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The [Wednesday] Papers

"As much as you tear down the Sun-Times, this extreme downsizing hurts journalism in Chicago," an e-mailer wrote to me recently. Another correspondent imagined I was feeling "glee" over the plight of the Sun-Times.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The thinning of the Sun-Times is not only depressing to those of us who have loved newspapers, but is a disservice to the city by a mercenary management group that doesn't understand its own newspaper, much less the market it operates in.

The Sun-Times still retains a certain kind of goodwill in this city it has yet to learn how to deploy: A deep desire for a feisty, upstart underdog to the Tribune. The desire is so deep many folks imagine, in an exercise of wish-fulfillment, that the paper already fulfills this role. On the whole, no. You don't tap into this yearning by bragging on your front page that you are still only 50 cents, or with sophomoric self-promotion that only reinforces the notion that you are a bumbling young sibling constantly trying to get mom and dad's attention by standing on your head. You get there by practicing a fundamentally different kind of journalism that endears you to whatever print audience is still out there, and using the Internet to grow new audiences.

That means, for example, reporters in the neighborhoods instead of a neighborhoods reporter. Beat reporters allowed the freedom to write the truth in a snappy way, instead of rewriting press releases about how great our mayor is and how cool the Olympics will be. Turning the page on the Sneeds and Stellas of the world. Just for starters.

The paper has many assets, and maybe my praise gets lost in my criticism. Columnist Laura Washington, for example, wrote in a New Year's resolution column that I "should resolve to lay off the vitriolic, personal cheap shots and give our Fourth Estate a little love. We do some things right."

I have a lot of respect for Laura Washington, and I certainly don't take offense. I have showered a lot of praise on a lot of people at the Sun-Times, though, over the years, both here on the Beachwood and in my old "Press Box" column at Chicago magazine. I'll do so here again.

* Carol Marin. I'm obviously a fan. Best political columnist in town is an understatement given the multiple roles she fills.

* Tim Novak & Steve Warmbir. Reporter's reporters, serving our city to the fullest of their considerable abilities.

* Abdon Pallasch. Easily one the city's best and most knowledegable reporters.

* Jim DeRogatis. We're blessed with two of the finest, if not the best, daily rock critics in the biz with DeRo and the Trib's Greg Kot.

* Greg Couch. The city's best sports columnist, particularly when it comes to the Cubs.

* Paige Wiser. A sharp cultural observer who is funny as hell and can write.

* Roger Ebert. Obviously.

* Quick Takes (Zay Smith) and Quick Hits (Elliott Harris). Bite-size musings that often contains more truth than anything else in a given day's paper. (Minus Harris's cheesecake.)

* Lynn Sweet. A one-woman Washington bureau who is also the only local reporter routinely reporting, in limited space, on the differences between Barack Obama's rhetoric and his reality.

* Teresa Budasi. The new books editor whose section has been shrunk but whose column has been a breath of smart and witty fresh air.

* And by the way, I know she's not local, but in case you're wondering, I'm not joking about "Ask Ellie." I love her. She's really good. She's actually a real therapist, as opposed to some other advice columnists we know.

And there are others. As I've written before, Tom McNamee's now-dead Controversy section could have been a model for remaking the whole paper for the digital age. And the paper was so caught up in battling RedEye that it never knew what it had in Red Streak.

Maybe more than making me sad, though, the Sun-Times's problems make me angry. Angry because those folks who knew David Radler was up to no good sat still and quiet. Angry because of the resignation with which folks there seem to sit back and take it. Angry because of the ineffectiveness of the union to proactively and creatively engage. And frustrated at the shamefully low standards the paper so often has. There are stars in that newsroom, and there are embarrassments. It's a wide gulf, and the bench isn't deep.


Judging the recent job losses according to the quality of work each lost individual produced is the wrong way to look at it. Those aren't just people whose departure we might applaud (Jennifer Hunter) who have been cut, those are positions lost.

Still, I think the loss of Esther Cepeda hurts the paper the most. True, every time I was on the verge of becoming, to use her parlance, a Cepeda fanatico, she wrote something that drove me nuts. But Cepeda carved out a space for herself that happened to also bring deserved attention to Hispanic life and viewpoints in Chicago. She was also tres productive, writing all over the paper in a variety of areas.

And you have to feel bad for someone like Doug Elfman, whom I only read occasionally but was actually recruited to come here.

It's a brutal, dysfunctional business. So much of what's in a newspaper is journalists instructing everyone else how to conduct their business, from politicians to sports teams to corporations, but journalists can't seem to conduct their own. Either they don't read their own work or their sage consulting is worthless.


Many of us have been waiting for years for a savior to scoop up the Sun-Times. Is there no civic figure or foundation in this great city ready to step up to the plate? The Sun-Times is more important to the city than Millennium Park or the Olympics. This is about our civic life and, at least occasionally, about our democracy. Or do we just want to take the Tribune's word for it every day?


Other changes coming soon to the Sun-Times, according to a Beachwood Labs investigation:

* Will only cover horoscopes for six of the astrological signs.
* All comic strips reduced to one box featuring Jeffy.
* Neil Steinberg and Michael Sneed will share a column called Sneedberg.
* City Hall stories will be written directly by the mayor's office.
* Newspaper will be renamed Some-Times and only come out occasionally.
* Company will eliminate newsroom to focus on revenue-generating divisions such as Bears medallions.
* In sports, only home games will be covered. If they're on TV.
* Home delivery now in hands of Dominos.
* Citizen journalists will now generate all content for free from their cell phones.

The Beachwood Tip Line: Anger management.


Posted on January 30, 2008

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