Pioneer Press Aims at Foot, Fires

Few things galvanize an unhappy workplace like an elegant resignation. When Virginia Gerst quit Pioneer Press on principle last week, a sign scribbled in Magic Marker immediately went up on the Newspaper Guild bulletin board at Pioneer’s Glenview headquarters. “Integrity died here 8-27-03,” it said. And Gerst was management; she didn’t even belong to the guild.

Pioneer Press publishes 49 weekly papers in Chicago’s northern, northwestern, and western suburbs. Gerst edited the arts and entertainment section, Diversions, for 27 of them. She’d been at Pioneer 27 years, and colleagues esteemed her. “Virginia is the Pioneer’s best employee,” says sportswriter Bill Pemstein. Her resignation “just broke everybody’s heart.”

Gerst doubled as Diversions’ restaurant and theater critic, but because she lives in downtown Chicago, she often assigned restaurants in northern Lake County to someone else. Kyle Leonard occasionally reviewed those restaurants while he was managing editor of the Highland Park News and the Lake Forester, and so did Lake Forester reporter Lena Rayes-Ichkhan.

On May 8 Diversions carried a Rayes-Ichkhan review of Flatlander’s Restaurant & Brewery in Lincolnshire. Leonard had given it a friendly review a few years earlier. Rayes-Ichkhan could not. “I tried, yes, I tried” to be kind, she says, but her lack of enthusiasm shone through. The steak soba “was a busy mix that lacked eye appeal.” The baby back ribs “tasted more fatty than meaty.” Though the buffalo carpaccio was a “standout,” the raw oysters were “well presented,” and the portions were “sizable,” Rayes-Ichkhan allowed that “many of the dishes are rather run-of-the-mill.”

Flatlander’s is a microbrewery that serves food, and it could be argued that Rayes-Ichkhan was too much critic for the assignment. “I have a palate,” she says. “I have frequented famous restaurants in France that other people wouldn’t dream of. I know exactly what’s good and what’s not good. I know all the different flavors. I cannot tell you I’m good at Asian food or Indian food, but anything that’s continental or European, mostly French, I am much better than the average American.”

She insists that her three dining companions, all Pioneer employees, thought she’d gone easy on Flatlander’s. One of them was Bill Pemstein. “It was absolutely terrible,” he says. “The restaurant was gorgeous, the beer is good, but the food was just awful. And we’d been warned. My wife had been there a couple of weeks earlier.”

The review anguished Flatlander’s president, Brian Margulis, who also happens to be president of the Lake County chapter of the Illinois Restaurant Association. But he’s even more anguished, he says, by recent accounts of Gerst’s resignation that sketch him as a vengeful businessman who pressured a publisher to knuckle under. Margulis says he’d stopped advertising in Pioneer Press weeklies in March–a decision costing the chain close to $30,000 in annual revenue. He was a little surprised in May when someone at Diversions called to say the section was running a review and wanted to send a photographer out to take pictures. “I said, ‘Photo! It must be good,'” says Margulis. “They said, ‘We only run good reviews.’ The photographer who came out confirmed this. If they go and have a bad experience they just don’t write anything. Two or three weeks later I read the review. I said, ‘God!'” Then “I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t say a word.”

But a couple of weeks later, a Pioneer Press ad rep called Margulis about renewing his advertising. “I said the ads weren’t working,” Margulis tells me. “And by the way, I wasn’t really pleased with the review that came out. There were some inaccuracies in there. And I thought it was pretty unfair.”

He was on vacation in Florida with his family in June when a call came from Larry Green, publisher of Pioneer Press. Margulis says Green wanted to apologize. “He told me it wasn’t right. There was a substitute person who did the review. He said, ‘Whether you advertise with us or not in the future, we will come in and re-review you.’

“That was the last time I spoke to anyone there,” Margulis says. “The next thing I know I see it posted on the Internet, and everyone calling me and saying that I put pressure on Pioneer. That’s absolutely not true.”

Gerst says the first effect of the review, from her perspective, was a memo from Pioneer Press executive editor Paul Sassone decreeing that mere reporters like Rayes-Ichkhan could no longer review restaurants and reminding her that (in Gerst’s paraphrase) “we’re not in the business of bashing businesses.” On Monday, August 25, the second shoe fell. Randy Blaser, chief of Pioneer’s north-suburban papers and Gerst’s immediate boss, slapped some copy on her desk. It was a new review of Flatlander’s. Gerst says Blaser told her, “This must run next week.” Gerst replied, “That’s the fall preview issue. There’s no room for it.” Doesn’t matter, said Blaser.

Gerst says she gave the new Flatlander’s review the once-over. Leonard had written it. “Of course he said he really liked it,” she says, “and there were lots of exclamation points.” Leonard is now Pioneer Press’s manager of niche publications and marketing services. Niche publications are opportunistic special projects that are mainly advertising vehicles; marketing is, well, marketing. In other words, Leonard has left the church. Gerst says Blaser told her Leonard would be identified as the former managing editor of the Lake Forester. His marketing duties would be concealed.

Gerst says she told Blaser, “Randy, I can’t run this. It isn’t ethical.” He said, “You have to.” And she said, “I’d have to resign.” Blaser asked her to think it over while he tried to work something out. Fat chance of that, Gerst thought.

“I knew they weren’t going to back down,” she says. So that night she wrote a letter of resignation. She was running off a copy the next morning when Leonard approached her. They’d been friends for years. “Are you mad at me?” he asked. “You cost me my job,” she told him. She put the letter on Blaser’s desk and waited.

Gerst’s letter to Blaser explained that she loved her work at Pioneer because she could be proud of it, which would no longer be true “if the integrity of the section is disregarded.” The letter went on, “Of course, I deeply resent the fact that management has so little respect for me that I was not consulted before the decision was made for Kyle to write the review. But I am even more troubled by the ethics of having the marketing director review a restaurant in the Diversions section, no matter how we choose to identify him in print.”

Gerst asked to stay for two weeks for the sake of her staff, but “I can also have my desk cleared out by Wednesday morning.” The important thing to her was that Leonard’s review not appear in Diversions until her name was no longer associated with the section.

Blaser called her in and said he was sorry she hadn’t reconsidered. Leonard’s review would run of course, and he’d give her an answer Wednesday morning about when she should leave.

“On Wednesday,” she continues, “he said, ‘You know, you’re really making me mad. I don’t understand why you don’t just put in the paper what you’re told to put in the paper. I have to keep going back to Larry and negotiate for you.’

“I said, ‘When is it going to run?’ He said, ‘It’ll be in the next issue. You no longer work here. You must leave the building.'” Gerst says she replied, “‘Randy, I live downtown! I wasn’t fired. I resigned. Please let me clean my desk out now. It’ll take ten minutes.’ And he said, ‘No, come back after five. You can’t be here during business hours, because you don’t work here anymore.'”

Says Gerst, “So that was it. I left. And nobody said thanks for 27 years, thanks for winning awards, thanks for working your fingers to the bone. It was really rotten. I passed Paul Sassone in the hall, and he didn’t say anything. He nodded at me, and I think he might have smiled. But he didn’t say thanks for working here 27 years. I think it was very ungracious, and that’s a nice way of putting it.”

She’d intended to let her letter of resignation speak for itself. But thinking it over, she decided the way she’d been sent packing was so graceless that she should say more.

“For many years it was a wonderful place to work,” Gerst says, “but now everybody’s so afraid of his or her job. It’s run like a little dictatorship, and it’s not a benign one, it’s not a benevolent one. Quite often things were put on our desk that we were told to put in the paper. And I’ve done it because it hasn’t been unethical. It’s been demeaning, but it hasn’t been unethical. Once I told Blaser I wanted to talk to Larry Green about it–about something I did not think was appropriate to the section. I’m not afraid of Larry Green. And I was told, ‘Please don’t do that. He’ll be nice to you, and then he’ll yell at me.'”

From the accounts of his employees, Green runs Pioneer Press for Hollinger International the way Herod ran Judaea for the Romans. When I looked in on him in the spring of 2002 he’d just told the editors of his 50 papers to kiss years of tradition good-bye–from then on their papers could no longer make local political endorsements on their own; they’d endorse whomever downtown told them to. The order had come from David Radler, who’s publisher of the Sun-Times and Green’s boss.

In 1999 Radler had shifted Green from executive editor of the Sun-Times to vice president for advertising. “I’m usually calm, but I have my moments,” Green wrote in a memo to his new staff. “You will probably hear other things about me from the Guild and that does not surprise me. They do not like me. I have not let them intimidate me. I have gone public with things they would rather have kept secret.” He told the ad staff it was time “to have fun again.”

In 1998 I wrote about Sun-Times columnists who appeared in the paper, at Green’s suggestion, in “Jingle Elf” hats to help along a Marshall Field’s-Sun-Times promotion. In 1997 the subject was a stormy editors meeting at which Green made it clear that business stories should focus on Sun-Times advertisers. In 1995, when Radler made him executive editor after two years in the ad department, three different reporters described him to me as “mercurial.” Another spoke of “shit fits,” “explosions,” “foaming rage.” Green told me he’d mellowed during his time away from the newsroom.

In the 60s, 70s, and 80s Green was a top reporter for the Chicago Daily News and the Los Angeles Times, his driven personality an asset. For a time he even reviewed restaurants.

The Pioneer Press unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild has been trying to negotiate a new contract with Hollinger since April of last year. On Saturday, August 23, guild members picketed in front of Green’s house in Glencoe. “You deserve better newspapers!” their flyer began. It said that in the last five years Pioneer Press had cut its editorial staff by 24 percent. “At current levels, that has left .61 of a reporter, .16 of a photographer, .13 of a sports reporter and two-tenths of an editorial assistant per community.

“Does less than 2/3 of a reporter to cover a community sound like great news coverage to you?”

The day after Gerst quit, her letter of resignation and a statement from the guild showed up on Jim Romenesko’s gossipy Web site, which thousands of reporters and editors across the country visit daily. Then the Associated Press carried a story in which Gerst said, “It’s strictly an ethical issue,” and Pioneer Press looked terrible. According to the AP story, Green refused to discuss personnel matters, “blamed union workers” for the Romenesko posting, and asserted, “There is no review. When next week’s paper comes out there will not be a review.”

But there was a review, and it had been set in type before it was yanked last Friday. It could be that Green realized at the last minute that unpleasant as it is to lose an advertiser, losing your best employee is also pretty bad, and losing your reputation is even worse.

I called Blaser and Sassone, but they deferred to Green, and he didn’t return my calls. Gerst marvels at the yes-men Green has working under him. “Why did I have to stand up and do this?” she wonders. “Where was Paul Sassone? Where were the bureau editors? Why did it have to get all the way down the totem pole to me?

“When Radler made them throw out all the endorsements, if all the managers had gone to him and said, ‘No, we won’t do this,’ what could he have done? Sometimes you just have to stand up and say no.”

News Bites

Pay no attention to what we write. We don’t.

Jim DeRogatis in the Sun-Times, August 29: “You know that an awards show is in serious trouble when…the big attempt at controversy comes from Madonna slipping Britney Spears the tongue. Is there anyone with whom Madonna hasn’t sucked face? As for Britney, given her dirty dancing with a live python a few years back, making out with Madonna seems like a step backwards.”

But the Sun-Times decided a photo of this inconsequential moment at the Video Music Awards should take up half a page, and the headline “Kiss Them Off” most of the space that was left. The kiss covered the entire front page of the paper’s Red Streak edition.

Sun-Times editorial, August 31: “Do you really think there was any more significance to that open-mouth kiss between the pop divas than any of Madonna’s prior attention-grabbing stunts? If so…you may even think the world is flat.”

Familiar with this column’s fetish for accuracy in sports mythology–no, Boston was not about to win the 1986 World Series when Bill Buckner fumbled that ground ball–Hot Type reader Michael Sweeney has contributed a new example of the facts not getting in the way of a good story. This one’s about the moment on July 31 when Carlos Zambrano acted out after retiring Barry Bonds.

“He’ll learn respect,” said Bonds.

Sweeney writes that he soon heard Dan Patrick on ESPN radio recalling that Zambrano celebrated after fanning Bonds. And on August 25, he spotted Jay Mariotti writing the same thing: “After whiffing the wondrous slugger to escape a jam last month, Zambrano pumped his fist and celebrated.”

Actually, Bonds hit the ball on the nose. But Zambrano stabbed the line drive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.