Out-of-Towners Out of Touch

Memo to reporters: Don’t just tell us what someone said; tell us what he meant. An otherwise solid piece in last week’s Crain’s Chicago Business on the “line between trashy and classy” that the Sun-Times is walking under its new bosses, Michael Cooke and John Cruickshank, didn’t do that.

“While others caution the duo to pull back,” wrote Brian McCormick, “Michael Smith, managing director at Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, says they haven’t gone far enough. ‘They aren’t being bold enough, different enough,’ he says. ‘The more they try to be like the Chicago Tribune, the crazier they are.'”

On that contrarian note the article halted. And, says Smith, anguished E-mail promptly began rolling in. “Mike, say it isn’t so!” was the tone. “You’re not advocating the Sun-Times become more trashy?”

So I called Smith and asked him to go on. “In a way the Sun-Times could become more trashy,” he mused. “But they should become many other things too. Bolder, taking more risks. Not dumbing down, but respecting where readers are and what readers’ concerns are.” Smith wants Cooke and Cruickshank to take the paper back to its roots. “I believe that the Sun-Times would best be served by creating a paper for and about people who love Chicago,” he said. “There were flashes of brilliance in the history of the Sun-Times that I think are perfect models. Strong investigations–I still have in my archives the [1978] Mirage series. The voices represented in the Sun-Times do not necessarily reflect the people they want to attract as readers–young urban professionals, young people in particular, young urban African-Americans and Hispanics. The day I was interviewed I counted 22 columns in the Sun-Times cover to cover. There are many more voices, but they’re still all saying the same thing. I’m challenging them to find the next generation of Bob Greenes and Roger Eberts. If they want to attract 26-year-old working mothers, they have to find somebody who understands them. Judy Markey [no longer with the paper] doesn’t do it.”

Smith was remembering the late 60s and early 70s, when kids took over and veterans sulked. Hired out of college, Greene and Ebert became Sun-Times columnists almost immediately. Ellis Cose, this year a finalist to become dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, asked for and got a column as a 19-year-old African-American editorial assistant.

Marshall Field controlled the Sun-Times in that era, and Jim Hoge ran it. Both were in their 30s. Hoge believed, as Smith seems to, that a metropolitan daily wears many hats, some of them outrageous. But Hoge and Field both took off in 1984, and successors have come and gone like CTA trains at Howard Street. “I think it’s difficult for any leader to come in,” Smith told me, “because there have been so many people through the door–it’s the ‘same circus, different clowns’ syndrome. We’ve done a considerable amount of research on news culture in the last year and a half, and it sort of reaffirms that there’s a real passive-aggressive culture in most newsrooms. Newspaper culture is extremely strong and extremely resistant to change. And at newspapers I’ve seen that have been through lots of leadership and ownership changes, it’s much more difficult to get things done. When you’ve been through a lot you sort of scar over.”

Almost every editor since Hoge arrived from out of town, most–like Cooke, Cruickshank, and their predecessor, Nigel Wade–from out of the country. One after another took over a paper he didn’t know in a city he didn’t understand. Smith has known and admired Cooke for years, and he told me Cruickshank enjoyed a fine reputation back in Vancouver. But he’s not blind to the folly in the pattern. “Coming from outside Chicago makes it difficult to really appreciate it when you’re trying to produce the newspaper that’s the heart and soul of Chicago,” he said. “Which is what the Sun-Times should be. The Tribune can’t. It’s too big.”

I asked him about the editorial shift to the right. Was that smart journalism, or was ideology running roughshod over common sense?

“All I know,” said Smith, “is that when I talk to people, especially African-Americans, about the Sun-Times, they feel abandoned by it. When it endorsed George W. Bush, people felt they didn’t have an option. They knew the Tribune was going to do that.”

StreetWise Dead End?

Last Saturday the Tribune editorial page weighed in on StreetWise, asking “ego, protocol and pettiness” to step back and give the weekly a fighting chance to settle its troubles and stay in business. The Tribune suggested “bringing in an outside mediator trusted by everyone to help straighten out the mess.”

In fact, someone from the ranks of the Tribune had already begun playing such a role. Years ago senior writer Richard Longworth helped write StreetWise’s mission statement, then stayed involved as a mentor to the paper’s forever underpaid and inexperienced staff. He’d been out of touch with the paper for the last couple of years, but when it looked like this week’s issue might not get published he stepped in and made sure it was.

Early last week, long and excoriating letters to the board of directors were signed by editor Charity Crouse, production chief Allan Gomez, job-training director John Sanbonmatsu, and other staffers, most of whom were promptly suspended. Executive director Anthony Oliver flew former editor John Ellis in from California to take over. Ellis arrived last Wednesday, recognized that he couldn’t put out the paper alone, and called Longworth, an old friend.

“He said he needed some help,” Longworth told me this week. “Could I help get some of the former staffers, the suspended staffers, to return? I said I’d try, and it worked out. They went back in with none of the issues settled and no attempt to settle them. It was just a one-shot thing to get the paper out.”

Largely out of respect for Longworth, the staff returned to work, where they promptly produced an editorial for this week’s StreetWise laying out their case. “As you read this,” it said, “we do not know if the Board of Directors has dealt with our concerns, or if we have been locked out again and fired from our jobs. We can only hope that the problems are resolved without harming the newspaper we work hard to produce or, most importantly, the vendors who work hard to sell it. A newspaper belongs to more than the directors who control it, the staff who create it, and the vendors who sell it: the readers also have a stake in the future of StreetWise. Airing, and perhaps washing, dirty laundry in public is never a pleasant task for any organization. But a newspaper must operate with a higher standard of transparency. We have an obligation to treat ourselves with the same honesty and accuracy that we use when examining other institutions in the pages of this newspaper.”

Unwittingly perhaps, the editorial put its finger on a perennial bone of contention between whoever happens to be editing StreetWise and whoever happens to be running it. Far more than street papers in other cities, StreetWise takes itself seriously as journalism. But the editors and writers inevitably take the journalism more seriously than their bosses, to whom the editorial product is simply a means to an end–the self-sufficiency of the paper’s otherwise unemployed vendors.

At any rate, this editorial never saw the light of day. The staffers say Oliver intercepted the paper on its way to the publisher and replaced the editorial with a clumsily written one on Gregory Becker. Oliver wouldn’t tell me if he did or didn’t do this, but he asserted, “I do have final say over the newspaper at this point.”

Monday evening, the staffers who signed the letters met with the board of directors’ executive committee. Oliver wasn’t invited. Crouse told Longworth he’d be welcome to sit in as a neutral observer, but when Longworth showed up the board politely turned him away. Afterward, Allan Gomez told me that some directors took notes furiously while board president Pam McElvane–whom the staffers perceive to be Oliver’s champion–barely jotted a word. Gomez said he described a vendors’ meeting he’d gone to earlier in the afternoon at which, he claimed, Oliver tried to stir up the vendors by calling the editorial staffers “snakes who needed to get their heads cut off.”

Gomez said that when the executive committee heard this “some seemed really appalled, except for the board president, who seemed on Anthony Oliver’s side.”

The history of StreetWise has been one crisis after another. Longworth recalls that about six years ago, when John Ellis was editor and Oliver managed the vendors, the executive director was fired and the vendors went on strike. “Anthony Oliver saved the organization,” Longworth told me. “There’s no other way of putting it. StreetWise would not exist if not for Anthony Oliver.”

But this is now. “It’s a very, very dangerous situation,” said Longworth as the week began. “There’s no guarantee the organization will survive. The first street paper, the one StreetWise is modeled on, came out in New York, and there isn’t one in New York anymore. They got in some huge hassle there, and it blew the whole thing apart. These things happen.”

Oliver wouldn’t talk to me about anything he considered an internal matter. He said simply, “You might call it a crisis. I call it an opportunity. The opportunity is for us to become closer, to dialogue with each other, to be honest with each other.”

But as the week wore on, dialogue was nowhere to be heard. Instead the “StreetWise ad hoc workers committee” was reaching out for allies, accusing Oliver of “blatant censorship” and predicting more “retaliatory firing” as it promoted a street demonstration at the paper Tuesday evening to coincide with the board’s regular meeting inside.

Since Longworth had said he was talking quietly with both sides, I asked Oliver for his thoughts on Longworth in the role of honest broker. “I don’t know how I feel about that,” Oliver replied. “Dick has been a very strong supporter of StreetWise over the years and a good friend. I think right now, though, this situation has to be handled by StreetWise internally.”

News Bites

Bill Clinton hasn’t been president since January 20, and that’s hard for some folks to deal with. Doonesbury’s Joannie Caucus is in mourning and wondering what to do with her life. And the Sun-Times’s Jack Higgins is in denial, still lambasting Clinton in cartoons as if the inauguration never happened. At last count he’d done five since then, while drawing George W. Bush once. (I think it was Bush, though it was hard to say, since Higgins–and other editorial cartoonists–haven’t figured out how to caricature him yet.) Higgins has drawn Clinton shaking hands with the devil, stepping in for Mark Chmura as an after-dinner speaker, and just last Friday, dropping water balloons from an office window.

Higgins’s production is nothing. Since Bush took office Clinton has shown up in ten cartoons by the various cartoonists who appear on the Tribune editorial page. But these were neither as venomous nor as funny as Higgins’s, and one of them–about Hillary Clinton, actually–even showed a little sympathy.

Department of Headlines That Tell Us Plenty All by Themselves (Tribune business pages, February 7):

Abbott Targets Heart Disease, Cancer

Analysts applaud strategy’s profit potential

The Columbia College Chronicle, whose coverage of the college president’s wayward E-mail I praised three weeks ago, received a first place for general excellence at the recent convention of the Illinois College Press Association, finishing ahead of papers from DePaul, Loyola, and the University of Chicago.

Gladiator deserves every Oscar nomination it received this week. An homage to the Victor Mature-Jay Robinson classic Demetrius and the Gladiators, it transcended its source by ending in a powerful West Side Story tableau and the overwhelming Black Man Going Free, just as he did in that other historically finicky recent movie, The Patriot. It’s hard to imagine the reparations movement getting up much steam when Hollywood keeps putting the proof before our eyes that the black man has been going free not merely since the American Revolution but since way back in the second century AD.

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