’s when the media learned to rip into infidelity, while the American people apparently started asking themselves how much they really cared. Four years later Bill Clinton was elected president despite a reputation as bad as Hart’s and a Donna Rice of his own–Gennifer Flowers. Sporting defects of character so conspicuous that four years earlier they would have made him unelectable, Clinton blew away the incumbent.
Clinton’s biggest fans have had to work hard to look past those defects, and the nation’s conservative moralists have despised him since the day he took office. By the ’96 election they’d come to the same dark conclusion liberal moralists reached in 1972, when Richard Nixon carried 49 states as the outlines of Watergate were emerging: The public is a fickle deity, to be feared and worshiped but never trusted. Many of the congressmen who last weekend searched their consciences instead of the polls had long ago concluded that the people needed saving from themselves. That the people liked Clinton regardless of his sins merely proved how dire the crisis was.
A few days before Clinton was impeached, I enjoyed dinner with a few sensible liberals who saw clearly that the crisis has been driven by raw hatred. The case against Nixon was incomparably more serious than the case against Clinton is, someone said, though had the case against Nixon been just as paltry–well, it would have had to do.
Love Me Do
To watch the impeachment hearings on TV was to listen to two Americas that live in separate neighborhoods, honor separate Constitutions, and worship separate gods. Separate bogeymen lurk under their beds at night, and neither exists in the other’s idea of paradise. Yet they sometimes have to read the same newspapers, because so few of them are left.
Earlier this fall I sat on a panel next to the editor of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. The topic was “the changing newsroom,” and Cole Campbell was proselytizing for “public journalism,” the controversial paradigm shift that some prominent journalists advance as the way newspapers can recapture their wandering readers. In the old days, he said, the papers retailed the doings of news producers to news consumers. Public affairs flowed one way–down. Today’s papers must link citizens with the resources of citizenship, recognizing that citizens are also players–in fact, the ultimate players. “Balance…means much more to readers than ‘presenting both sides of the story,'” Campbell has written. “It can also mean presenting the wholeness of a community–what works alongside what needs reform, the weak alongside the strong, life at the center as well as at the margins.”
A preacher’s son, Campbell went on with his worthy sermon long enough for me to begin to wonder. The Post-Dispatch is like the Chicago Tribune in one vital respect: plenty of people have been raised from the cradle to hate it. My mother in Saint Louis deems the Post biased and contemptible; to my less moderate late uncle, it was a Bolshevik rag he wouldn’t permit in his home. I’ve never understood why feelings ran so high. But then I wasn’t around when the Post exposed the Teapot Dome scandal, sullying the memory of that fine Republican Warren Harding, probably the most presidential-looking president of the century until Ronald Reagan. I wasn’t there when it endorsed FDR, who allowed idlers to lean on their shovels. And I must admit the Post carried internationalism to such an extreme that it assigned a reporter to the United Nations. Local conservatives have endlessly fulminated against the liberal bacilli churning through the Post’s veins. Largely out of habit, many Saint Louisans revile it still.
But what of it? The great thing about newspapers used to be that you could revile the Post-Dispatch and read another one. Once you could read the Saint Louis Star. Until 1986 you could still read the Globe-Democrat, which had pegged Dr. Martin Luther King from the get-go as a Kremlin tool and on whose editorial page Pat Buchanan cut his teeth. But maybe you didn’t hate the Post. Maybe you hated the Globe instead. In that case you probably read the Post religiously (as in Chicago many read the Tribune) and identified with the community that coalesced around it, one of the most vigorous liberal communities in America.
When there are plenty of readers to go around, there are far worse things to be than loved and hated. But now the Post is the only daily in town, and the competition it faces is community and alternative weeklies, radio, TV, the Net, and the disinclination of a lot of people to read anything at all. The Post, like the Tribune and other papers that survived, can’t afford to be hated by anyone anymore. So now papers carry one columnist for these readers and another columnist for those readers, as if their pages were an array of service plans. They conduct business like a utility, which is pretty much what they are–holders of the local metro-newspaper franchise. Responsibility is their watchword. They coin new paradigms that will remind the public, and themselves, of how essential they are. They are desperate to be liked.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Paul Obis photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.