Ethics Roasting on an Open Fire...; ...Mad Boss Biting Off Your Nose; Do-It-Yourself Blue Christmas | Media | Chicago Reader

Ethics Roasting on an Open Fire...; ...Mad Boss Biting Off Your Nose; Do-It-Yourself Blue Christmas 

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Ethics Roasting on an Open Fire...

The Sun-Times's ardor toward a faithful advertiser knows no bounds. This month it teamed up with Marshall Field's in a "Find the Jingle Elf Hat" contest, the idea being for readers to scan the paper each day and spot the page on which the jolly cap appears, with a "dream vacation" going to the winner. One of the first places the Jingle Elf Hat showed up was on the head of Paige Smoron at the top of her Camera Obscura column. This Tuesday the caparisoned cranium of celebrity maven Bill Zwecker beamed at us from the front page of the Showcase section.

"Larry Green asked me to do it," said Smoron, speaking of her newspaper's executive editor. "It sounded fun. Part of the program has something to do with where it goes back into the community somehow. I trust his judgment."

"It's a contest," said a Field's spokesman.

"It raises a lot of issues," said Zwecker.

Meanwhile, Virgin was opening Chicago's biggest record store on Michigan Avenue, bringing in glamorous figures such as Cher to lure the paparazzi. But Virgin declined to purchase Sun-Times space to trumpet its wares, and the spurned newspaper was unforgiving.

Itemed Zwecker: "Without question, Cher has plenty of 'people' to attend to her every whim. The veteran entertainer, here to promote her memoir--The First Time--and new CD at a local record store opening, arrived with an entourage that numbered 11 by my count."

Zwecker wouldn't discuss the snub. "That was an editing decision," he allowed, and referred me to Green or editor Nigel Wade.

The next day Michael Sneed made the lay of the land absolutely clear. "Word is Marshall Field's has a gift for holiday shoppers today," she confided. "It is prepaying all 450 parking meters that surround its two stores downtown." And further on in the same column: "Sneed asked Cher, bedecked in black for a Michigan Avenue book signing Wednesday, for her favorite Chicago memory."

Wade told me, "We are not interested in giving free publicity to businesses that show no interest in our readers."

What about dressing your columnists in a Jingle Elf Hat?

"'Tis the season to be merry," said Wade.

...Mad Boss Biting off Your Nose

A seasoned professional shedding his wisdom on the young, Nigel Wade told an audience of high-schoolers to get hopping. "You don't have a lot of time," Wade said in October during Communication Day at Loyola University. "If you're not a star somewhere by age 30, you're probably not going to be one."

This dire warning is absolutely true. Eminence, prestige, and power might yet bless the graying journeyman. But stardom--that is for kids. Beyond 30, you're not just too old to be a phenom; you're too old to think the point of going to work is to become one.

Nevertheless, Wade's comment didn't go down well at the Sun-Times, where reporters suspect management of regarding experience as a marginal business expense. On December 4 copy editor Mark Baldwin gave two weeks' notice to his superior, acting copy-desk chief Jim Montalbano. Baldwin was moving on to a better job--managing editor of the Star-Gazette of Elmira, New York. But that wasn't the only reason he was quitting, and he'd decided to spell out the others.

"I simply don't trust the Sun-Times' ownership with my family's future," his letter explained. "The company's proposal to kill the pension plan, the lack of professional development opportunities, the editor-in-chief's recent comments concerning the potential of us over-30 journalists--these and other actions suggest to me a barely concealed hostility to the legitimate aspirations of employees here. I've had enough."

Montalbano asked Baldwin if he was sure he wanted to submit this. But Baldwin's mind was made up. "I'm a former Lutheran seminarian," he later told me. "When I was deciding, Do I send this letter out? I thought back on one of the defining principles in Lutheran social ethics. Luther boiled it down to 'Sin boldly'--it's taken from the Pauline text--'Sin boldly, so grace may abound.' If you're right, great. If you're wrong, God picks up the pieces."

He told Montalbano to keep the letter, which ended: "As for me, well, maybe I'm not a star. But I've got three bright and beautiful children, a gifted and loving wife and, apparently, the widespread respect of my peers. And now I'm going to have a chance to be a positive influence in the lives and careers of dozens of reporters and editors. That's good enough for me."

Baldwin sent copies to Wade, other bosses, and the Newspaper Guild. Wade happened to be out of the country, but when he got back to Chicago he reacted. Last Friday afternoon Baldwin had just arrived at work when Wade summoned him. Baldwin expected this meeting to be unpleasant, though not as unpleasant as it was.

Afterward, he wrote an account for the guild.

"He called me into his office around 2, told me to sit, looked at me and said, 'You're a coward.' He told me he wanted me out of the building. 'Now?' I asked. He indicated yes.

"I indicated I thought he was being presumptuous by judging me and noted that he had been out of town when I gave two weeks' notice....'I've been back,' he said, or words to that effect.

"Again, I tried to say he was being presumptuous. He then cut me off and said he wasn't going to listen to me. 'I've heard enough from you,' he said, or words to that effect. He asked for my security pass. I flipped it to him underhand. He dropped it.

"I reminded him he was on the hook for another week's pay (I told Jim I'd work through Dec. 18). He responded, 'Maybe. Now that you've mooned the company you shouldn't be drawing a paycheck from it.'

"The entire exchange took less than two minutes."

Back in the newsroom Baldwin underwent the usual debriefing by the inquisitive hoi polloi. Before walking out the door forever, he decided to make a grand gesture. "I was going to write a conciliatory message--'Nigel, whatever our differences, I wish you luck.'" But he couldn't log on to his computer. His password already had been revoked. His wife called the office about that time and discovered his voice mail was no longer working.

When an employee resigns, such intemperate measures are within management's rights. But it occurred to guild officials that if Wade docked Baldwin his last week of pay, then Baldwin was no longer simply resigning--he'd been fired. And if Baldwin had been fired he was entitled to dismissal pay--one week for every six months worked, or eight weeks in all. On Monday the guild brought up this awkward fact with management, and now it looks like Baldwin will get the money due him through the 18th.

"Nigel's biggest problem is he does not accept criticism," says reporter Dan Lehmann, speaking as chair of the Sun-Times unit of the Newspaper Guild. "I'm not saying he wants yes-men around him, from what I've seen. But he just doesn't bear criticism very well."

I'd hoped to ask Wade if and why he'd called Baldwin a coward. "This is a personnel matter of the sort I never discuss," he informed me.

"I think he was upset I carboned him, rather than wrote him directly," said Baldwin. "But the procedure is you resign to your immediate superior. And besides, my concerns are with Jim Montalbano and the copy desk. I carry a lot of water there. My hands are clean in this."

Do-It-Yourself Blue Christmas

The onus has vanished from self-publication. It used to mean paying a vanity press to help you pretend you're an author. Today it means you're an entrepreneur who won't be jerked around by the merger-and-acquisition-corrupted big boys. Like a boutique vineyard or microbrewery, you have standards too exquisite for the mass marketeers.

Fran Zell wrote a first novel, a big unpublished novel about the Chicago newspaper game that's still making the traditional rounds. Her second novel--at least jaunty harbingers of it--is in the stores in time for Christmas. The publisher, Key Log Press of Madison, Wisconsin, is Zell herself, and the concept would never have sprung from the brow of a conglomerate. Zell is turning out a series of chapbooks, each of which says on the cover "Another Marcy Story."

Who's Marcy? "Marcy Rosen," says the back cover, "is a fictional character who grew up dysfunctional near Cleveland, Ohio at a time when the Terminal Tower was a skyscraper, the Cuyahoga River a fire hazard, and psychotherapy a four-letter word." Marcy, you will guess as you get to know her, is the author's alter ego.

"I really feel the stories are fiction, but they're based on my life, I have to say," Zell tells me. "There's a genre called autobiographical fiction. I guess it falls into that."

A copy of a snapshot from Zell's own youth is glued onto every brightly colored cover to create a scrapbook look. "I'm not noting in the book that it's me, but it breaks the boundary between fiction and nonfiction a little bit," she says. "I'm hoping it has a very warm, attractive look. There's a big surge of nostalgia these days, with all these scrapbook stores."

The booklets are about 36 pages long and three and a half by five inches. They cost $6.95 each and look like cheery stocking stuffers. But the stories aren't warm and fuzzy. Tiny Fran sits in Santa's lap on the cover of An Adult Child's Christmas in Ohio. But Marcy, like Zell, is Jewish. "Yeah, it was a little schizophrenic," says Zell, recalling her own childhood. "We had Santa. We didn't have a tree. We also had Hanukkah. There's one story that deals with that conflict--'Sunday School Blues.'"

As the back cover says, dysfunctional is the watchword.

"Everyone uses that word these days, don't they?" says Zell. "These two stories--" the two Marcy stories she's published so far--"probably only hint at some of the deeper stuff that goes on. There's a definite incestual thing with her father. It's only delineated in one of the stories, but it's hinted at in others."

Zell intends to bring out ten booklets in her Marcy series and eventually make them all available as a boxed set. The other booklet already in print is Lady of Spain I Adore You, which introduces us to Marcy as a girl and to her dad as a remote, driven piece of work in a joyless marriage. Sex rears its nasty head in the form of a jingle--"Lady of Spain I adore you / Pull down your pants, I'll explore you"--her little brother learns in the hospital after he's hit by a car. Presumably it will rear up again in First Kiss ("Puberty and Daddy put the whammy on Marcy," says Zell's advance publicity), which will be published in March.

"I've been working on these stories for quite a while," says the author, "and I didn't realize until the last couple of years they were becoming a novel about the same people. Then I started working on them in a more conscious way. A woman I know did a chapbook of poetry that was very successful. I guess what I learned from her was how to package yourself in a way that's very appealing."

Zell has placed her books in stores in Madison, where she lives as a freelance writer; Chicago, where she used to live and was once a Tribune reporter; Cleveland; and New York. Barbara's on Wells Street and Women & Children First are her Chicago outlets. But what, I wondered, is the market for tiny, pricey books that look like fun but make pretty depressing reading?

Putnam or Viking would have answered that question first, but when you self-publish you get to fly on a wing and a prayer. "Being newly out, I'm not positive," Zell says. "But I assume it's people interested in literary fiction. I wanted the covers to be attractive and cheerful, but in a way the cover is part of the story. What I want to do is transcend the sadness of reality." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): sun times clips.

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