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Under the Radar 

The Sun-Times duplicates a freelancer's little-noticed scoop

Michael Volpe

Michael Volpe

Michael Boyd

Come across a terrific news story these days and you're all but certain to find somewhere to publish it—that is, if you stretch publishing to include posting it on a website few people have heard of and fewer read. That's what Michael Volpe had to do with a story he thought would rock Chicago—a story about convicted city employees continuing to draw salaries. He'd hoped for better.

Last fall Volpe e-mailed his story to the Reader mailbox, which is a little like slipping it under the door. He didn't get a reply. An editor at the Southtown Star said Volpe's story happened outside his paper's coverage area—but what about the Sun-Times? The Sun-Times said it didn't buy stories from freelancers. Steve Rhodes at the Beachwood Reporter website told Volpe his story had holes that needed to be filled. Volpe argued the point, and Rhodes told him, "Your story does not meet our standards. Goodbye."

A friendlier brush-off came from Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association. "Thanks for the tip," Shaw e-mailed him. "We'll look into it."

So Volpe, who says he scratches out a living as a freelance writer, settled for the only play he could get. In late October he posted his story on Chicagoelections2011.com. It's a site run by Frank Medina, a local blogger who crusades for tougher enforcement of immigration laws; Volpe had been doing some writing for Medina so he knew the site existed. Volpe also posted the story on deathby1000papercuts.com, a right-wing California-based site specializing in "weird news, crime, and opinion."

A couple of equally obscure sites lifted his story without asking permission or significantly enhancing its visibility. Chicago wasn't rocked. Volpe licked his wounds.

On January 10, two top investigative reporters at the Sun-Times, Chris Fusco and Tim Novak, published what in Volpe's eyes was his story. Theirs began, "Chicago, the city that works, is also the city that keeps on paying city employees long after they're convicted of corruption."

Volpe fired off an e-mail to Fusco and Novak. "I liked the story," he said, "but I liked it even more when I wrote it myself."

"We never saw your story," Novak wrote back.

"Nobody alerted us to your story in the course of our reporting," Fusco replied.

"Maybe," Volpe responded, "but it does appear to be the exact same and I beat you to it by a few months."

"Kudos to you," answered Novak.

"I won't hold my breath for an acknowledgement," replied Volpe. "I confirmed all this right through Bill McCaffrey."

McCaffrey is the spokesman for Chicago's building department.

"I will acknowledge that I never saw your piece," replied Novak. "And I will also acknowledge that I haven't read it."

That's where they want to leave this. Fusco and Novak talked to me about the reporting that went into their story, but all they wanted to say on the record about Volpe's was a single line from Novak: "Chris and I were unaware of Mr. Volpe's website or his story. And we have never read it."

Novak and Fusco didn't tell the exact same story. Their story was clearer, calmer, more focused, and more comprehensive. It named nine former city employees who after pleading or being found guilty in corruption cases stayed on the payroll and were paid a total of $383,205. It looked briefly at each case, and it explained they kept getting paid because that's how Chicago's Human Resources Board has chosen to read the city's legal code.

Volpe also pointed his finger at the Human Resources Board. But he named only three of the nine employees, and he wasn't precise about their salaries. He larded his story with distracting background about the three city workers and he punched it up with rhetoric: "In the simplest of terms, this happens because of something we call cynically the Chicago Way." "There's a twisted logic to all this. First, all three have clout."

The Sun-Times story, which Novak and Fusco produced after weeks of FOIAing for pay records, could profitably be studied by Volpe as a model of coherence and letting facts speak for themselves. But to leave it at that is to ignore something importantwhich is how journalists keep score.

The nut of Fusco and Novak's story, the reason why the space-starved Sun-Times plastered their report across every square inch of page four, is that it revealed Chicago is such a bighearted employer even convicted felons keep drawing salaries. And that nut, that revelation, Volpe reported two and a half months earlier. What's more, he says he finished his story in mid-September and spent the next several weeks in his futile search for a mainstream medium that would run it.

I asked him what the experience showed. "The media is really no different than any other business," he replied. "It's not what you know but who you know. Simply having an important story isn't enough. You have to know the right people and more importantly, the right people need to know you. Obviously, that dynamic means stories will get missed.

"I think the state of the media is revealed by the facts of this situation. The Chicago Sun Times, with its massive resources, put a piece on its front page even though that exact same story had already been broken by one journalist with no resources months earlier. If you believe the two Sun Times journalists involved, the massive resources of the paper weren't enough to alert them that the story they were about to break had long been broken.

"If you think about it, that's sad and disturbing. If the Sun Times isn't competent enough to know if a story they're working on already exists, does anyone really think they are competent enough to keep an eye on our politicians?"

If Volpe's story had run in the Tribune, Fusco and Novak would have known about it. I doubt if they'd have missed it in the Reader or Southtown Star. Given standard practices, if they'd seen Volpe's story in one of those other papers they might have abandoned their own, or gone with what they had at the time, which wasn't much. Let's say their editor had spotted Volpe's story somewhere else and said to them, "Hey, isn't this what you're working on?" The reply, "Don't worry, our story will be a lot better than this and we'll have it to you in just another ten weeks or so," doesn't fly in most newsrooms.

My sympathies are with Volpe, as they are with every talented reporter in our hardscrabble age whom nobody knows exists. But Chicago wound up knowing more about the story he reported on because no one at the Sun-Times knew he'd reported on it.

Journalism has always consisted of two cultures—the major media preoccupied with each other, and everyone else. The Internet has made the alternate culture so vast it threatens to engulf the mainstream media. But even as the ship sinks, first class still isn't mixing with steerage.

Here's another local story about Little Media smarting at the indifference of Big.

The "I Am Chicago" project of Sara Collins and Adam Novak (no relation to Tim) became qualitatively less obscure on January 21 when it was written up in the Chicago News Cooperative pages of the New York Times. Since April of 2009 Novak and Collins have been setting up shop on the street corners of Chicago every weekend, inviting passersby to step into their simple truck-trailer studio and have their pictures taken. By now they've got about 5,000 portraits, some 1,000 of which are online at iamchicago.net, and they're trying to raise money to pay for the book they want to publish and also a documentary film: some 60 hours of tape of them at work on their streetcorners have been shot by videographers Victor Grigas and Robert Aldright.

If you're thinking right now, "I am Chicago sure rings a bell," that's probably not their doing.

Last October Novak received e-mail from Marcus Riley, manager of web development at Channel Five. "I'm interested in speaking with you about your project for a potential piece on our Web site? Please contact me at your leisure," Riley told her.

Novak and Collins happened to be in Prague at the time. But Collins got right back to him and said she'd be home in four days. She asked what he had in mind. "We can discuss it at length over the phone when I am back in town," she e-mailed. "Hi Sara," Riley responded, "really we were looking to run a gallery of pics on our site, perhaps using 10-12 of your pics."

Collins and Novak were gone just about three weeks, but when they got back to Chicago they were astonished by what they saw. "There's this campaign, I am Chicago. We are Chicago, and they're using it the way we used the slogan," says Collins. "There are billboards all over the city."

They tell me they waited for Riley to call or e-mail. He didn't. On October 29, Collins e-mailed him. "Hi Marcus, I want to follow up with you about this idea of including 'I Am Chicago' on the NBC home page. We would love to participate. Just let me know what you will need from us."

Collins and Novak tell me Riley didn't reply, and they haven't heard from Channel Five since. Meanwhile, the station's "I Am Chicago" campaign is going great guns.

Eventually, they wrote the Reader. "I'm pissed off that NBC channel 5 has ripped off the use of the slogan we have been using for over two years to document the people of Chicago," Novak's e-mail said. "Do you think we should just shut up and learn to like it or is this something you would be interested in looking into?"

I asked Riley what was going on. He passed me on to the station's spokesperson, Toni Falvo. She said, after speaking to Riley, that he didn't call because he didn't realize they were back in town, and then "he just kind of moved on." But the important thing she wanted me to know is that Collins and Novak weren't ripped off. The "I Am—" campaign is being rolled out by all of NBC's owned-and-operated stations. It was created in New York—by a red-hot London-based agency called Mother. Like Volpe, Collins and Novak can say they had it first—but how would Mother know?

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