At a tabloid newspaper, vivid writing rules. Stefano Esposito’s knack for it landed the Sun-Times in hot water recently, but editor in chief Michael Cooke stands by his criminal courts reporter. “He has his own wonderful style of writing the most obvious court cases,” says Cooke, “and putting some energy and life and drama–in the best sense–into the reporting of those cases.”

Esposito wouldn’t talk to me about the recent troubles, but as a onetime Sun-Times reporter myself, I sympathize with him. As they say, he was doing his job.

On October 3 the Tribune offered a prosaic account of a ghastly crime story. The headline announced, “Handyman charged in kidnapping and assault,” and the story began this way: “A Chicago handyman was ordered held on $325,000 bail Monday as Cook County prosecutors detailed how he repeatedly sexually assaulted a woman whom he bound to a specially designed bed and soundproof closet.”

In the Sun-Times, under the headline “‘Cute Blonde. Runs in Park at 7:30’: Artist allegedly holds woman hostage in chamber, rapes her, while keeping notes on others,” Esposito’s story began: “The middle-aged woman is blindfolded and handcuffed.

“Her kidnapper has already raped her, choked her and threatened to kill her if she struggles.

“Then Alan Donald Wyman removes the steel cables he’s used to pin her to his bed. He leads the woman, who still cannot see, along a narrow hallway to a wooden trap door at the base of a specially built closet, Cook County prosecutors say….He opens the trap door and forces the woman to crawl into a tiny, soundless black chamber. The woman loses all sense of time. And then the 53-year-old Wyman rapes her again, prosecutors say.

“Wyman’s occasional acts of mercy: spoonfuls of brown sugar and glasses of water.”

Esposito concluded: “Wyman drinks at June’s bar across from his apartment, neighbors said. He collects books. He is the handyman in his apartment building. He writes poems….Last Friday, while the victim was allegedly trapped in his apartment, Wyman went down to water his lawn, pick up litter and then stop off at June’s for a double shot of Jameson, no ice.”

Esposito, helped considerably by the street reporting of his colleague Annie Sweeney, wrote such an upsetting story that a delegation of furious readers showed up at the Sun-Times offices to protest.

For a technical critique of Esposito’s effort, I offer the comments of a Reader colleague who once lived near Wyman’s apartment, which was on the 4300 block of North Western. “The lead sets up the piece like it’s going to be from the victim’s point of view,” Tori Marlan observed. “And it’s not from her point of view. It’s not even a feature, where point of view is important. It’s just a news story. I think that narrative technique is being abused here. I’m not sure what the point of it was. Did the writers want their readers to identify with the victim? Ex-perience the kidnapping and rape vicariously? Feel sympathy for her? No need to punch it up–the details are startling enough on their own.”

And here’s a more visceral response from the neighborhood. “When I showed the article to my neighbors they were floored–this man had been in their homes as a handyman,” Julie Peterson told me. She said somebody else had invited him over to help put Wyman’s art up for sale on eBay. “Everybody knew who he was.”

Peterson believes the story began going wrong with its headline. “They called him an ‘artist.’ ‘Alleged rapist’ is the cor-rect term. Many people felt the Sun-Times was giving him some kind of mystique, as some dark James Bond. He was a sick, sick person who kidnapped and tortured a person. It’s so important not to give him this Silence of the Lambs treatment as if he was some kind of intellectual. Let’s focus on the crime. I can’t imagine him being more thrilled with the article the way it was written. He came off as the coolest rapist–if there can be such a thing. It was really nauseating.”

Peterson maintains the Web site of the community organization Beyond Today. She posted the article on the site and provided a link that would allow visitors to e-mail letters of protest simultaneously to the Sun-Times, Alderman Eugene Schulter, and Beyond Today. “This article shows absolutely no concern for the victim, and reports facts as if they were clues in a trash novella,” wrote Lori Erickson-Cueva of Lincoln Square. “Four years ago, here in Chicago, the daughter of a friend of mine was kidnapped, held for months in a basement, tortured, raped repeatedly, and pumped so full of cocaine she is now a vegetable in an institution. My friend is now raising the toddler, now 8 years old, that her daughter left behind. This hits close to home.” Melissa McNeal of Uptown wrote, “I cannot imagine that the intent of the writers was to celebrate such a heinous act, but that is honestly how it felt reading it: a hands-rubbing-together sense of gaping with mouth wide open. It felt awful.”

On October 11 Esposito wrote a second story, this one straightforward. Wyman had been charged with a second, earlier, sexual assault, the repeated rape of a woman he’d held in his apartment for three days in August, and he was now being held without bond. By coincidence, October 11 was the day Peterson visited the Sun-Times and met with Cooke. She was joined by Ann Breen-Greco, an adminis-trative law judge from the neigh-borhood, and representatives of Chicago NOW and the Chicago Foundation for Women. With Cooke were managing editor Don Hayner and reporter Sweeney. Esposito wasn’t available.

Breen-Greco tells me Sweeney listened “very intently.” She says Sweeney explained that the two reporters had met “with a number of women who have been survivors and feel very much in tune with them and aware of what a traumatic experience this is, and the story was meant to highlight their terror.” That might have been the intent, says Breen-Greco, but the result was simple “sensationalism.”

She goes on, “The big problem is that the Sun-Times wants very much to distinguish itself from the Chicago Tribune.” When she and Peterson remarked that the Tribune had written a different kind of story, Cooke replied that the Sun-Times wasn’t the Tribune. Later he told me, “The Tribune didn’t cover it this way–so what?” Esposito’s story, he said, “was an attempt–somewhat successful–to portray the crime realistically and help readers understand the absolute horror of what allegedly had taken place. We’re not the Congressional Record.”

At Cooke’s invitation, Peterson and Breen-Greco submitted a statement criticizing the Sun-Times story. It ran on October 20 as a letter to the editor, and it wasn’t even the lead letter. Peterson had hoped for more. She showed me an op-ed column on recycling the Sun-Times published on October 7 that had nothing in particular to do with Chicago and had been written by an economics professor in Virginia. “I sort of question why they thought that was more important than our letter,” Peterson said.

Sweeney told me the meeting at the Sun-Times was a good one. “We needed to listen,” she said. “I’m glad that it didn’t get confrontational and mean.” Cooke added, “They pleaded their case with some eloquence and passion.” Was he persuaded? “Not entirely. But there were some things to take away, for sure. It’s hard to talk to people whose friends and sisters have been raped. You don’t have the moral high ground there.”

When Words Fail, Use Typography

The New York Times broke important new ground a few weeks ago by defining its contents typographically–“to underscore the distinctions between straightforward news coverage and other journalistic forms that provide additional perspective on events.” Straightforward news now looks straightforward, its borders aligned left and right–as you see here. Anything not quite so straightforward–be it what the Times calls a “memo,” or an “appraisal,” or a “journal,” or one of several other forms–will be printed with a ragged-right border, to alert readers to the more subjective waters into which they step.

Times public editor Byron Calame immediately complained in print that his paper could have done better. “The line turns out to be rather puny,” he moped, “as if drawn with a hard-leaded pencil when a large-tipped felt marker would better serve readers.”

I’m sorry. Let’s backtrack. “The line turns out to be rather puny,” Calame moped, “as if drawn with a hard-leaded pencil when a large-tipped felt marker would better serve readers.” Under the Times’s new guidelines the word moped doesn’t belong in a justified paragraph. Was Calame really moping, rather than simply “opining” or “weighing in”? “Moped” is a subjective judgment on my part, and readers deserve to be alerted to it. A ragged-right border serves notice.

One might say the Times has made a small dent in a big problem–the well-intended reader alienated from the printed page because he can’t tell fact from opinion and is disoriented by the writer’s wiles and strategems.

Or put it this way. In this pundit’s view, the Times reforms don’t accomplish a damn thing. Readers still throw down their papers in disgust because they don’t know who’s dishing facts and who’s blowing smoke.

Hot Type has its own history with perplexed readers. One has been complaining for 20 years that “you keep going around the mulberry bush” without ever getting to the point. Others write to congratulate me on opinions I don’t hold. Even editors occasionally assail me for reprehensible conclusions arrived at in passages I prefer to think of as exquisitely ironic.

I made the previous passage flush left and right. After all, it’s a simple recitation of facts. Yet it gets a little personal, a little confessional, a little I. The waters muddy up a bit, don’t you think? The Times guidelines fail such a passage, which is why I’m adding a few more typographic cues. Here’s ragged left as a drollery alert. As in, “Attention! Writer now writing chiefly for his own amusement.” The appearance of italics will bring further clarity by signaling “Not to be taken literally.” And bold letters announce “Stay alert for genuine conviction.”

These innovations have all been tested and approved by focus groups and independent laboratories. I’m introducing them here to see if they help readers raised in a visual age make peace with the printed word. Alas, it’s conceivable that as the number of print readers diminishes to a handful, typographic symbology will be embraced merely as the esoteric of a new priesthood. At any rate, editors everywhere are keenly following this experiment.

That’s because the American print media are in desperate straits and ready to try anything. Time is running out.

News Bite

aThe Tribune endorsed Congressman Mark Kirk on October 19 for reelection in the Tenth District, but called his Democratic opponent, Dan Seals, a “very impressive challenger.” I guess. My search of the Tribune’s archives tells me the paper’s given Seals’s campaign two paragraphs of coverage total since the March primary.

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