The Newspaper You Have Dialed Is No Longer In Service

I was working on a story–the story that follows this one–and I wanted to ask a Sun-Times sportswriter a question. I dialed the paper’s main number and got a recorded message.

“If you know your party’s extension please press one now. If you would like to dial your party by name press two.”

I pressed two.

“Please enter the first four letters of your party’s last name.”

I did.

“We’re sorry. We cannot find the person you are trying to reach. Please try again.”

I did.

“We’re sorry . . .”

I heard the same message again. While I wondered what to do, the recorded voice broke in again. “Please enter the remaining digits of your party’s last name, followed by the pound sign.” So I did that.

“Please enter the first two letters of your party’s first name.” I was as compliant as a child.

“We’re sorry. We cannot find the person you are trying to reach. Please try again.”

At this point I decided to start over. I hit zero. I hit the star key. I hit other keys, hit them pretty hard actually, looking for a way out of this spell-your-party box.

“. . . enter the remaining digits of . . .”

I hung up. I pictured someone at a pay phone trying to reach the only Sun-Times reporter he trusted with a tip on a big story but getting nowhere and just about out of change. I, however, was sitting at a desk and change was not an issue. I called the main number again.

“If you know your party’s extension . . .”

I immediately pressed zero because zero sometimes fetches a live person. This was not one of those times.

“Thank you for calling the Chicago Sun-Times. Please be aware there are no operators currently on duty to assist you with your call. Please use our menu system to expedite your call.”

The recorded voice then gave me choices. One of them sounded promising: “For the city news desk, editorial page, or sports, press four.” I did.

“If you are calling for arts and entertainment please press one. For sports press two . . .”

I thought I was closing in. But all I got when I pressed two was another recorded message: “Thank you for calling the Sun-Times sports department. If you are calling with a comment or observation about a story that appeared in our sports pages press one. If you are reporting the results of a high school game or competition press two. If you are reporting the results of any other game or competition press three. Thank you for calling the Chicago Sun-Times.”

I hesitated. I wasn’t calling for any of those reasons. There was someone I wanted to talk to. I hesitated too long.

“You have not selected a valid option,” said the disembodied voice. “Please try your call again later. Thank you.” And I was disconnected.

I made my call at about 11:30 on a Thursday morning, a time when any of us would expect a newspaper to be open for business. What I ran into wasn’t a momentary glitch in the paper’s telephonic operation. For about half an hour I called and called, always with the same results. Since the call wasn’t urgent I wasn’t exasperated, but I’ve been exasperated plenty in the past, as not only the Sun-Times but the Tribune and newspapers everywhere have turned themselves into fortresses. The last time I swore at a stranger over the phone was a couple years ago when I finally broke through the shield separating the outside world from the human beings at a major paper on the east coast.

Phone numbers–and e-mail addresses–are rarely easy to find on newspaper Web sites. Operators knock off at 5 or 5:30, and they’re not around at all on weekends. Yet there was a time not many years ago when an operator was always on duty at a serious newspaper and the newsroom was always easy to reach. A time when the people who published newspapers and the people who read them thought of each other as confederates. A time when journalists didn’t scratch their heads and wonder why the public despised them.

But this is a phenomenon a lot bigger than newspapers. The white pages shrink as a generation turns to unlisted cell phones, whose numbers are tapped into the speed dials of friends and remain inaccessible to strangers. Unavailability–except to an inner circle–is treasured. In connection with the story that follows I also wanted to talk to someone at the Chicago Bulls. Their media guide–376 pages long–sits on a shelf above my desk, but nowhere in it could I find even the main switchboard number of the Bulls, let alone the number of media relations.

Fortunately, the team’s still listed in the phone book.

Media Makework

The hot-button issue in the world of basketball a few days ago was racism in the vote for the NBA’s most valuable player. Had it been a factor? After skinny Canadian guard Steve Nash of Phoenix narrowly defeated Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal, a Miami Herald sports columnist raised the possibility. If race figured in, wrote Dan Le Batard, who thought maybe it had, it happened in the voters’ unfathomable subconscious. “Voters might have simply chosen Nash because he was different and the underdog,” Le Batard reasoned. “And being white is part of what made him those things.”

The Sun-Times’s Rick Telander wrote a pro-Le Batard column in which he admitted to wondering the same thing. Other sportswriters jumped on Le Batard. “Stole the MVP?” sneered Peter Vecsey at the New York Post. “That’s such an ignorant assertion I gotta believe Charles Barkley ghosted the column.”

Columnists are always looking for topics, and Le Batard did Vecsey and innumerable others the big favor of handing them a good one. Sports-writers provide for each other more than they like to say. Those “voters” Le Batard kept referring to without identifying, the ones whose buried agendas he could only guess at, weren’t strangers. They were other sportswriters. This was a detail Telander didn’t mention either and most columnists weighing in hurried past–like Vecsey, with a murky reference to an “NBA media opinion poll (127-strong).” Nobody I read dealt squarely with the fact that the whole election was a media operation. Those 127 voters are chosen by the NBA teams from the local beat reporters and broadcasters who cover them–which makes the MVP no different from most other honors awarded in professional sports. The media vote. Then they do stories announcing the vote. Then they do stories that second-guess their vote and stir up arguments that keep the copy flowing. It’s a beautiful system.

The suggestion that those 127 votes skew white presumes that white’s the color of most of the voters. I suppose it is; I suppose a predominantly white press corps covers a predominantly black sport–Le Batard would know. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there might be a story in it–a story with actual numbers, requiring some original reporting, and justifying a real debate.

News Bites

I asked Sebrina Brewster, the Bulls’ senior manager of public and media relations, where to find the Bulls’ phone number in the Bulls’ media guide. She came up with a telephone number in six-point type at the bottom of page 371. It’s not actually the Bulls’ number; it’s the number of the United Center. But there is an operator, who will connect you.

On May 5 the Chicago Defender turned 100. Attention was paid, but at the Sun-Times this attention took the form of an aggressively non-celebratory column by Mary Mitchell. She focused on Defender naysayers, particularly a former employee who’s complained to the Illinois Department of Human Rights that “she was routinely grabbed and groped” at the paper.

A mark of change at the Defender is that until very recently the forlorn paper wasn’t worth criticizing, though on its centenary some writers might have done so out of a sense of obligation. Another mark of change is that the day after Mitchell’s column ran, Defender executive editor Roland Martin was in print perfunctorily calling the popular black columnist a “fine journalist” even as he dismissed one of her sources as a “disgruntled former [Defender] writer” and the sexual-harassment charge as a “flat out” lie. He irrelevantly but dramatically turned the tables: “[Conrad] Black is alleged to have looted more money from the company than the Defender has made in its history!”

Martin wasn’t close to being done. On May 9 he slapped the page-wide headline “The Sun-Times disrespects Robert S. Abbott and the Chicago Defender” over a column wondering why the Sun-Times hadn’t covered the Defender’s birthday party. Sun-Times editors should be “ashamed,” he wrote. “Were it not for Abbott leading the Great Migration, Conrad Black’s newspaper would have to slash its circulation even further considering that, according to several sources, 40 percent of the paper’s buyers are African Americans . . .

“Sure, we all compete on a daily basis for readers,” Martin went on, blithely lifting the Defender to peer status, “but to ignore the contributions of this newspaper is downright insulting, not only to our late founder, but to every African American in Chicago and abroad . . .

“Memo to the Sun-Times brass: our centennial celebration will end May 5, 2006. You’ve got less than 365 days to find one of your hundreds of staffers who could honor this successful Black-owned business with a few lines in your paper, which is being propped up each day by lots of Black dollars.”

Martin says Sun-Times editor in chief John Barron called that afternoon. The following Sunday, May 15, Barron’s paper carried Lisa Donovan’s full-page story, under the headline “At 100, Chicago Defender aims to regain its voice.”

It appears it already has.

“Blagojevich blames self over appointing indicted Republican” –Sun-Times headline, May 11.

“Governor blames GOP for troubles” –Tribune headline, May 11.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Brian Gubicza.