Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jim DeRogatis Leaves the Sun-Times for Vocalo

Posted By on 04.20.10 at 05:01 PM

Vocalo +1. Columbia College +1. Sun-Times -1. Jim DeRogatis is going to blog full-time for the first and teach full-time for the second. But he won't be writing for the newspaper any longer.

DeRogatis told his Sun-Times editors Monday and he says "they were really surprised." He says he gave them "a couple of names of the best people in town" and he hopes they hire one of them to cover pop music. "I want to be competing with somebody good," he says. "I can beat Kot up on the radio. I need some more competitors in print." But he'll be competing out on Navy Pier for Chicago Public Radio — as the author of Vocalo's new “PopNStuff” blog and as the cohost, with the Tribune's Greg Kot, of WBEZ's Sound Opinions, which began in 2005 on one radio station, WBEZ, and is now on 90.

"You don't get offered a full-time faculty position every day of the week," he says. "And if you say no it might not be there again. It was incredibly flattering and it's a new challenge. I'm still going to be pretty much doing exactly what I'm doing. I'm covering stories and doing criticism. The difference is I won't have to write about a Mariah Carey show again unless I really want to. For the paper I was working 24/7, 365 days a year. And maybe now it'll be a little bit less than that. I'm thinking it'll be a difference between being a daily critic and being a weekly critic."

The Vocalo offer, DeRogatis said, was put on the table last fall, "when it looked as if the Sun-Times might not survive." He got the Columbia College offer a couple of weeks ago, and he says one thing about it that was instantly attractive was academia's "summers-off thing." He says, "I was eager not to spend another summer in the trenches of a lot of concerts I wasn’t eager to cover — though I'll be there 18 hours a day at Pitchfork."

For the last couple of semesters DeRogatis has taught one course, "Reviewing the Arts," at Columbia. Starting this fall semester he'll be teaching three, including an advanced version of that course. As for Vocalo, I point out that blogging is nothing like writing for a weekly magazine; it's like writing for a news service. "I'm not going to treat it that way," he replies. "I don't think anybody knows what the blog should be relative to what the newspapers are. To me — here I'm slipping into the professor role — to me the golden currency in journalism remains the story nobody else has. After Rob Feder [a former Sun-Times colleague who joined Vocalo last November] wrote about Jim DeRogatis leaving the Sun-Times, nobody else had to do it. They could just link to him. I'm not going to write about R. Kelly anymore."

If DeRogatis just links to the next R. Kelly story and goes home early, he'll have it coming. He's given R. Kelly too many hours of his life already. In 2000, DeRogatis, who'll wind up his 15 years at the Sun-Times on May 5, teamed up with legal writer Abdon Pallasch on a story reporting that, according to court records and interviews, Kelly had exploited his status "as a pop superstar to meet numerous girls as young as 15 and have sex with them." That story led two years later to DeRogatis's receiving and turning over to the police a videotape that reportedly showed the singer having sex with and urinating on an underage girl. The tape led to Kelly being arrested on child pornography charges. Kelly wasn't tried until 2008 and he wound up acquitted. DeRogatis thought he himself might wind up behind bars.

The defense summoned him to the witness stand to ask him what he did with the tape while he had it. So draconian are child pornography laws that DeRogatis and his Sun-Times lawyers felt he couldn't even afford to say he watched it (if he did). He refused to simply plead the Fifth Amendment — "people who took it were fucking mobsters," he told me at the time — and he and his lawyers decided he'd answer every question the same way: "I respectfully decline to answer the question on the advice of counsel, on the grounds that to do so would contravene the reporter's privilege, the special witness doctrine, my rights under the Illinois Constitution, and the First and Fifth Amendments of the United States Constitution." The judge had no interest in any of these protections but the Fifth Amendment, but they mattered to DeRogatis.

"I'm trying to leave with a lot of gratitude," DeRogatis tells me about his departure. "The Sun-Times has done a lot for me — from being the center of my life for 15 years to keeping me out of jail." The big thing separating him as a Vocalo blogger from "Joe Blogger at home" is that Chicago Public Radio has lawyers and Joe doesn't, and DeRogatis believes that as law and order slowly come to the wild and woolly blogosphere, legal counsel will be a very good thing.

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