Slanting Toward Suburbia

A Sunday Tribune with a strange front page landed on our north-side doorstep March 18. A dispatch from Moscow and a piece on AIDS research made up the page, along with three stories that we’d ordinarily call local.

Except that every single one was about Du Page County.

An article on child labor slid into the subject by introducing a busboy at Russell’s Barbecue in Glen Ellyn. A report on voter apathy in Cook County segued agilely, just before the jump, into a digression beginning: “By contrast, interest in Du Page County politics appears to be growing.”

And a charming feature announced that “baseball season has arrived” despite the big-league lockout: “From Johnsburg in McHenry County to Westmont in Du Page to Mokena in Will, as from Aberdeen, Idaho, to Zwolle, La., boys and girls are again beginning to carry their baseball gloves to school.”

Zwolle, Louisiana, does not figure in a big way in the Tribune’s circulation plans. Du Page County, however, is pretty much the ball game.

The population out there is about three-quarters of a million and it’s expected to increase another couple hundred thousand in the next 20 years. The median family income is 50 percent higher than in Cook County. The Tribune now sells 120,000 papers a day in Du Page, nearly twice that on Sunday, and it wants to sell a lot more. The Tribune has sent a 21-person editorial staff to its Hinsdale and Wheaton bureaus, along with 10 people to handle circulation and 25 to peddle advertising. Recently expanded, the Du Page zoned edition carries Du Page stories on page one, a Du Page-oriented section two, Du Page features in Tempo, Du Page prep sports, and Du Page editorials. Big news stories out of Chicago show up trimmed drastically or crunched into digest form.

And news stories written for the Chicago editions that can be dumped as is into the Du Page are in high favor.

“That’s our best guess at the moment of how to do this,” Jack Fuller, the Tribune’s reflective new editor, remarked at a recent forum at Northwestern University. “There is no flawless model.”

By “do this,” Fuller meant concoct a news product that exurbanites will want to read. Dennis Britton, a Los Angeles Times alumnus who’s now editor of the Sun-Times, sat next to Fuller at the forum and tried to put the fear of God in him. “The Tribune is launched on a bold and imaginative path to capture the suburbs,” Britton declared, and then told how his old paper launched a similar invasion of Orange County and got its lunch handed to it.

“The Los Angeles Times, in its schizophrenia, decided to go to Orange County and be an ‘Orange County Times’ and everywhere else it circulated it would be the Los Angeles Times,” Britton said. “You can’t do that. The readers, just amazingly, can see right through that quickly. I just don’t think you can out-local the locals.”

A lot of old-fashioned journalists back in the tower (where half the hundred-some reporters on the local staff have suburban assignments) are also skeptical. Photographer Phillip Greer went so far as to write a letter of protest to Fuller. (Copies of this letter were passed around and one was sent to us.)

“I agree with the new Tribune philosophy that we must cover the suburban area better, but we also must cover the city, state, national and international news with as much drive and resources as we now give to the suburbs. I view with alarm what is transpiring at the Tribune. I cite a recent protest at Wells High School. . . . No photos ran in the zoned edition of the paper delivered to that section of the city; in fact, no photos ran in any area of the city. . . . For whatever reason, that is wrong. At a time when city schools are in turmoil, not to inform those readers with photos as well as words is to disenfranchise them. More often than not of late, this has happened. Why do we need to run a panel of photos of a high school play in Palatine on a day when a group of city high school students of multi-ethnic background stay out of school in support of their principal? Our readers deserve better.”

Greer was complaining about the Tribune of February 28. On the front page of the edition that comes to our house, a Chicago school story ran without a picture. Meanwhile, in section two, there was a lovely photo spread of kids doing Snow White in Mount Prospect, and also a picture of a recycling drive at Niles West High School in Skokie.

Old hands have two beefs. One is the infestation by suburban news of the editions that city folk read. The other is the aggressive zoning (which will only get more extensive). They think it works against any sense of collective metropolitan identity. “In a metro area as transient as ours,” Greer said in his letter, “where you may live in Glenwood and work in Chicago, news from the whole metro area is important. The illegal alien who arrives at the Union Oil Truck Stop in South Holland is tomorrow’s gardener in Hinsdale or busboy in Wilmette.”

Fuller appreciates these feelings. To some extent he shares them. “How do you remain, in an increasingly diverse market–community–a general interest medium, which is what we are?” he wondered at NU. “Our social function requires that we somehow provide part of the glue, at least, that holds the whole thing together. Newspapers are increasingly important as the one aspect of our society which speaks generally about lots of different things when everything else fragments. So the balance between the centrifugal and the centripetal forces at work is what as an editor I have to try to figure out.”

Fuller said, “That’s virtually all of editing–the trick of balance.”

He is convinced that the suburbs “have a desperate need of knowing” some things about Chicago, such as the plight of the underclass. “On the other hand,” he said, “when we write about the Cook County Board race, I can’t find the argument by which I tell somebody in Elgin that he or she should care, any more than I care–except as an editor–who wins the Kane County Board elections. It doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

Britton took qualified exception to this. He thinks the presidency of the Cook County Board is so important a job that a somebody in Elgin should care–and the papers must find a way to make him care. But Britton concedes that the somebody in Elgin probably doesn’t.

“This issue that Jack brought up about the people on the edge of the suburbs not giving a damn about what’s happening in the city–and vice versa–is absolutely true,” Britton said. “All the research shows it.”

We can personally vouch for the vice versa. It’s rare that we read articles all the way through about busboys in Glen Ellyn.

BAT ’89

We can’t tell you how many letters have been coming in (that’s because no one’s actually shown them to us yet, or even mentioned receiving them) from baseball fans just thanking us for being here. Maybe the fat-cat players and club owners were doing everything they could to screw up the national pastime, but the fans knew they could count on Hot Type.

Tradition matters plenty here. And each spring, as a new season approaches, or even if it doesn’t, we clear our desk, dig into our files, and prepare to announce the annual winner of the coveted Golden BAT. As faithful readers know, the BAT (for Baseball Accuracy Test) is awarded each April to the Chicago baseball writer who the year before embarrassed himself least in forecasting the past season’s pennant races.

Tragically, this sorry spring even the hallowed BAT is tarnished. Defending BAT laureate Bernie Lincicome was denied the chance to defend his title when the Tribune sports department forgot to publish their 1989 picks. We were left with a slim field of five Sun-Times pundits, plus our own Ted Cox.

If any one of them had picked the Cubs in the NL East, he’d have earned the BAT right then and there. Nobody did; nobody came any closer than Ray Sons, who put them fourth. No one had a clue about the Giants either.

So we looked to the AL races to decide the ninth annual BAT competition. And the winner is Joe Goddard, who unlike Dave van Dyck, Terry Boers, Joel Bierig, Sons, and Cox chose both the Oakland A’s in the West and the Toronto Blue Jays in the East. Not to detract from Goddard’s performance, but he penciled in the Baltimore Orioles, the Cinderella story of ’89 and AL East pacesetters most of the season, for dead last. So did everyone else but Cox, who limited his picks to the first-place teams.

We’re no happier about this year’s abbreviated BAT than you are, and we want to do something about it. We’ve decided to make it up to you with statistics, and we’ve dug up something weird. Since 1903, the year of the first World Series, there have been 20 World and league play-off series that someone won four games to two. Another 34 series went the full seven games.

So what? So more than 60 percent of the time, the team that led a series three games to two–and if one team is appreciably better than the other, isn’t this likely to be the team?–lost the next game.

And consider this. Over the last 30 years, 18 of the 25 teams that enjoyed a 3-2 edge lost the sixth game. And 10 of those 18 teams lost the seventh game, too. A team with a 3-2 advantage was actually less likely to win the next game than to lose the next two!

Over the last ten years, not a single team that won three of the first five games eventually won a seven-game series. (No one’s done that since the Reds beat the Red Sox in the ’75 World Series.) Five teams won in six games; eight teams lost in seven.

Closing out a series has become such a daunting assignment that the team up three games to two is now statistically the underdog.

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