Digital Chicago Unplugged 

An offshoot of the capitalist credo "Grow or die" is the strategy "Die, then grow." Sacrifice whatever it was that earned a product the ardent loyalty of a few in order to extend its appeal to the multitudes.

The sine qua non of Digital Chicago was always the magazine's gravity and focus. In a 1999 interview with the Association for Multimedia Commun-ications, president Fred Lebolt talked about Digital Chicago's "very unique role in the Chicago creative community. It is unrivaled as a resource for those individuals who are involved in the vast array of multimedia activities," the place where "you can easily and quickly find the information you are seeking about specifics that are relevant to your work and to your industry."

In short, it was a first-rate trade journal for professionals. But in December, after 12 years, Digital Chicago was discontinued by its owner, the Sun-Times Company. And in recent days the company has rubbed salt in the wound. While proclaiming in dismally fatuous language that Digital Chicago was about to be reborn, it dismantled the valuable Digital Chicago Web site.

The magazine was founded in 1989 by Jennifer Dees, a pioneer in the brand-new field of desktop publishing. "Those folks who leaped on it and saw its potential were outside the graphic arts establishment at that time," Dees recalled the other day in an E-mail. "They also tended to be very entrepreneurial, and there were many people like me who started a new business that would heavily depend on their new personal computers and graphics software."

These people, Dees recognized, could become a community. What they needed was some sort of journal to connect them with one another and keep them on top of a galloping technology. "I became obsessed with the idea," she told me, "and I wanted to do it as a Mac-only publication, because Macintosh and desktop publishing were what I loved and because I thought the professional graphic arts community was coming around to both Mac and DTP."

Dees launched her magazine as Mac/Chicago. "It was a very worthy little magazine," says Scott Jacobs, who ran a video editing house until Mac technology made video editing a kitchen-table activity. "It got started right at the time when Macs were cresting. She started publishing everything in the world about Macs. There was a wonder about the technology."

In 1996 Dees changed her magazine's name to acknowledge that the new technology had spread beyond the Mac, and two years later, as a new mother who could no longer devote her life to her work, she sold Digital Chicago to the Sun-Times Company. Lebolt, something of a visionary, had created the Sun-Times's Web site and become its on-line director. He knew the magazine, admired it, and talked his bosses into buying it. Dees says the Sun-Times Company saw Digital Chicago as a way to compete with the Tribune for the burgeoning market in new-media classifieds.

Dees's business manager, Phyllis Wier, stayed on as publisher and editor after the sale, and Joe Grossmann, who'd handled design and production for Dees, became senior editor. They kept editorial standards high, and under Lebolt built up a free but controlled circulation of 30,000--twice what it had been when the Sun-Times Company bought the magazine. But the company faced two hard realities.

The first was that there was no obvious way for this niche publication to get much bigger without redefining its niche. So Wier was told to launch Digital New York, the idea being to tap new advertisers while doubling up on editorial content. "We basically started in NY from scratch with no contacts," Wier said by E-mail. "I had to hit the streets and get up to speed on the local creative community very quickly. All while still trying to get Digital Chicago out the door, and no additional staff close in sight."

The second hard reality was a lack of reporters qualified to write the kind of articles Digital Chicago's readers expected for the money the owners were willing to pay. "Technical people make more money than newspaper editors do," says Dees. "You have to pay technical salaries and not newspaper salaries to keep standards up."

"We never had adequate resources," says Grossmann. "We reached the burnout point." Wier and Grossmann both resigned last year.

The decision to discontinue Digital Chicago (and Digital New York) probably stirred more melancholy than shock among its readers. But last week's liquidation of the Web site--which contained the complete contents of back issues, a trade directory, and links to just about everyone in the business--was a stick in the eye. "It was a unique resource," says Grossmann. "If anybody was doing anything digital you could find it through our site."

Says Martin Baumgaertner, who runs the digital production house Angle Park, "I had five links that went dead on my Web site the moment they took theirs down."

Meanwhile, this prospectus from the Sun-Times ad department made the rounds: "An exciting new publication," Digital Chicago will appear bimonthly beginning with the March-April issue as a "complete and thorough guide to the worlds of computers, graphics, images, workplace and lifestyles."

Lifestyles?

"From profiles of graphics professionals to tips on how to eat right while working at your desk, features and reviews of new products to the latest industry news, dining to diversions, Digital Chicago offers comprehensive coverage of all the information readers need to keep an eye on the digital world."

Dining to diversions?

"Digital Chicago will take a look at the other issues that affect and drive the lives of high-tech professionals...

"Fashion--Everything the computer and graphics professional needs to know about clothing, styles, trends and more when dressing for everyday work, play or that big meeting.

"esc--When it's time to step out at the end of the day and enjoy the culture and amenities of Chicago, we have it covered with advice and information on places to go and things to do.

"Periodic Tables & The Lunch Counter--the latest trends, fads and news on dining out in Chicago."

The "hard-hitting, useful, hands-on technical information readers and advertisers have come to expect" will still be there, "in our special middle section."

It sounds to Baumgaertner like Digital Chicago is being turned into some sort of "lifestyle supplement." He's read and advertised in Digital Chicago for years, and he doesn't need to be told where to eat. The magazine "was a very targeted way to get to customers," he tells me. "They're certainly going to alienate their original constituency. I don't see any way around that."

The magazine's no longer under the wing of Fred Lebolt. He's moved up to vice president for new media of the parent Hollinger International, and Digital Chicago has been handed over to Reach Chicago, an in-house subsidiary responsible for creating advertising supplements. Reach Chicago is promising a circulation of 100,000, of which 30,000 copies will be mailed to subscribers, 30,000 will be distributed inside the Sun-Times "across portions of the North City" (sorry, south side), and 40,000 will be dropped off at bookstores, coffee shops, offices, and the like. Even if the Sun-Times does find 70,000 new readers who believe that knowing how digital creatives dress and where they eat will make an important difference in their lives, Baumgaertner doesn't want to pay to reach them. "The 30,000 they were reaching were pretty much my market," he says. Yet he's been told that at the end of this year ad rates are going up.

Neither Lebolt nor Mary Rowe, who runs Reach Chicago, would return my phone calls. Among the questions whose answers we can only guess at is why the Web site, which costs little to maintain, was taken down. (Baumgaertner says he's been told it'll be restored in some form after two or three issues of the new magazine come out.) Brimming with content from past issues, it disappeared while the ad department's prospectus was boasting: "Long Shelf Life. This magazine is a keeper, loaded with information computer users and graphics professionals will hold onto month after month."

Everyone's best guess is that the Sun-Times doesn't want the new Digital Chicago haunted by evidence of the old.

News bites

Using Google as your search engine, type the phrase "dumb motherfucker." Someone did, and was linked to the Web site of a company that sells George W. Bush commemorative products and holds the new president in high esteem. The president of the company was furious. But the link appears to have been inadvertent, the reason for it technical.

This story was reported on page three of last Friday's Sun-Times under the headline, "On Web, profanity links you to W." To test the premise that the technology of search engines is far from perfect I went to Google myself and typed "spurious journalism." Sure enough, no link appeared to the Sun-Times.

Sun-Times, January 27: "Tribune Co., the third-biggest U.S. newspaper publisher, said fourth-quarter profit rose 5.5 percent as the company started to see the benefits of its $8 billion purchase of Times Mirror Co. The publisher of the Chicago Tribune and owner of several TV stations said profit from operations rose to $124.4 million, or 36 cents a share, from $117.9 million, or 44 cents, a year ago."

Tribune, January 27: "The softening advertising climate cut into fourth-quarter profit at Tribune Co., which reported net income Friday of $39.7 million, or 11 cents per diluted share, down from $126.4 million, or 47 cents per diluted share, in the year-earlier period.

"Tribune's performance was slightly better than Wall Street had expected. Excluding charges related to its merger with Times Mirror Co. and other write-downs on investments, the company reported net income of $124.4 million, or 36 cents per diluted share, up 6 percent from $117.9 million, or 44 cents per share."

Which means, I guess, that the Tribune wants us to feel sorrier for it than the Sun-Times does.

Reliable sources say that decent people everywhere were shocked and appalled by the tasteless cartoon that issued from the pen of Jack Higgins onto last Friday's Sun-Times editorial page. It was the one that had Bill Clinton shaking hands with the devil and saying, "This is where we part. It's been good working with you." And the devil replying, "Right. See you in 20 years."

As one columnist told me, if he were ever to write that Henry Hyde had made a deal with the devil so he could cheat on his wife and help run a savings and loan into the ground while maintaining a high position of honor and trust, but was headed for hell when he died, the copy would never get within a country mile of the printed page and he'd be dead meat at his paper.

True enough. Mediocre cartoonists who can't think of anything better have long been allowed to pay tribute to good people when they die by drawing them at the pearly gates. But to send somebody to hell, somebody still living, a former president even, goes way over the top. As an ultimate expression of the rabidly right-wing editorial fervor of today's Sun-Times, and of the rabidly right-wing cartoons Higgins has taken to drawing, the cartoon becomes even more infuriating.

That said, the more I think about Higgins's cartoon, the more I appreciate it. It was a real kick in the teeth. It took us back to the days of the founding fathers, when genuine venom spewed from the printed page and the First Amendment was written to protect the spewers. And Higgins might even have had a point worth our taking. What he was getting at, with meat-cleaver wit, was the idea of a Faustian bargain. Nothing bad ever seemed to stick to Clinton while he was president. And, well, who knows?

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